In the north-west corner of Greenland, there’s a community of a few hundred Inuit people in a place called Qaanaaq. They don’t spend a lot of time talking about the theory of climate change, simply because their lives are already impacted by climate change day in, day out. As temperature rise and the sea ice becomes ever more unreliable, age-old hunting patterns have to change; place names no longer match up with the places that are being transformed by climate change; and creatures with which they’ve co-existed for ever are seen to be equally ‘confused’. The narwhals no longer come to Whale Fjord.

This testimony from the front line of climate change is told by Kirsten Hastrup, a Danish anthropologist from the University of Copenhagen. She spends a chunk of time in Qaanaaq every year. She talks quietly, directly, movingly, but without sentimentality. She’s keen to impress on us that this is not a dying community – not yet. Even as they reflect on the dramatic changes going on all round them, new things happen. For instance, they’ve started fishing for the halibut appearing for the first time in their waters. And some are even dreaming of the possibility of a new port facility, once the ice has completely disappeared, to take advantage of all the shipping which will be making use of an ice-free Northwest Passage.

Stories like this are being written all over the world. The ‘history’ of climate change is already prefigured in the lives of countless individuals and communities.

Kirsten Hastrup was just one of around 25 contributors taking part in an extraordinary event taking place over the weekend organised by the
Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. I was lucky enough to be one of them. I have to admit that big groups of scarily bright academics is not exactly my normal milieu, but ‘communicating uncertainty around climate change’ is a front line that I’ve been on as a campaigner / commentator for more than 30 years. And it was quite something to spend time with some of the scientists and economists who’ve been there right from the start in the 1970s.

Completely by coincidence, the Princeton Workshop came at the end of a whole week of activities within Forum for the Future looking at system innovation – as part and parcel of our Big Shift programme.

The highlight was the launch of a new book by Fritjof Capra, one of my great intellectual heroes, who’s been inspiringly beating the drum for systems thinking for as long as I’ve been banging on about sustainable development. I haven’t yet read ‘The Systems View of Life’ (co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi) but it’s on the top of my reading pile.

Fritjof would have relished being part of this Princeton Workshop. It was made up of climatologists, economists, historians, political theorists, physicists, meteorologists, anthropologists, geographers, philosophers – together with a few nondescripts like me thrown in for good measure. To be honest, it was hard work – in a good way! I felt completely comfortable with (as in properly understood!) about 25% of the papers – and the rest I just had to glean and guess at.

Academics don’t get to do a lot of this kind of full-on interdisciplinarity – and it reminded me, yet again, of just how hard systems thinking really is. Time after time we were reminded that it is the very ‘systematicity’ of climate change (I told you I was having to learn new stuff!) that baffles the politicians. They like things dished up simple (not inextricably interconnected) and short-term (not over generations).
But we needed the insights of all of those disciplines to start getting close to the two big questions that hovered over us throughout the Workshop: why has the world found it so incredibly difficult to get to grips with the unfolding reality of accelerating climate change over the last 40 years? And how can we do a better job over the next 20 years (we certainly won’t get another 40!) to avoid everyone’s worst fears?

With the focus on ‘historicizing climate change’ (don’t ask!), I found myself asking a question that made all the historians present crinkle with disapproval: might it be possible for historians to tell the multiple stories of climate change (not just unfolding today, but going way back over the entire span of humankind), to make a bigger impact? To tell those stories in such a way as to get both politicians and ‘ordinary people’ to sit up and find themselves engulfed in one of those ‘oh bloody hell’ moments?

By all accounts, that’s exactly what’s starting to happen – with lots of new works coming out looking at the ways in which the climate has dramatically influenced human history in so many different parts of the world.

And not necessarily so dramatically. Completely by chance (courtesy of a book review in New Scientist), I got to be reading a book called ‘Walden Warming’ by Richard B Primack on the flight out to the US. Walden is the name of a pond near Concord in Massachusetts, a place made famous by the great American naturalist and philosopher Henri David Thoreau, in the middle of the 19th century. At a certain stage in his life, he took refuge in a cabin in Walden pond, living as simply as possible and as close to nature as possible.

“I wish so to live ever as to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, every-day phenomena, so that what my senses hourly perceive, my daily walk, the conversation of my neighbours, may inspire me, and I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.”
The Journal of Henri David Thoreau, March 1856

In that spirit, he kept meticulous records of the weather, and the flora and fauna around Walden pond: the times at which plants flowered, the ice melted, the rain fell, the trees shed their leaves and so on. Much of that incredible data has never been published – but Richard Primack unearthed it and used it as a benchmark for his own analysis of the same natural phenomena, in exactly the same places, more than 150 years on. And it shows just how much the climate has changed during that time.

‘Walden Warming’ is another elegant, eloquent testimony from the front line of climate change – so very different from Kirsten Hastrup’s deeply empathic account of the lives of that Inuit community in Qaanaaq, but equally revelatory.

And here’s the thing: both testimonies are very focussed, very local, very much of a particular time and a particular place. In themselves, they’re not ‘interdisciplinary’, or remotely ‘systematic’ – but they are absolutely the stuff of which any kind of wider, systemic understanding of the meaning of climate change is made up.

As Fritjof Capra keeps in reminding us, we urgently need systems thinking to make more sense of the massively complex, interconnected world we live in. But it can be dangerous to over-intellectualise this: systems are still made up of real people in real places, coping with real dilemmas – and without that kind of sensitive, empathetic grounding, no amount of systems thinking will get us any closer to a solutions agenda for climate change than today’s wretchedly reductionist, narrow-focus, short-termist apology for politics as it should be done.