A New Consciousness for Climate Change

Professor James Engell

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences English Department Professor James Engell brought a perspective from the humanities to the 2018 Climate Change Deep Dive. By examining Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter and Seamus Heaney’s "Höfn", Engell made the case for developing a new set of human values in response to climate change. Beyond the economic, and legal arguments for responding to environmental crises presented in earlier sessions, he outlined an ethical argument for protecting our planet. 

Engell began by showing the depth of human understanding of climate change, and previous attempts to communicate its dangers. He presented Frank Capra’s The Unchained Goddess, a film from 1958 detailing the risks of global warming. While the film’s goal was to awaken social consciousness and social justice around climate change, little had changed in the nearly sixty years since its release. More alarmingly, Engell explained that humans have known about the possible effects of CO2 and global warming since the late 1800s. 

Because of our inability to act, he said, human kind now faced an existential crisis. Climate change represents a fundamental threat to humanity around the globe, particularly those communities located on the coasts. In the short term, however, climate change will most likely affect poorer communities and individuals who have limited options in response to a changing environment. Climate change, then, has disparate effects for different populations and our response requires deep ethical examination. 

Fundamentally, Engell said that humanity needs a transformation of belief – a drastic reshaping of human values. People around the world must come to see the planet as our “common home,” one that we share with other countries and other species. Engell cautioned Fellows against relying on technology to supersede this shift in beliefs. “Even with the greatest technology available, there is a certain carrying capacity of the Earth that will be difficult to exceed,” he said. 

In part, the need for an ethical approach to climate change is the result of human domination of the planet. Human beings have come to dominate all eco-systems and are a “keystone species” that impact all others. Citing Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Engell noted that there is a biblical imperative to protect all species on Earth. “Earth is now our home and we are the managers of it in a way that we’ve never been before.” 

Engell also said that we cannot, as a species, rely on market forces to save us from the consequences of climate change. Referencing Pope Francis’ description of a “deified market,” he warned Fellows about the risks of market failures. Perfectly rational markets don’t exist, he explained, and poor, marginalized communities will likely suffer the most from our collective dependence on the economy. As more and more communities experience climate change disasters, the Pope’s notion of a “common home” becomes more salient. 

Engell talks to ALI Fellows after the session

Changing the market alone, he continued, would not be enough; we must change the habits of individuals and companies. Only by altering the daily decisions of people around the planet could we hope to reduce carbon emissions to a sustainable level. Engell cited the importance of education and clear messaging to convince leaders to adopt a new habit of mind to address climate change. “I think we can change,” he said, “but we’ve got a stopwatch on us.” 

Engell closed his session by turning to Heaney’s "Höfn" for a striking look at what is at risk. Describing a melting glacier seen from a plane above, Heaney contrasts the calving ice with the warmth and comfort of civilization. While much remains uncertain, Engell suggested that much was at stake. “These happy, warm communities will soon face serious problems.”