First: what sorts of thoughts and feelings does the above image conjure in you? Taken from a recent New York Times article, it says far more than just the facts of global warming, no? This reminds us, from the outset, that environmental analysis is about facts and values, description and prescription, is and ought…which makes analysis of environmental issues so amazingly interesting!—and darned hard to do.
I’m teaching a course on environmental analysis these days, and also teaching an introductory environmental studies course where next week we discuss climate change, thus the two ingredients in this post. (In fact, all environmental studies and sciences embody environmental analysis when they’re doing it right, so this is something our students at Lewis & Clark get in each of their courses.)
On Wednesday, I posed this not-simple question to my students: what is environmental analysis? Personally, I find it helpful to define things in terms of what they are not, which in this case includes:
- Environmental argumentation—taking, and defending, a position on environmental issues. Good environmental argumentation can and should build on good environmental analysis, but environmental analysis is less a priori committed to a particular position or outcome.
- Environmental critique—where critique is understood purely in the negative sense of tearing down arguments. Typically critique is applied to the enemy only; yet when applied more equitably, it may unfortunately point toward the slippery slope of nihilism. Environmental analysis can include critique, but its desired outcome is to construct, not deconstruct, knowledge.
Both argumentation and critique have their more and less noble variants: there is nothing inherently wrong with either. But environmental analysis has slightly different priorities, which I’ll include in my definition:
Environmental analysis involves open, systematic reflection on environmental issues.
What do I mean by “open, systematic reflection,” and how do we practice it in our ENVS Program?
- Open: We try as hard as we can to be transparent—to ourselves and others—about what we do, including the diverse voices, kinds of data, etc. we do/don’t consider, how we analyze them, and why. Openness is a good—and, at least in some fields, prevalent—scholarly quality our ENVS Program strongly emphasizes, but let’s remember that environmental scholars may need to be even more open than other fields, given the broad, interwoven, fact-value nature of the issues we confront.
- Systematic: Our mode of analysis follows some structured rationale. There are many to choose from in environmental analysis: perhaps the most common builds on systems theory, though it has limitations. One systematic approach our ENVS Program provides throughout our core course sequence is what we call situated research, building on the concept of place.
- Reflection: The intent of our analysis is to pose and explore questions, not to hurriedly arrive at answers. Indeed, all good scholarly analysis is about asking the right questions, so we recommend several ways to think about questions in ENVS:
Now, let’s apply this to climate change, focusing on a major recent report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) on likely consequences of near-future global warming. A good start involves examining media reports:
- The NYT summary is here, from which that alarming image above was adopted. (Both are worthy of analysis: why was such an alarming image chosen to summarize an ostensibly fact-laden news story?)
- The reaction of the U.S. administration to the IPCC report was, basically, silence. Then this back and forth in a press conference.
One could go on and on: just search Twitter for #SR15 and you’ll see lots of responses—and a reminder that there are far more than the two sides noted above. The one that caught my eye was a vitally important challenge to the universal “we” of “We must act now to stop global warming!,” with diverse writers reminding people and leaders in key carbon emitting countries that the responsibility is primarily theirs.
Another provocative set of positions has long been espoused by Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute. His recent tweets include a reminder of his 2018 Foreign Affairs article arguing that the goal of limiting global warming to an additional 2.0°C (one of the IPCC’s key targets) is arbitrary, and another reminder of a piece he and colleague Michael Shellenberger put out in 2009 decrying carbon tax- or cap-based approaches as unrealistic. These arguments (and those of others at BTI, e.g., Alex Trembath) fly in the face of a great deal of the IPCC report and media commentary.
It seems like, the more you read about climate change, the more complicated it gets! Indeed, the real debates among scholars are generally not the ones people tend to focus on (e.g., whether or not humans are responsible for global warming), but the super-important matters of policy and action. Take, for instance, the issue of engaging with the public to create greater support for climate action, perhaps most clearly stated in a thoughtful recent report released in response to the IPCC release. Yet other, equally thoughtful, scholars have argued that the whole strategy of public engagement is based on a flawed theory of change (i.e., it hasn’t made/won’t make a big difference), and has led to a sort of enforced groupthink intolerant of expanding the discussion on climate change action.
So, how shall we do a good environmental analysis of a topic this big and unruly? Let’s consider those three definitional qualities:
- Open. Who are we listening to? Is our mind made up? Are we going to a news source, or gathering data, driven by genuine curiosity, or by confirmation bias? As we proceed in our analysis, do we disclose the choices we made and why?
- Systematic. What broad analytical approach are we following? We must do more sophisticated work than just “look at the facts,” or “trust the experts”—there are far too many facts and experts out there. If we follow the situated research approach, where shall we situate our analysis and why? (One good recent example is Hurricane Michael, which pounded destruction on the Florida Panhandle and prompted intense debate on the role played by climate change.)
- Reflection. What are the questions we hear people asking? What are our questions? How shall we fit them into our situated approach as framing (broad) vs. focus (research) questions? How shall we order them (sometimes supplying questions to address assumptions) to cover the full descriptive/explanatory/evaluative/instrumental sequence?
The above is just a start: there could possibly be a thousand great situated research projects analyzing climate change in the context of Hurricane Michael and the Florida Panhandle. They may all derive from some of the same large questions people are asking—how did this happen to us again? why has the impact been so devastating? what can be done to prevent such catastrophes in future?—but then zoom in to all sorts of researchable questions, and zoom back out again to shed some light on these big questions.
Whether one has the opportunity to do a full situated environmental analysis, or simply wishes to make sense of a news item, it’s always good to ask: am I being open? systematic? reflective? I’d appreciate your thoughts on how these principles work for you.