Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Climate change: global scenarios and local experiences

Date: October 24 - 25, 2011

Convenors: Heike Greschke (Bielefeld), Julia Tischler (Bielefeld)

Climate change is indisputably a topic of great social and political relevance. While the natural sciences have long dominated climate change-related academic discourse, there is now an impressive range of research initiatives dealing with the socio-cultural implications of climatic changes, with people’s perceptions, interpretations and coping strategies. The question of how to live with or to prevent extreme weather events and changing ecologies has become the centre of attention not only in public and political but also in scientific discourses. Moreover, climate research is driven by a particular sense of urgency and there is pressure on scientists of all disciplines to make unambiguous statements and produce knowledge directly relevant for political decision-making.

Nevertheless, new areas of research need their time in the ‘ivory tower’; they need scope for development, for experimentation, for making mistakes and learning from them, and above all for reflecting on their own practices and epistemological implications. This conference aimed at providing a forum for such reflections. Participants were invited to take a step back from the pressing questions of how to cope with or prevent climate change and to ask instead: How do we study climate change? How do we deal with the methodological problems involved and what are the prospects for developing an interdisciplinary climate change research programme?

In particular, the conference addressed three sets of problems. Firstly, an issue requiring reflection is to be seen in the facticity of our research objects. Whereas the natural sciences study climate change as combinations of physical facts (first-order construct), the social and cultural sciences primarily focus on the discourses and practices through which climate change becomes a social fact (second-order construct) and cannot take climate change for granted. This distinction queries the relationship between natural and social sciences and points to the challenges inherent in interdisciplinary approaches to climate change.

Secondly, the conference addressed problems of scale. Climate change denotes a global phenomenon defined by abstractions and averages but is perceived and dealt with by concrete people in concrete places. How do we conceive of these interrelations? How far does our conventional vocabulary—‘global’, ‘local’, ‘scientific’, ‘emic’—take us? How else might we conceptualise the interplay of knowledges of a different scope and scale, which climate change research apparently always entails? Thirdly, we turned to questions of context, in terms of causes and drivers of change: How can we disentangle climate change from all the other changes going on in our fields of study? How much does climate change explain in current or past situations? Is it really a driving force?

These concerns were at the core of the five panels of this conference, each consisting of two or three papers taken from ongoing empirical research, a detailed comment drawing out the methodological and epistemological questions the papers had in common, and a concluding plenary discussion. The first panel addressed the issue of different forms of scientific knowledge. Taking examples from ecology and climate history we discussed differences but also similarities encountered when studying climate change as a first-order as opposed to a second-order construct, as well as possible ways of combining natural and social scientific methods. In the second panel, we were more exclusively concerned with social representations and experiences of anthropogenic global warming, scrutinising the relationship between ‘scientific’ or ‘Western’ concepts versus ‘local’ interpretations of climate change. The papers shed light on the conflicts that may arise from the different perspectives involved; at the same time, the presenters warned against deploying essentialising dichotomies, as for instance ‘emic’ versus ‘alien’ scientific knowledge.

The third panel further complicated the question of different knowledge forms, bringing to the fore the ambivalent and oscillating nature of the global-local nexus. Moreover, presenters stressed the importance of power, asking how certain concepts become authoritative in different contexts rather than simply speaking of ‘global’ discourses.

Concluding an inspiring first conference day, the discussion of Joachim Radkau’s recent book Die Ära der Ökologie allowed us to consider the topic of climate change in the wider history of the environmental movement and to assess the contribution history can make to climate-related research.

From identifying the various problems involved in climate research, we ventured a step further on the next day and examined possible ways of dealing with them. From the point of view of political and/or participatory climate science, the presenters discussed examples of how research could contribute to better-informed policy. The papers gave insight into ongoing attempts to integrate different types of climate knowledge in a specific regional context, into the politics and legal frameworks of environmental migration and into climate policies implemented by cities rather than nation-states.

In the last panel and the concluding remarks, we returned to our central methodological concerns, discussing the challenges involved in studying climate change in the social and cultural sciences. While acknowledging the importance and complexity of local situations, how can we still develop common research agendas and combine diverse data in order to make statements of a greater reach? How do we study climate change in a local context where the issue is not (yet) an established discourse? What is the value of direct approaches (for instance interviews explicitly asking about ‘climate change’) versus more indirect approaches (for instance focussing exclusively on the terminology emerging from the field)? Moreover, how do we deal with a field of study that is itself full of experts and scientific discourse?

Apart from the conference papers, twelve poster presentations ensured that our discussions could draw from a substantial empirical basis. The posters covered a broad range of topics—from climate adaptation, the role of the media, energy shifts, to political negotiations—and were taken from diverse backgrounds all around the world.

Given the fact that social and cultural climate research is still at an early stage, we are probably a long way from arriving at well-proven research strategies and satisfactory concepts. The conference was an important step in this direction, bringing together climate researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, stimulating discussion and thus leading to a deeper understanding of the methodological and epistemological problems involved in climate research.

Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer

Jelena Adeli (Bielefeld), Annika Arnold (Stuttgart), Karsten Balgar (Erkner), Rupsha Banerjee (Bologna), Martin Bauch (Darmstadt), Jörg Bergmann (Bielefeld), Monika Büscher (Lancaster), Anne Bundschuh (Müncheberg), Gabriela Christmann (Erkner), Susan Crate (Fairfax, VA), Christina Tink Diaz (Hamburg), Kristina Dietz (Berlin), Martin Doevenspeck (Bayreuth), Constanze Dupont (Marburg), Sophie Elixhauser (Augsburg), Carsten Felgentreff (Osnabrück), Thomas Friedrich (Köln), Friederike Gesing (Bremen), Johanna Gesing (Bielefeld), Claudia Grill (Bielefeld), Christian Grottendieck (Osnabrück), Ingo Haltermann (Essen), Korbinian Hartberger (Berlin), Torsten Heimann (Erkner), Serah Kiragu-Mwangi (Bayreuth), Silja Klepp (Bremen), Ilka Kottmann (Bremen), Werner Krauß (Geesthacht), Christoph Küffer (Zürich), Claus Leggewie (Essen), Franziska Leutner (Marburg), Robert Lindner (Zittau), Sabrina Mutz (Berlin), Petra Pansegrau (Bielefeld), Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka (Bielefeld), Oliver Powalla (Berlin), Joachim Radkau (Bielefeld), Christian Reichel (Berlin), Fritz Reusswig (Potsdam), Clemens Romankiewicz (Bayreuth), Linnéa Rowlatt (Kent), Jeannette Schade (Bielefeld), Julia Schleisiek (Bielefeld), Andreas Schmidt (Hamburg), Lea Schmitt (Essen), Marén Schorch (Bielefeld), Charlotte Schumann (Berlin), Peter Schweitzer (Fairbanks, AK), Sven Speek (Bochum), Elisabeth Süßbauer (Leipzig), Jana Türk (München), Katrin Vogel (Augsburg), Natalie Wahnsiedler (Marburg), Julian Wahl (Gießen), Manfred Wieland (Bielefeld), Linda Witte (Frankfurt am Main), Shaozeng Zhang (Irvine, CA)

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