On Tuesday, Staff Writer Elisha Dura attended “Climate Tech: Why It Needs the Humanities and Social Sciences,” a talk given by geographer and environmental social scientist Holly Jean Buck.

Many people might believe that climate change can only be solved by members of the science community, yet Columbia’s Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities aimed to combat this narrative during its latest Climate Series: Climate Futures/Climate Justice event on Tuesday. The event featured Holly Jean Buck, an Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Buffalo, who shared her opinion on why the humanities and social sciences belong in discussion with climate tech solutions today.

Recently, climate tech has been gathering billions of dollars in startup funding. In short, climate tech consists of new technologies built to respond to climate change, yet these technologies vary widely in terms of how they impact climate. In the past three years, there have been over 1600 venture-backed climate companies created, spanning a wide range of industries and sectors like solar geoengineering and carbon removal. Responding to the tendency of Cleantech—a push in the mid-to-late 2000s for clean technologies and green products—to create cheap, easy technology that would attract investors, climate tech is “inherently patient” according to Buck. Investors are focusing on technologies that won’t have an immediate return, but if the technologies are successful, they will be highly instrumental in long-term efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Yet climate tech endeavors will ultimately fail, Buck argues, without engagement with the humanities, social sciences, and, overall, society. Climate tech’s success may appear to rest in the hands of investors and tech workers, but these innovations need the acceptance of society in order to move forward. Buck’s talk highlighted five reasons for inviting the humanities and social sciences into the world of climate tech. 

First, Buck argued that climate tech will fail without this type of cross-disciplinary interaction because of climate tech’s limited view on how people will respond to and engage with their innovations. Many of the new technologies are far removed from society, so the demand for these technologies is quite low. The climate tech community cannot easily see the reasons that might motivate society as a whole to adapt to their technologies, but experts in the social sciences can offer valuable opinions on the matter. Additionally, with an expanded societal understanding of the new technologies, climate tech can garner broader voter support for climate-friendly policies.

Buck also cautioned climate tech about the risks of choosing bad projects to move forward with. As an example, she mentioned a new site in Louisiana where the company Air Products aimed to build a blue hydrogen facility that helps with decarbonization. While the project likely had good intentions, the surrounding community grew angry due to the effects that the project would have on a nearby lake. The company failed to engage with the community before starting the project, leading to resentment and opposition by the community. Buck suggested that humanities and social science experts can help companies recognize these potential pushbacks from society before investors back bad projects.

Continuing to consider communities impacted by climate tech, Buck also commented on how these technologies need alternative ownership models. Many projects do not appear to be directly benefitting the communities that must accept them, and if people cannot find a direct positive impact for them, they will be less likely to support implementing the technology on their land.

Buck’s discussion on climate tech’s current interactions with local communities led her to a larger issue about the metanarratives that climate tech currently uses to discuss their solutions to the climate crisis. Though there are sectoral narratives that break down projects and their impacts into specific industries, Buck voiced her concern for the lack of a larger, more coherent story that resonates with society about how individual projects support combating climate change as a whole. Without a greater metanarrative for climate tech to situate their projects in, individuals cannot clearly see the value in promoting the work of climate technologies, especially when placed against the previous concerns Buck discussed that communities might have with climate tech. She urged humanities and social scientists to help build a stronger metanarrative, as well as to help climate tech reconsider the specific framework and language they already use to describe their impacts on the climate. 

Buck’s final point revolved around future education and training. With a high demand for training people in the climate tech field, she noted the importance of creating a diverse, equitable workforce and looked to the humanities and social sciences to help with this education. She even suggested that climate tech workers be trained in the humanities and social sciences so as to create a workforce that can proactively recognize the social and ethical implications of climate tech that she explained throughout her talk.

It seemed that Buck’s arguments inspired her target audience, too. After her talk, moderator Leah Aronowsky fielded questions from the audience to Buck, and her listeners didn’t strictly belong to the natural sciences. Buck’s call for action sparked questions from multiple scholars in the humanities as well as a member of the Columbia Climate School, all of which boiled down to one main theme: How can we help? While this cross-disciplinary interaction will require more time to truly advance climate tech and its impact, Holly Jean Buck certainly planted a seed for more humanities- and social science-based thinking on climate tech during her presentation, one that hopefully will lead to more solutions to the climate crisis.

Air Pollution via Wikimedia Commons