Kolorowo. Image courtesy Krzysztof Cichy and wikicommons

What Anthropologists Bring to Climate Change

An anthropology of climate change has been building over the last 20 years—especially since 2009—and is now beginning to develop a sizeable literature and related set of activities, actors, and actions.  What are the hallmarks of anthropological contributions to our understandings of and responses to the diverse set of environmental changes occurring on a warming planet? What are the distinctive features of the anthropological lens on climate change? How significant has the anthropological influence been to date?

In this column, I touch on eight highlights in the anthropology of climate change as it has developed thus far.  Certainly other items (eg, policy work) can and should be added to this list as anthropological work on climate change issues continues to expand (as it most certainly must and will over the coming years).

First, archeologists, in particular, have long been involved in examining the historic pattern of social responses to early natural and later anthropogenic climate changes in local and regional sites.  This work shows that societal transformations often coincide with climatic alterations, although shifts in climate systems do not always result in significant changes in society. One of the notable impacts of climate change has been on the peopling of the world, as changes in climate have both facilitated and restrained human geographic movement. Additionally, climate has played a role in the collapse of social systems and contributed to the limited human use and rejuvenation of physical environments, allowing subsequent re-occupation.

Second, anthropologists increasingly have been active in documenting the special challenges, lived experiences, local knowledge, and perceptions of contemporary anthropogenic climate change in human communities, especially in developing settings that are hardest hit but least involved in the production of greenhouse gases.  Here anthropologists are assessing concepts like risk, vulnerability and resilience in examining the sustainability of local ways of life and resource utilization. Among medical anthropologists, a topic of concern is the health implications of global warming, including its impacts on the spread of vectors, flooding tied to sea level rise and melting glaciers, wind-blown soils and microbes, and the infrastructural damage to health-related resources of extreme weather events.

Third anthropologists have worked on identifying the range of factors that influence how and why communities react as they do to climate change, including initiating adaptive responses, politically organizing to demand dramatic cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, seeking outside assistance to adjust to growing threats, fleeing deteriorating conditions, and expressing a lack of capacity to act meaningfully to changes that are occurring.  All of these issues are outside the domain of expertise of climate scientists and involve issues of culture and social structure. 

Fourth, there has been growing anthropological involvement in assessing the social origins of climate change in light of the growth of the global economic system’s dependent on profit-making and unequal distribution of wealth, continual resource-depletion, and mounting waste producing economic expansion.  This issue too is beyond climate science in that how human societies perceive and treat their environments, how they organize their use of energy, and the systemic drivers of massive quantities of greenhouse gas production and emission are embedded in social not environmental systems. This recognition has drawn anthropologists to debates on issues like societal collapse and even to the topic of economic collapse on a grand scale.

Fifth, anthropologists have begun to draw attention to the interaction of climate change with a substantial list of other anthropogenic environmental transformation and ecological crises.  Rather than a standalone threat, global warming is but one of multiple consequences of human restructuring of planetary ecosystems.  Anthropologists are investigating these intersections in light of their capacity to multiply the deleterious impact of climate change on the communities of long anthropological focus.

Six, anthologists are studying the impacts of the science of climate change and organized climate change denial on popular understandings of global warming.  How is climate science disseminated and received by global audiences, through which channels, and with what effects?  What aspects of climate science assessment are adopted and integrated with local knowledge and under which conditions?  Work in this arena by anthropologists treats climate science as a communicable object.  Additionally, toiling the now established field of laboratory-based ethnography, anthropologists have initiated examination of the making of climate science as an arena of human behavior.  This line of research reveals the ways the wider political environment, including aggressive climate change denial campaigns, have caused climate scientists to be cautious in their presentation of their findings to public audiences.  One of the challenges climate scientists face is communicating with both laypeople and policy makes in culturally meaningful and effective ways.

Seventh, anthropologists are investigating the social origins and economic motivations of climate change denial and the social ideologies and motivations of climate change deniers. Given the success of the latter in sewing confusion about planetary warming and in delaying meaningful policy responses to pending crises, gaining a clear understanding of climate change denial is of critical importance.

Finally, anthropologists are working in applied initiatives that seek to respond to climate change at the local, regional, national, and global scales.  Reflecting understandings in application that have developed over the last half century, applied anthropologists are seeking ways to collaborate with communities to assist them in addressing their climate change concerns or in bridging the science-community divide mentioned above.

In closing, the impact thus far of the anthropology of climate change has, of course, been greater with regard to some issues compared to others.  Overall, anthropologists thus far have tended to be secondary players in this domain, although exceptions are identifiable. Of greater importance is the period ahead as adverse impacts of climate change continue to grow because of the massive but varied changes occurring in ecosystems worldwide.  Margaret Mead, who as noted in the first column in this series, played pioneering role in the anthropology of climate change, wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has.”  So too, perhaps a thoughtful committed discipline.

Merrill Singer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with a dual appointment as Professor of Anthropology and as Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention at the University of Connecticut. His current research focuses on both drug use and HIV risk and environmental health issues, including a growing focus on the impact of global warming on international health.

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