Tales from the AAA Task Force on Global Climate Change

As rainfall patterns change, some farmers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland have invested in irrigation systems as a hedge against risk. Photo courtesy Shirley Fiske

Welcome to Changing the Atmosphere, a column highlighting the stories of researchers working on anthropology and climate change as well as the public policy and dissemination work of the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force. I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce to you one or two anthropologists working on problems related to climate change each month. These profiles will give a sense of the wide range of anthropological and archaeological interests and applications for this important global issue. The column will alternate focus between members of the Task Force created by the AAA Executive Committee last year, and other scholars and practitioners working in this field across a variety of different contexts. In this first installment, I want to introduce myself, as well as Shirley Fiske, the Chair of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force (GCCTF).

Meet Sarah Strauss

In 1993, I was living in Zurich, Switzerland, and completing research for my dissertation on the transnational production of yoga practice. With a background in comparative religions, public health, and cultural anthropology, I had just returned from a year of fieldwork in India; I landed by chance among a dynamic interdisciplinary group of social scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG) who were just starting to grapple with the problem of climate change from a human dimensions perspective. I was the only anthropologist among geographers, economists and a sociologist; we read widely on the science and theory associated with climate change, and considered how we could contribute to the types of integrated assessment projects that were then becoming popular. I developed a plan to return to Switzerland for my next project, which I determined would focus on the “social life” of water in relation to ideas about health and the environment more broadly.

Leukerbad: Avalanches have always been a hazard to contend with in the mountains, but with climate change, changing precipitation patterns make management more of a challenge. Photo courtesy Sarah Strauss

I attended one of the earliest IHDP open meetings in Vienna in 1997, where I met Kathy Galvin (also a member of the GCCTF). Staying in Switzerland for the remainder of that summer, I completed a pilot study on the “hydroscapes” of the alpine community of Leukerbad. When I arrived in Leukerbad in 2001 to begin my NSF-funded project, it was clear that talking about perceptions of water resources in relation to human and environmental health would be impossible without also actively engaging the problem of climate change. By that time, glacier retreat had become such an obvious and accelerating problem that to ignore it, and the wider implications of a changing climate, would be absurd. My interests in weather and climate expanded over the next few years, and I co-edited a volume with Ben Orlove (another member of the GCCTF), entitled Weather, Climate, Culture (2003); this was the first book to take an anthropological perspective on these emergent issues. Though not centered on climate change, it did address the need to engage anthropologists in the study of weather and climate from historical and comparative perspectives, at a range of spatial and temporal scales.

In 2006, I spent an NSF-funded sabbatical year working with Martin Beniston’s geography group, in Fribourg, Switzerland, learning the basics of climate modeling and continuing work on the integration of sociocultural perspectives on climate change into wider research projects. Upon return to Wyoming, I helped found a University-wide committee on climate change research and education. We succeeded in convincing our president to sign the University President’s Climate Change Commitment, creating a Sustainability Committee for the University and sponsoring several public symposia under my direction.

I was invited in 2008 to be one of the first UW researchers to contribute to Wyoming’s newly evolving partnership with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), during which time I collaborated on projects related to hurricane preparedness and interdisciplinary models. Since 2008, I have been completing my Leukerbad work on water and climate change, and developing a new project to address the question of “what next” by looking at adaptation to global environmental change through renewable energy transitions in India and the USA. I have begun interviewing people in Wyoming and elsewhere regarding perceptions of wind and solar power at different scales, and hope to return to southern India during my sabbatical next year to address similar issues.

For me, this new project represents an opportunity to bring together elements of my academic trajectory of the last twenty years, from notions of health, to water resources and environmental change, to sustainability writ more broadly. I believe that anthropology has a primary obligation to contribute to climate change research by helping people in local communities understand and communicate the potential risks associated with global environmental change in their own area, so that they are best equipped to respond appropriately, and are able to make their voices and needs heard. Beyond that, I feel that environmental change represents an opportunity to revisit a number of global problems that have not benefitted from a “divide and conquer” strategy thus far. For example, rather than seeing climate change, air pollution, asthma, obesity, loss of community, and peak oil as problems to address through separate strategies and institutions, we might recognize a common solution in the development of public transportation networks and walking/bike paths which permit us to make inroads on all of these problems simultaneously.

Meet Shirley Fiske

Most of Dorchester County (MD) is less than a meter above sea level. Photo courtesy Shirley Fiske

Shirley Fiske is truly one of the American pioneers in the anthropology of climate change. Shirley described it to me in this way: “Climate Change descended on me full force when I worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) starting in 1984.” In the late 1980s, reports started coming in from the NOAA Laboratory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, which monitors carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. The upward trend of ppm of CO2 was undeniable. In 1990, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (formerly the U.S. Climate Change Science Program) was passed, authorizing the U.S. government to research into the causes, status, and impacts of what was then called global warming. Shirley knew that the new interagency research effort would have to have a “human dimensions” program (HD) if it were to achieve a robust understanding of the cause, impacts and processes of climate change. She helped establish the interagency human dimensions program as part of the USGCRP, in various capacities from the NOAA representative to the interagency working group, to the de facto director of the NOAA HD program. Twenty years later, Shirley is pleased to note that many anthropologists/archaeologists have benefited from NOAA funding to study climate change, human dimensions, and decision making about climate and meteorological services.

Post-NOAA, Shirley worked in the U.S. Senate on energy and natural resources issues, including climate change. She worked on “Cap and Trade” legislation and saw its political demise, now doubting whether the political will exists to undertake any regulatory emissions reductions in the U.S. Currently at the University of Maryland, Shirley is pleased to be working on an NSF-funded anthropology project on cultural consensus models of climate change in vulnerable areas of the Eastern Shore (average height above sea level is less than a meter) among farmers, commercial fishermen, and retirees (newcomers to the Eastern Shore); one of her co-investigators is Susie Crate, another member of the CCTF.

From Shirley’s perspective, the most important climate change-related issues that anthropology needs to address include the longstanding disappointment in all the climate change projections–our inability to understand climate change impacts at a local level, to “put a human face on climate change,” and to help local communities be empowered to engage climate change impacts and problems productively. This is where anthropological attention is critical—we can develop highly focused regional and local impacts that are “ground-truthed,” in a way that exposes the patchiness in vulnerability and resilience.

Shirley also suggests that anthropologists could help elucidate the architecture and guidelines for the implementation of REDD+ /+ by providing “best practices” guidelines for sustainable logging and carbon sequestration projects; developing social safeguard guidelines; and monitoring those cases which potentially violate land tenure and human rights.

We hope that you will enjoy learning about the programs, projects, and priorities of current climate change researchers in the coming months (more information about the Global Climate Change Task Force can be found at http://www.aaanet.org/cmtes/commissions/CCTF/gcctf.cfm). If you have an idea for a column, or know someone whose work should be included here, please do let me know.

Sarah Strauss is contributing editor of Changing the Atmosphere, the AN column of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force.

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