State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


What Anthropologists Can Do About Climate

Uganda Farmers
Ugandan farmers at a community-group meeting discuss the forecast for the upcoming rainy season. Photo: Carla Roncoli

It is widely recognized that climate change stems from interactions between human society and the biological and physical systems of our planet. So, it seems clear that solutions must draw both from the social sciences and the natural sciences. But how can the full range of the social sciences be brought into research on climate change and the search for solutions? The roles of economics and political science seem crucial, since pricing mechanisms and policies are needed to promote mitigation and to support adaptation. Psychology explores the ways to make this problem, often seen as distant and uncertain, stand out more prominently in human thinking and motivation. Sociology studies the variety of organizations, such as urban governments and consumer groups, which address climate change. Anthropology, though, might seem too remote, and too focused on traditional cultures or ancient civilizations, to have much to offer.

A group of anthropologists, including myself, a faculty member of the Columbia Earth Institute, met at Yale in the spring of 2012 to discuss the contributions of their particular discipline. They included university-based researchers and agency-based anthropologists who work at NASA and at its Brazilian counterpart, the National Institute of Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais). Some group members were archaeologists, who conduct excavations; others are cultural anthropologists, who have conducted field work on every continent (including two who had visited research stations in Antarctica).

Their overview was just published in an article in Nature Climate Change, with Jessica Barnes, Columbia PhD in Sustainable Development 2010, as the lead author. They find three crucial areas of anthropological contributions to climate change discussions, all of them linked to the specific scales at which anthropologists conduct their research.

The first topic, ethnographic methods, is the understanding of local or community-based culture that stems from the place-based scale of much anthropological research. This draws on fieldwork—usually living in a single community or region for long periods of time. In case after case, in both developing and developed countries, anthropologists have learned that local people have a strong awareness of their own environment and climate, and observe changes that are already taking place. Local people also have an awareness, to a more varying extent, of the global framework for climate change.  Just as the word “development” has spread around the world, so too notions of adaptation and vulnerability are widespread. But they are acquiring different meanings, much as “development” means different things in different places. Anthropologists have also studied climate change researchers themselves; for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the relations of the different Working Groups within it.

The second topic, temporal depth, is the consideration of long historical scales derived from archaeological and archival research, which complement much ethnographic field work. The archaeologists in the group emphasized the impacts of earlier climate fluctuations on many ancient societies, whether on simple hunter-gatherers, small-scale farmers or large agricultural civilizations. The cultural anthropologists in the group noted the importance of environmental debates in shaping relations between societies, whether in earlier millennia (the views of the ancient Greeks or early Chinese about the inhabitants of their empires’ peripheries), earlier centuries (the frameworks with which European countries understood their conquest and colonization of the tropics) or earlier decades (debates about modern overpopulation and deforestation). With this longer view, climate change discussions can be reconsidered. For example, an important mitigation project, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), can fruitfully be reevaluated by considering the successes and failures of other projects—from recent decades to combat deforestation in order to preserve biodiversity; or those from past centuries to promote rational forest use under colonial governments; or efforts by Romans and other imperial rulers in earlier millennia to bring the barbarian forest peoples into the world of civilization.

The third topic, holism, integrates a broad scale of explanatory models; it sees cultural systems as interacting with social, economic, political and environmental systems. In this view, climate change interacts with other factors—a simple point, perhaps, but one that is often overlooked by researchers whose close attention to climate impacts brings a neglect of other sources of change. The case of the Nile Basin illustrates this point. Though physical climate research tends to dwell on projected trends in precipitation in the river’s East African source regions that could alter river flow, anthropologists seek to integrate these trends with other shifts that also affect the farmers in the Nile Valley and Delta—the choices of technologies and policies made by national governments, in particular. This leads anthropologists to link climate change with other processes, rather than to separate it from them.

The team of anthropologists that met in Yale is working on a book, currently projected to be published in late 2014.


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11 years ago

Isn’t it so that the climate just changes as it always does and always will ?
Maybe we are over reacting and have the CO2 levels also been high in previous periods.
I put my question marks with some solutions we think to have nowadays such as the electrical cars; takes a huge amount of energy to make the battery and the electricity also needs to be produced.
I am very curious to know what the future will bring…

Jessica Barnes
Jessica Barnes
11 years ago

Yes, global climate has been and always will be variable. But the climate
change we are seeing today is unprecedented in its magnitude. It
is also distinct from climate changes of the past in its forcing by
human emissions of greenhouse gases. As for the level of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere, it too is variable, but the current level is the
highest it has been in human history. All the evidence points to
the fact that we are not over-reacting but in many ways
significantly under-reacting.