The Priestley International Centre for Climate took part in a three-day conference on Mediating Climate Change (4-6 July 2017) at the University of Leeds. Lucy Rowland reports on the Environmental Humanities-led conference and the wide range of perspectives it explored.
Taking place during the bicentenary of the global climate crisis prompted by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the inter-disciplinary Mediating Climate Change conference sought to examine our encounters with climate change through multiple mediums. With researchers offering their thoughts on climate change and mediation from the vantage points of art, literature, history, social sciences, philosophy, and behavioural psychology to name a few, discussion and debate throughout the three-day duration of the conference was lively and incisive.
The first event of the conference took place on Monday 3rd July, in the form of an Early-Career and Postgraduate Workshop entitled ‘The Anthropocene: Fact or Fake News?’, led by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood of the University of Illinois. Giving early-career and postgraduate researchers the opportunity to work through their personal engagement with the concept of the Anthropocene in the context of current critical debates and theorisations, the workshop prompted questions on postcolonial conceptions of the Anthropocene, of technofossils, of the naming of the epoch itself and of its possible origins and futures.
On Tuesday the 4th July, Professor Mike Hulme (King’s College London) opened the conference with a powerful keynote lecture entitled ‘Knowing Climate and its Changes: In Places, With Numbers and Through Myths’, chaired by Dr David Higgins (University of Leeds). Discussing the need for an examination of the failures of imagination in addressing climate change as well as its successes, and drawing on his expansive research on the subject of climate change and disagreement, Prof. Hulme raised concerns over the political nature of climate change and its consequent propensity to be a source of permanent conflict.
The conference continued with its first session of three concurrent panels, divided thematically into categories of ‘Journeys’, ‘Institutions’ and ‘Materialisms’. A wide array of topics were covered, from contemporary literature and creative production, to ideas of the institution as mediator and philosophical breaching of the archaic categories of ‘human’ and ‘nature’. The second panel session, on the themes of ‘Water’, ‘Science’ and ‘Scales’, was equally far-reaching in its scope. Topics such as climate engineering, the visualisation of scale, and scientific narrative strategy were matched by further engagement with contemporary cultural production and climate mediation through art and literature.
Tuesday’s fascinating plenary paper was given by Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin and chaired by Kate Lock, both from the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, on behavioural decision making, climate change and environmentalism. Professor Bruine de Bruin discussed methods for effective communication and decision making in the context of climate-change related issues, offering ‘mental models’ of decision making in the face of risk, and theorising the best ways of encouraging positive choices and behaviours.
The evening’s events consisted of an art installation and performance by author, poet and lecturer Dr Lucy Burnett (Leeds Beckett University). Reading from her latest hybrid novel, Through the Weather Glass (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2015), the audience followed the inspirational journey behind the novel’s origins through the narrative and through a visual Google Earth journey. The first day of the conference was drawn to a close by the ‘I Am the Universe’ Young Poets competition prize-giving and readings, compered by poet Helen Mort.
Wednesday 5th July’s panel sessions were formed around the thematic concepts of ‘Ice’, ‘Perceptions’, and ‘Discourses’. Papers were concerned with climate before the formation of the concept of climate change, with the engagement of ice through literature and film, and with climate change journalism and environmental activism.
A roundtable discussion entitled ‘Climate Change Denial and the Media’, chaired by Dr Chris Paterson (University of Leeds), saw contributions from Piers Forster (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), Professor Robert Hackett (Simon Fraser University), Kate Lock (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), and Andrea Taylor (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre). Prof. Hackett addressed media focus on episodic climate-related disasters and the obscuring of long-term effects of climate change, and Piers Forster focused on ways to effectively communicate scientific research to the public. Concerning the politics of climate change, Kate Lock brought to the audience’s attention the partisan nature of climate change representation in the media.
The fourth panel session, concerned with ‘Communications’, ‘Weather Histories’, and ‘Subjectivities’, raised questions regarding media narratives of climate change, environmentalism in children’s film and television, climatic unrest through history, and the notion of the emotional and psychoanalytic subjective in climate change contexts. Continuing the day’s panels were discussions of ‘Anthropocenes’, ‘Apocalypse’, and ‘Modes of Representation’. Speakers presented on topics such as the epistemic friction of the Anthropocene epoch and apocalyptic representations of the end of the world.
Wednesday’s events were brought to a close by a plenary public lecture from Professor Alexandra Harris (University of Liverpool), entitled ‘A Change in the Air: Weathers, Words, and Landscapes’, chaired by Dr Tess Somervell (University of Leeds). Prof. Harris’s engaging talk navigated multiple literary and historical accounts of changes in weather across the ages, drawing from her recent non-fiction work Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames and Hudson, 2015).
The final day of the conference on Thursday 6th July was opened with a plenary panel, comprising of talks from both Dr Nigel Clark (University of Lancaster) and Dr Adeline Johns-Putra (University of Surrey), chaired by Dr Jeremy Davies (University of Leeds). Dr Clark spoke on the subject of ‘The City as Medium: Myth, Migration and Mid-Holocene Climate Change’, covering cities, agrarianism and climate mitigation from the mid-Holocene period, using examples from this time to illustrate the importance of democracy and social responsibility in our contemporary age. Dr Adeline Johns-Putra continued the panel with her analysis of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, engaging with contemporary criticism such as Timothy Clark’s Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (2015) and emphasising the role of the reader’s emotional responses to novels that deal with themes of climate change.
The sixth panel session, consisting of ‘Localities’, ‘Futures’ and ‘Irish Media Representations of Climate Change’ covered issues ranging from Croatian climate fiction, to climate scepticism in the Irish media, to climate change in the case of two indigenous communities. The final panel session, made up of ‘Creatures, Monsters, and Myth’ and ‘Performance’ responded to varied topics such as the endangered tuatara lizard in New Zealand, to Icelandic sagas and performing news on climate change.
The conference was brought to a close by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s plenary paper, entitled ‘Climate Delusions’. In a sobering and insightful discussion, Prof. D’Arcy Wood traced future predictions of ocean level rises, flooding epidemics, and other climate-related disasters, commenting on the importance of the abandonment of field mastery in academia in the context of climate research, and the delusions that inhibit comprehension of the catastrophic reality of climate change.
Final remarks given by Dr David Higgins and Dr Tess Somervell noted the variety and scope of the topics and disciplines, whilst consciously acknowledging the challenges of interdisciplinarity. Closing questions and comments were taken from the audience, which praised the success of the conference and the level of engagement and responsiveness across disciplines, whilst recognising a need for further work and collaboration in the future.