Deborah Coen | Climate Risk: Historical Roots of a Vulnerable Science

Abstract: This presentation uses history to illuminate a profound misalignment between today’s science of climate change and the goals of climate justice. A fundamental ambivalence lies at the heart of the science of human “vulnerability” to climate change. As psychoanalysts concerned with climate change have recently observed, the culture of industrial capitalism tends to breed individuals who cannot tolerate evidence of their dependence on other people, nor on the physical environment. The sciences of the atmosphere have alternately critiqued and contributed to this idealization of invulnerability. To illuminate this dynamic, this presentation outlines a history of scientific efforts to measure the dependence of living things on the atmosphere. It focuses on the earliest such effort, the invention of the eudiometer (literally, a gauge of the air’s “virtue”) in the eighteenth century. The rise and fall of eudiometry reflected a momentous shift in the meaning of “sensibility,” a predecessor to today’s concept of vulnerability. This history holds important lessons for the science and policy of climate risk in the twenty-first century.

Bio: Deborah R. Coen is a historian of science whose research focuses on the modern physical and environmental sciences and on central European intellectual and cultural history. She earned an A.B. in Physics from Harvard, an M.Phil. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in History of Science from Harvard, where she was also a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows. Before coming to Yale, she taught for ten years in the History Department at Barnard College and was Director of Research Clusters for the Columbia Center for Science and Society.

This event is presented as part of the 2023 Perspectives on the Climate Change Challenge Seminar Series:

Most Mondays, Spring Semester 2023, 2:45-4:00pm(via Zoom OR In person in 155 Olin Hall)This university-wide seminar series is open to the public, and provides important views on the critical issue of climate change, drawing from many perspectives and disciplines. Experts from Cornell University and beyond present an overview of the science of climate change and climate change models, the implications for agriculture, ecosystems, and food systems, and provide important economic, ethical, and policy insights on the issue. The seminar is being organized and sponsored by the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

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