HISTORY 100U | The Art of Writing Climate

2024 Spring | T, TH 3:30-5 pm | COURSE #31808 | UNITS: 4

Michael Nylan & Thomas Hahn

This course addresses many subjects, all of which revolve around climate change, always looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the major arguments made. On the subject of responsibilities owed to future generations, we dissect statements and promises being made by world leaders (including the United Nation’s Antonio Guterres, China’s Xi Jinping, UK’s Rishi Sunak, and climate leaders in the US), as well as the counter-arguments posed by leaders of civil society from a great variety of backgrounds.

Seminal works about climate are discussed in class, from Rachel Carson to Eugene Linden, from Rebecca Solnit to Kim Stanley Robinson. Obviously enough, deeply divergent histories of climate change can be told: for example, a corporate history, a political history, a legal history, and a people’s history, not to mention poetry and graphic novels.

Some of the stories rely less on numbers (such as profit margins of fossil fuel companies, pay-outs to shareholders, tonnage of sequestered carbon per year, annual commitments to renewable energy forms) than on personal and community stories, as with Jake Bittle’s The Great Displacement (2023).

Are the stories less powerful for being more granular? As Sultan Al Jaber (CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and, ironically, host of the recent COP28, devoted to climate change) recently stated: “If you want to understand the state of the world’s climate efforts, follow the money.” Historians have been trained to ask, “Who benefits?” (cui bono).

Posing such questions immediately plunges us into the key distinction between long-term decision-making, with its uncertainties, vs. short-term projections and their (illusory?) certainty; also, the peculiarities of Anglo-American and international laws.