Limited availability of interdisciplinary studies also poses a challenge for connecting the socio-economic transformations and the governance aspects of low emissions, climate-resilient transformations. For example, it remains unclear how governance structures enable or hinder different groups of people and countries to negotiate pathway options, values and priorities.” - Chapter 5 of the “Global Warming of 1.5 C” Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

As climate change becomes an increasingly important area of skill development and capacity-building, the need for experts in climate change will also increase globally. And when the IPCC, the foremost intergovernmental body tasked with providing us with objective scientific information on climate change, emphasizes the need for increased interdisciplinary in research, students and professionals can benefit from reforming their approach. However, as a new generation of climate experts enters the workforce, it is crucial that they think interdisciplinary.

Between Disciplines Lies the Decolonization of Climate Disruption

Climate change, as the outcome of industrialized economic growth, and the exhaustion of the earth’s carbon budget, is solely linked to the colonial project. During colonization, the growth of wealth was measured as it was distributed amongst the ruling or capital-owning class, and the deprivation of local communities and the destruction of their local ecosystems was externalized. Human geography has taught us that settler colonialism used environmental capital such as land, water and fossil fuels freely through their consumption as private property by settler-colonial states. As a result, climate risks to local populations arising out of this degraded landscape are disproportionately suffered by previously colonized populations and indigenous communities. Therefore, when we approach questions of climate action, ambition, finance and technology transfers, an education in historic inequities for instance can provide crucial in ensuring that solutions are effective and just. The network of coexisting injustices that climate disruption can contribute to requires professionals to flit between disciplinary silos.

Defying Hyperspecialization in the Climate Workspace

In a job market that incentivizes hyperspecialization, centering diversity of experiences and interdisciplinary thinking becomes more valuable than ever. Traditional education systems do incentivize students towards a trajectory of hyperspecialization where the pursuit of increasingly specific skills and unique knowledge is rewarded. This trajectory is of course necessary in the context of scientific and professional fields as we want to expand the scope of human knowledge, especially when solving problems. But the problem of climate disruption and environmental degradation requires leadership and solutions that go far beyond any one discipline. Interdisciplinarity therefore not only involves greater collaboration between disciplines, but also professionals being able to think between and within disciplines when faced with challenges.

“climate change is often framed as a technical issue… But putting technologies in place to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change requires the adoption of these technologies by governments, societies, and communities.

Experts such as Prof. Jonathan Rigg of the National University of Singapore agree that climate reductionism which reduces climate action to technological and finance-based solutions without an understanding of social inequity cannot be expected to provide effective solutions to a problem as all-encompassing as climate disruption.

Applying the Interdisciplinary Mindset Practically

While interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinarity may seem to be jargon or buzzwords, it is difficult to begin practicing it straight off the bat. Several universities are trying to incorporate interdisciplinarity within their environmental science curriculum, and interdisciplinary research methods are gaining popularity among climate change scholars. So, there are definitely opportunities to explore educationally to develop an interdisciplinary skillset. If interdisciplinarity is something one wishes to incorporate into their daily work, here are some tips to get open yourself up to those possibilities:

  • Communicating simply: Being able to describe your own research and experiences to a non-specialist audience opens up the possibility of others doing the same, creating a culture of open collaboration rather than keeping one’s knowledge under the proverbial lock and key, using language or tools that only members of your discipline understand.
  • Humility: Hyperspecialization often trains one to think of their discipline as having the best and final solutions to problems, including climate disruption. Staying humble by acknowledging the knowledge gaps and limitations of your field and training allows you to explore other disciplines and imbibe their learning in good faith.
  • Active collaboration: Seeking out interdisciplinary teams and working together on equal terms within those teams so all team members are able to understand and build on all aspects, including gaps left between disciplinary knowledge.
  • Initiative: Taking the initiative to set up meetings with people from different fields, listening to podcasts, watching tutorials, reading journals from other disciplines, allows your brain to stay actively interdisciplinary when faced with problems or new information.

This mindset shift is only the beginning of what will be a long process of unlearning for most professionals. Building one’s own interdisciplinarity capacities, through theory and praxis requires commitment and an open mind. While the practice of interdisciplinarity can appear daunting at first, once you incorporate it into your work, it becomes an increasingly rewarding approach when working on environmental questions.

Do share examples of interdisciplinary thinking, research and work that you have come across so that our network can continue to benefit from each other! mentor Mrinalini Shinde is an environmental lawyer, researcher, and lecturer based at the Environmental Law Center, University of Cologne in Germany. Her work focuses on international environmental law, environmental criminal law, climate change, and corporate environmental crime. You can read more of her work here.