Affect and Climate Change

Andean glaciers in Paris collapse the distinction between local and global.

The procession’s message was clear—2 degrees is not enough to stop the dangerous melting of glaciers in the Andes. The written message placed on the ice exclaimed: “Survival is our priority 1.5 degrees.”
It was day six of 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris, France and day six of my experience conducting ethnography outside of the classroom. Stretching my legs during a break in my scheduled events for the day, I came upon a procession of Andean men, trailed by cameras and interested onlookers. The procession participants carried a large block of ice upon a wooden platform, unpainted and partially constructed of plywood. The ice sat in a raised box, beautiful and translucent. Tall, narrow, and steep—it appeared to be a miniature glacier magically transported from the Andes. On opposite sides of the table, two plain wooden boards extended horizontally like a sedan chair or litter. Eight men, four on each side, carried the unadorned litter with their arms and shoulders. Behind the ice sculpture followed musicians, all men playing the same melody repeatedly, which contributed an air of somber respect to the procession. The musicians followed the ice block as the men supporting it moved slowly through the large hallway of the Climate Generations. They stopped and audience members crowded closer to the translucent ice and its carriers. Someone placed a paper upon the ice block, which read in Spanish “Survival is our priority 1.5 degrees.”

***

I attended the COP21 with a team of researchers, all members of the Presence to Influence project and led by Kimberly Marion Suiseeya and Laura Zanotti. The UNFCCC COP is a global gathering of state leaders, non-state delegates, scientists, businesses, citizens, activists, and Indigenous Peoples who seek to negotiate strategies to mitigate climate change. Here, Indigenous Peoples, activists, and others communicated their experiences with environmental change. In particular, Indigenous Peoples emphasized the impact of climate change on their communities, cultures, and homes.

Close up of the glacier featured in the Andean procession. Elizabeth Wulbrecht

The majority of events I attended at the COP21 were in the Indigenous People’s Pavilion (IPP), a space in the Climate Generations area dedicated to indigenous speakers. The IPP was located in the designated civil society space of the convention, the Climate Generations area, and kept separate from the official negotiations in the Blue Zone. Days at the IPP centered on indigenous peoples living in specific regions of the world: Africa, the Arctic, the Pacific, and Russia and Eastern Europe to name a few. Presentations addressed issues such as drought in Africa and severe storms in the Pacific. When, in the second week of the conference, news that an indigenous rights clause would not be included in the final document of the Paris Agreement, frustrated conversations on the usefulness of the COPs to indigenous peoples ensued.

The two zones were adjacent sites constructed specifically for COP21 on the old runways of the Le Bourget airport. Security for both areas was strict due to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, just 17 days before the COP21 began. Only accredited individuals were permitted to enter the Blue Zone and participate in the official negotiations—I was not among them. Many civil society actors and activists in the Climate Generations area were not accredited either. A Dene chief, expressing his frustration at the accreditation and negotiation process explained, “I, as a leader—have been a leader for 28 years—elected, am not allowed in that room…. The Canadian constitution does not allow the Prime Minister to speak for us.” The accreditation process favors nation-state actors and thus legitimizes their concerns over those like this Dene chief and others who are leaders in their own communities, but not part of the overarching nation-state government.

I spent most of my time at the IPP because my research team was particularly interested in learning how indigenous peoples, identified by the United Nations as one of the groups most vulnerable to climate change, influence global environmental governance (Presence2Influence 2017). Indigenous Peoples, because they often live in remote, rural, and resource rich areas, are especially impacted by the changing environment and the extractive industry (United Nations 2009). My team was attentive to how these experiences were communicated and across what scales. Did groups talk about local, regional, or national concerns and struggles for justice? Representatives from indigenous communities across the world attended COP21 and discussed their experiences with climate change, the extractive industry, and the struggles for control over their traditional territories. I attended panels with Quechua speakers, Saami representatives, Maasai women, Cree and Dene peoples, and leaders from the Amazon. For all these people, climate change is a pressing problem that is irrevocably altering their lives, livelihoods, and communities.

***

Capping temperature rise at 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius was one of the most important debates at the COP21. Indigenous Peoples at the convention advocated for 1.5: Capping temperature rise at 2 degrees would not be enough to stop the dangerous impacts of climate change in their communities. In the IPP on Pacific day, speakers argued that if temperature rise was not capped at 1.5 degrees, the Pacific islands would disappear.

Andean procession at the COP21. Elizabeth Wulbrecht

The procession I encountered on the sixth day of the convention was part of this debate about stopping temperature rise. The thirteen members of the procession were dressed in black pants and black shirts (but for one teenager in a navy blue pullover). The men carrying the litter wore a painted thick red line down the middle of their face from forehead to chin. One of the middle-aged men wore a colorful sock hat adorned with fuzzy balls, the only piece suggestive of colorful Quechua clothing. After the procession stopped in the middle of the Climate Generations building, spectators put purple, yellow, and white wildflowers around the ice as the band played a faster-paced tune, including Peru’s Minister of the Environment and former COP20 President, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. The music, the flowers, and the ice carried upon the platform, all contributed to an almost funeral-like scene. Pulgar-Vidal spoke to the crowd. Then, the ice was deposited and the crowd dispersed. I lingered gazing at the ice, taking pictures, and trying to understand what I had just witnessed.

The Andean procession showed the crowd one type of environmental change happening in their communities with a material representation of a local phenomenon to this global gathering. By bringing a piece of home with them, they evoked the local and their connection to place. The procession’s message was clear—2 degrees is not enough to stop the dangerous melting of glaciers in the Andes. The written message placed on the ice exclaimed: “Survival is our priority 1.5 degrees.”

The Andean ice procession was one of the more unique events at the conference. It had an affective dimension to the ice procession that most events did not. When I returned home, I learned that this procession was an adaptation of the Qoyllor Rit’I, an Andean pilgrimage to the Sinakara valley and its accompanying glaciers. Climate change also impacts this pilgrimage as participants are no longer allowed to hew ice from the glaciers surrounding the valley to use as sacred medicine in their villages back home (Fraser 2009).

The message placed on the ice block refers to both the literal and cultural survival of Andean residents. Not only are Andean cultural practices threatened by climate change and the melting of glaciers, but so too is their water and food security. This group of conference participants confronted what a .5 degree increase in the temperature cap would mean for Andean communities—the melting of glaciers and the demise of their environment and way of life. They brought the very real and affective dimensions of climate change to COP21 with a material representation of their sacred and melting landscape, evoking place and locality in a global space. By communicating the impact of climate change on the Andes landscape through an emotional, visual, and sacred (pilgrimage) medium, the event caught the attention of the media representatives and spectators roaming the Climate Generations—more so than most of the events I attended. The procession was a strong reminder that communication occurs through more than just words and gestures. It wasn’t until this experience that I understood just how powerful forms of communication outside of speech can be, especially at sites of policy making.

Elizabeth Wulbrecht received her master’s degree in Political Science from Purdue University in 2017. She participated in the Presence to Influence Project and studied Congressional discourse on mental illness. She hopes to continue research on the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in environmental governance.

Further Reading:

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334–70. https://culanth.org/articles/98-indigenous-cosmopolitics-in-the-andes-conceptual

Note: This research was supported by Purdue Climate Change Research Center, the department of Political Science at Purdue University, and Purdue University’s College of Liberal Arts. CEE relies on collaboration, in coordinating field work, collecting and analyzing data, and thinking through meaning, and this paper reflects the efforts of the larger team working on site in Paris. The Paris-COP21 CEE team is: project leaders Kimberly R. Marion Suiseeya and Laura Zanotti, and researchers Scott Benzing, Sarah Huang, Fernando Tormos, Suraya Williams, and Elizabeth Wulbrecht.

Cite as: Wulbrecht, Elizabeth. 2017. “Affect and Climate Change.” Anthropology News website, December 19, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.727

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