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ARCTIC 391: Climate Change, an International Perspective, WINTER 2020

May 6, 2020


Robert Pavia

Scientists have 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 has been transformed into doubt and disagreement, undermining the public’s belief in science and leading the planet into a climate crisis.

How can a dialog across disciplines allow us to understand the policies necessary for people and nations to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis? 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 reach beyond the facts to create emotional connections and motivate collective action. 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 and Honors 391, explored the science of climate change in the context of social and political constraints. A major obstacle to collective action on climate change mitigation is bridging the gap between scientists and the broader public. Students explored the role of art and activism in communicating climate impacts and mitigation options. In studying the climate crisis, 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 Arctic policy issues including: how tension among member states in the Arctic Council (Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) is slowing efforts to mitigate climate change impacts; how Arctic Indigenous peoples are working within and outside the Council to engage in the climate crisis discussion; and how observer states—in particular in East Asia—participate in the Council. Students considered the impacts of the climate crisis to those nations and people, and also how they are contributing through literature, music, and art. That interdisciplinary and intercultural lens provided a foundation for examining how scientific knowledge gained through research is 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.