How historians can contribute to tackling the climate crisis

The Climate Crisis Thinking in the Humanities and Social Sciences network, led by Amanda Power (History) and Nayanika Mathur (Anthropology) and funded by TORCH and the Oxford Martin School, has been highlighting the importance of humanities research for tackling the climate crisis. It has brought together researchers from within and beyond Oxford to put together a series of panel discussions and podcast conversations for the UK Universities’ COP26 Network’s Innovation Showcase. Earlier in the year, it presented a co-authored poster at the Climate Exp0 in May; and last year created resources to support the youth-led ‘Mock COP26’.


The network’s contribution to conversations around COP26 has aimed to set out the urgent need for Humanities and Social Sciences research to drive innovation in climate adaption and resilience, and to frame the social basis for climate action. It challenges the assumption that climate ‘innovation’ can be achieved through continuing prioritisation of scientific assessment and technological solutions. Fifty years of failure to bring about sufficient public and political engagement have created the situation faced at COP26. Given the continued prioritisation of findings from the physical sciences for the characterisation of the crisis, together with political reliance on technology-based ‘solutions’, it seems likely that COP26 will continue down the same unproductive route. Without major transformations in society, politics, education, public understanding, values and modes of thought, technological solutions will not be implemented at the necessary scale or speed. To grasp the causes of climate crisis and biodiversity collapse, and to create workable solutions, research in human thinking, histories, cultures, politics, power, ideologies, values and education systems must be placed at the centre of discussion. Historians, it could be said, are as essential to tackling the climate crisis as researchers in any field.


At present, most societies are ill-equipped to move quickly from indifference and paralysis to the level of urgent response now required if we are to avoid the worst outcomes. A different expertise is needed. The network’s contributions explore how existing research in disciplines that have conventionally been marginalised in climate research and policy-making can be scaled up and put together for use in these wider public and policy contexts. Going beyond ‘climate communication’, humanities and social sciences research, in local, regional and global partnerships, and built into education programmes across the world, must innovate and drive the urgent reframing of everyday life for adaptation, resilience and longer-term solutions to the problem of how humans live on earth.