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Arctic 391: Climate Change, an international perspective; science, art, and activism

May 14, 2019


Robert Pavia

Scientists discovered global climate change, identified its human origins, and are forecasting the consequences for every corner of the globe. There is overwhelming consensus about the facts underpinning our knowledge of climate change. But powerful economic and social forces are aligned against implementing policies necessary to address climate impacts. By introducing uncertainty, and doubt about scientists’ motives, complexity and uncertainty have been turned into disagreement, undermining the public’s understanding and belief in climate science.

How can a dialog across disciplines allow us to understand the policies necessary for people and nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change? A first step is to understand the often complex and sometimes perplexing science of climate change, in all its disciplines. Beyond the natural sciences, we can learn from history how past civilizations succumbed to climate change, we can further examine how the human brain limits our ability to process complex problems in a moral context. But perhaps more interestingly, we can explore how artists and musicians work with scientists to extend the expression of hard facts to intellectual and emotional enrichment. Students from across the University of Washington with interests in the Arctic and international studies collaborated to evaluate the scientific, geographic, and social context necessary for mitigating the ecological and human impacts of global climate change. Arctic 391, jointly offered with JSIS 391, explored the science of climate change in the context of social and policy constraints. A major obstacle to collective action on climate change mitigation is bridging the communication gap between scientists and the broader public. Students explored the role of art and activism in communicating climate impacts and mitigation options. In studying climate change, students developed skills for critically evaluating the popular portrayal of scientific concepts and their role in policy debates as a way to gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of transforming research into public policy.

Students investigated how member states in the Arctic Council (Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) are working together to mitigate climate change impacts via the vehicle of the Arctic Council. Arctic indigenous peoples are also working within the Council to engage in the climate change discussion. And observer states—in particular East Asia—are also participating via the Council. Students considered the impacts of climate change to those nations and people, and also how they are contributing through literature, music, art. That interdisciplinary and intercultural lens provided a foundation for examining how scientific knowledge gained through research was being used (or ignored) in policy development. In Sweden for example, natural science research has led to a carbon tax to control carbon emissions while maintaining robust economic development. In contrast, the United States has eroded efforts at state, national, and international levels to reduce carbon emissions.

The following two essay are summaries of student research papers that investigated two unique aspects of public policy and climate change. The first paper is a critical examination of the precedent being established by the nationwide implementation of a carbon tax in Canada. The second paper explores how the rise of populism and nationalism in countries around the world is impacting climate change policy. At the end of each post written by these students, their full paper is linked (as submitted at the end of Winter quarter 2019).