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March 16, 2020
5288 Bunche Hall

Deborah Coen, Yale University

“Climate Change and the Enigma of Usable Knowledge”

One of the most pressing challenges for historians of science today is to explain the failure of scientific knowledge of anthropogenic climate change to motivate timely action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To date explanations have focused on such factors as the role of industry-funded disinformation campaigns, the disconnect between scientific research and the information needs of policy-makers, the reluctance of scientists to engage in advocacy, and the inexperience of US geoscientists with public engagement due to the secrecy imposed on their research during the Cold War. This presentation will lay out an alternative (yet complementary) framework for answering this question, drawing on research in progress. I will argue, first, that the image of climate scientists as disengaged from the public derives from a focus on theorists and global modelers at the expense of those working at the regional scale (many of whom identified as geographers or ecologists rather than physicists or chemists). Indeed, from the early days of research on the “Carbon Dioxide Problem” in the 1970s, there was no lack of effort to make the science of anthropogenic climate change actionable and accessible—or, in the parlance of the day, “usable.” Indeed, “usable knowledge” was a buzzword of the 1970s and ‘80s that significantly shaped climate research at multiple major international institutions. These projects evolved quite independently of each other (and were, in some cases, even marked by mutual hostility), yet all took usability as their goal. However, what usability meant to this population of researchers was far from uniform. My aim, then, is to study how ideals of usable knowledge formed, circulated, and confronted each other in the community of climate researchers from the 1970s to today, at times in dialogue with practitioners of Science & Technology Studies. My hypothesis is that the past four decades have seen an overall trend towards an increasingly narrow definition of usability, reflecting the growing dominance of a top-down model of risk management. Yet the climate field has also generated creative resistance to this trend, which requires a historical perspective to appreciate properly.

March 16, 2020, 4:00pm | Bunche Hall 5288