Why do I research and teach about climate change?
Updated: Mar 5
I mean, beyond the masochism
Professor Matthew Hoffmann, University of Toronto Scarborough
News of Australia’s awful fires last winter hit me pretty hard. The infernos tore through places that I had travelled to just a few years back on a dream trip through Australia. I mourned for the destroyed natural wonders that had amazed me. I worried about the people I know and had met on my trip. I was staggered by the statistics about millions of animals lost, animals I had marvelled at seeing in real life. It hit me hard, and I can only imagine how it felt for people in Australia.
But, at least I am not yet numb to what sometimes feels like a relentless stream of news on climate change impacts and the terrible human and natural costs that come with them… A stream that’s hard to ignore when making sense of climate change and the global response to it is my job.
Some days I wish I did something else.
But I suppose I’ve been on this path for a long time. I have worried about environmental issues as far back as I can remember. I entered an essay contest in fourth grade writing about the need to protect a local wetland and I have vague memories of trying to do an experiment on acid rain in my back yard when I kid. Going to university to study environmental engineering was a natural progression. It was interesting to learn about natural systems and designing ways to deal with pollution. Yet, I always found myself asking why there was pollution there to clean up in the first place and how people made decisions to try and fix environmental problems. I was drawn to the politics of addressing environmental problems, which was an even more interesting and difficult puzzle than anything I encountered in studying engineering.
So, it was off to pursue a PhD in political science.
Studying climate change politics in the late 1990s and even through the early 2010s was weirdly fun. Environmental politics, especially international environmental politics, was just getting going as a serious endeavor in political science. There were lots of big questions to pursue about who made the rules to respond to environmental problems and how they were and could be made—the very questions that had motivated me to transition away from engineering (I did get my B.S. in Environmental Engineering, but don’t ask me to design anything now).
Making sense of climate politics felt like more of an academic puzzle, less the existential imperative it is now. I certainly was still motivated by concern about the environment—worry about environmental damage was the fundamental source of my research questions and my motivation for seeking answers. But the threat and the worry did not feel so present, so immediate when I was a grad student and a young professor.
In fact, the thing that excited me the most about my first big research project, which became my first book, was developing a computer simulation model for understanding how social norms around international environmental negotiations might evolve. I applied this to understanding the multilateral approach to ozone depletion and the early days of the climate change regime. I enjoyed the intellectual work of making sense of these dynamics and thought it could contribute something to how people understood the evolution of environmental negotiations.
My next project was also ‘fun,’ though it emerged from a growing sense of dread about the slow pace of global action on climate change. In fact, in 2008 when this project began, I was in a rut. The climate negotiations weren’t interesting intellectually anymore—they were in complete gridlock for reasons that people understood pretty well—and they were a source of growing concern as the scientific certainty around climate impacts started to get ever more concerning. So, I turned my attention beyond the international negotiations and developed the idea of climate governance experiments—analyzing why and how cities, NGOs, corporations, and even individuals were suddenly becoming active in and really redefining global climate politics. It was great to be doing work that was intellectually interesting that also felt relevant.
That project marked a shift in my priorities. I had always prized academic rigour (and still think it’s important), but since that project began, my normative commitments, specifically my desire to contribute to positive action on climate change, became a more significant driver of my research. This is reflected in my current projects “The Politics of Decarbonization” and “Urban Resilience and Sustainability” which seek to not only understand, but also suggest ways forward for achieving decarbonization and resilience. I still enjoy the intellectual work and puzzles that climate politics presents, but I can’t really describe it as fun anymore. There’s too much at stake.
There's too much at stake.
This worry drives my teaching as well. From first year to fourth year classes, I mainly teach about climate and environment. My goal is to walk the knife edge—helping students think about how environmental politics works (and doesn’t), how bad things are, and how much change we need while avoiding squashing their hopes for the future. Because hope for the future is so crucial if we’re going to make the kind of changes we need. That hope, following historian and thinker Rebecca Solnit, isn’t about things for sure getting better, it flows from uncertainty. That we don’t know for sure what the future brings. This is the touchstone for my teaching about climate and environment. We don’t know what the future will bring and university classes can provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to act through that uncertainty and shape that future.
So, most days I don’t wish I did something else.
Thinking about the Australian fires still makes me tear up and the coming impacts and human misery from climate change are going to be terrible even as we work to fix it. But I’m not numb yet.
I teach and research on climate change to keep despair at bay and because I have hope:
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.
Rebecca Solnit Hope in the Dark