Amy Coombs, Robert Suits (both University of Chicago), and Jo Guldi (Southern Methodist University) will give three presentations interrogating sociocultural narratives around climate change, from conservative evangelical responses to climate change media to how data on North American energy use since 1800 can inform future energy transitions.
1. Reproducing the Apocalypse: Conservative Evangelical Reader Disputation in Responses to Climate Change Media – Amy Coombs
America is a leading global contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet climate denialism remains a fixture of the conservative religious political platform, which continues to reproduce Great Awakening narratives of the role played by God in natural and mineral resource abundance and in the imminence of the second coming of Christ, which will end any global turmoil. On the other side of the political spectrum, a didactic and sometimes retaliatory progressive media dominates the mainstream news outlets by actively leveraging the scientific literature to engage in a radicalized declensionist and often apocalyptic climate narrative. This project attempts to question the relationship between both sides of the political binary as they reciprocally co-determine one another through tropes of catastrophe. This involves using text mining and historical methods to identify and categorize journalistic, academic and religious engagement with climate science as it is used for calls to action, asking: How has the narrative of an apocalypse changed in climate reporting over the last decades? The project also involves profiling evangelical and/or conservative responses to climate shaming, as well as compare distributions between political and non-political reporting in climate and other science journalism, and collecting survey responses from the American Millennial and Gen Y/Z demographics who left their parents’ religion. How have young Americans from evangelical backgrounds responded differently than the baseline conservative response when expressing support for climate justice?
2. Energy Transitions in US History: Understanding the Prospects for Future Decarbonization – Robert Suits
Can the world decarbonize its energy sources in time? Impending climate change has prompted numerous proposals for reducing the carbon intensity of the economy, from the “Green New Deal” to more prosaic attempts like a carbon tax. It is therefore worth examining past energy transitions to understand their causes and constraints. The United States provides a particularly useful case study with the transition from wood to coal occurred relatively late. This project compiles primary sources into a comprehensive dataset of American energy use from 1800 to the present, disaggregated by sector (residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial, and transportation). Further disaggregation into individual end uses (like climate control, manufacturing, and freight vs passenger transportation) is also highly revealing. We show that the popular idea of an “energy transition” — where, e.g., as a country we cease using coal in favor of oil, virtually never happens (highlighting that novel incentives for encouraging transitions are imperative). These data also show that many of the biggest trends in American energy use took place at a household level, with industry often following domestic consumption. The upshot of this is that a green transition might be easily incentivized in certain sectors, but much more difficult in other subsectors. The complete dataset is publicly available and is visualized at us.sankey.rdcep.org.
3. The Long History and Future of Global Coordinated Governance of the Environment – Jo Guldi
While many histories of coordinated governance of the environment review the history of UN-based agreements to limit carbon emissions since the 1980s, there’s also a much deeper story of these debates. Since the 1940s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been host to a series of ambitious agreements about managing landownership and fisheries around the globe. Many of these plans expressed faith in the capacity of the United Nations to coordinate a global strategy for rectifying injustice and opening up economic opportunity for the poorest people in the world, and many of them involved data-collection about landownership around the world. What became of those agreements, and what can we learn from their successes and failures? What lessons do they hold for the challenge of managing global climate change today?
Amy Coombs is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Division of the Social Sciences and the College at The University of Chicago. She completed an MA and PhD in the Department of History at The University of Chicago where she focused on eighteenth century British environmental designs of interest to contemporary sustainable farmers. Her dissertation research combined text mining, archival methods, and agricultural writing to explore the first large-scale correspondence surveys published in Britain with a standardized structure and high-resolution (county-level) implementation.
Robert Suits is a postdoctoral fellow in History at the University of Calgary. He studied History and Music at Amherst College and taught at the secondary school level before completing a PhD in environmental history at the University of Chicago. His work explores aspects of energy and climate history, especially related to the built environment and migration. His first book project, Steam and Muscle: Environment, Migrant Labor, and the Transformation of American Work, 1870-1930, explores the origins of migrant work in American life.
Jo Guldi is external faculty at the Stevanovich Institute of the University of Chicago as well as associate professor of history and data science at Southern Methodist University. She was formerly a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her second monograph, The Long Land War, a global history of occupancy rights in the long twentieth century, will be published by Yale in 2022. She is PI of a $1 million NSF grant to use big data to revisit the history of landownership and the affordability of housing.
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