The definition of climate change can be summed up in a sentence or two, but in reality, an in-depth understanding of this complex subject stretches across a variety of schools and disciplines. As climate change takes hold of political discourse throughout the world and dominates our scientific discussions, it is perhaps no surprise that research on the matter follows this pattern too.
One academic researching the matter is Constantine Boussalis, an assistant professor in political science working in Trinity. Boussalis focuses his research on how climate change denial is generated and disseminated, and what its political implications are.
Boussalis and his co-authors are very interested in what he refers to as a climate change “denial machine” in the United States. The so-called “fight against climate change” is not as simple as the phrase implies. There is, as Boussalis describes, an “organised countermovement to climate action that is funded by conservative foundations and interest groups, which provides material to conservative think tanks in their climate misinformation activities.”
“That misinformation is then funnelled into an echo chamber of conservative media, politicians and social media, which seeks to spread distortions about climate science, clean energy, and environmental politics.” As such, climate change denial is not merely a product of ignorance – it is a pre-planned process, geared toward the generation of ignorance, thus allowing those involved to maintain the status quo.
Boussalis employs machine-learning tools to study denialist writings in his research. Explaining the methods used in his research, Boussalis says, “we have trained a machine on thousands of denialist writings to detect whether any piece of text passed to it contains one of five contrarian claims.”
That misinformation is then funnelled into an echo chamber of conservative media, politicians and social media, which seeks to spread distortions about climate science, clean energy, and environmental politics
Boussalis described the climate denialist claims the machine is programmed to look for and explained that after “applying this trained algorithm to hundreds of thousands of conservative think tank articles and online sceptic blog posts from 2000 to the present,” the most common counterclaim to date consists of attacks against climate scientists and science.
As such, Boussalis says of his research findings: “The picture that emerges from our research is that the counter-movement against climate change action has maintained a decades-long sustained campaign to discredit climate scientists and climate science itself.” This finding in itself, Boussalis explains, demonstrates the hyper-politicised nature of the climate debate in the United States, which has led to a “large segment of the political world [that] denies the existence and seriousness of the climate crisis”.
This, in turn, bears little room for compromise between the two major political parties in the US. Boussalis’ research, therefore, provides a great deal of clarity as to the root of climate change denial and the political stigma surrounding the climate debate in the US. It is important to remember how interdisciplinary the world of environmental politics and sciences is. Boussalis says, “As all social scientists working this space, I am doing my part to shed light on the drivers behind inaction in reversing the climate crisis.”
In his research at Trinity, Boussalis explains that he will continue to “systematically document the nature and spread of climate change misinformation”.
The picture that emerges from our research is that the counter-movement against climate change action has maintained a decades-long sustained campaign to discredit climate scientists and climate science itself
As Boussalis continues to investigate the generation and spread of misinformation about climate change, there is also a lot of research being carried out in Trinity that focuses on climate science itself. One such researcher involved is Margaret Jackson, an assistant professor of Geography. Jackson is also a palaeoclimatologist and glacial geomorphologist. In her research, Jackson explores the mechanisms behind climate change, investigating what records of past climate can reveal to current plans of climate change mitigation.
Describing her work to me in detail she says, “my research is focused on reconstructing the timing and magnitude of past climate change around the world.” Jackson and her research team have travelled across the globe to collect data which helps us understand how climates have changed in the past.
Climate scientists like Jackson use understandings based on the records of past climatic events, and apply them to understandings related to today’s climate crisis. Jackson, in particular, looks at periods of abrupt climate change from the past. Jackson tells me, “these rapid changes are seen as a potential analogue for the abrupt warming our world is undergoing today. It’s so important that we understand how these abrupt changes occur, as we can only prepare for climate change if we know what to expect.”
While Jackson looks to past climates, in hopes of understanding not only today’s climate crisis but also future climatic events. Other physical geographers, such as Dr Carlos Rocha, investigate the workings of today’s climate and how it responds to the stresses placed on it by humans. Research in this field of environmental change can be used to better inform decision-makers about what is needed in plans for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Rocha’s most recent project at Trinity was called SUBACID, and it focused on “understanding the complex interaction between groundwater inputs and upwelling processes in the most productive marine ecosystem for the cultivation of bivalves in the world – the Ria de Vigo, in Galicia, Spain.”
It’s so important that we understand how these abrupt changes occur, as we can only prepare for climate change if we know what to expect
Rocha is also an educator of the fundamental workings of the earth system, with particular expertise regarding marine ecosystems. “My teachings on the subject give a perspective of urgency, explaining why change is occurring, how it operates and feeds back into ecosystem function and services, where to find the evidence, and how to project future change, thus opening up a road with solutions to the problems we are facing.”
Expressing hope for the future of his field of research he says, “I believe the students that take my modules become empowered to get engaged and develop new initiatives in this field, and we might hear from some of them in the near future.”
In terms of future prospects in biogeochemistry research, Rocha stresses the need to tackle coastal and ocean acidification. “This has the potential to wipe out the marine food web as we know it, dragging marine food production with it, within the next few decades, and any capability of recovery from collapse within the next couple of centuries,” Rocha says. This is no light topic, and this research needs to be considered and disseminated with urgency.
Yet, not all climate change research bases itself within the sciences with Susan Murphy, assistant professor in development practice, finding her niche in climate justice and politics. Murphy explains that at the beginning of her time at Trinity, she was involved with a climate justice module, focusing heavily on international development and humanitarian aid.
Since then she has found her speciality as she details to me: “I have focused very intentionally and attentively around climate justice policies and matters related more specifically and more recently on the Just Transition.” The Just Transition refers to the idea that as we transition our societies to be less carbon-intensive, we must also ensure justice for those communities (particularly of the working class) whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industry.
This has the potential to wipe out the marine food web as we know it, dragging marine food production with it, within the next few decades, and any capability of recovery from collapse within the next couple of centuries
Despite some, as Murphy refers to them as, “beautiful laws” intended to safeguard human rights amid a climate crisis, the lived experience of many people affected by climate change has not been improved, due to power dynamics and structural inequalities built into the global political system.
Currently, Murphy is working on a project that aims to understand youth voice in climate debates, and why it seems to carry so much less weight in such conversations. Murphy points out the irony in this, saying, “it seems to me that there is a much clearer understanding of the problems that we are facing amongst younger populations than amongst older populations.”
Murphy tackles this conundrum in her research, exploring “how we could create systems and procedures that would allow for a more balanced consideration of the contribution that is coming from that youth voice.”
“This voice” Murphy emphasises “is such an important voice in this debate. Particularly in light of the fact that it will be younger generations and future generations who will carry through with the decisions that we make today.”