Climate Change? Anthropologists weigh in.

LOTRW readers may remember earlier posts referring to a four-volume report on Human Choice and Climate Change, Springer (1998) edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone, with particular emphasis on their ten suggestions for policymakers.

Here’s another welcome addition to the discussion from social scientists, this newly-released from the American Anthropological Association (AAA), entitled “Changing the Atmosphere. Anthropology and Climate Change.” The report offers an anthropological perspective on the causes and consequences of climate change, and suggests further avenues of anthropological study[1]. The AAA has also published a brief policy statement, provided here in its entirety:

“Climate change creates global threats that affect all aspects of human life, including our health, homes, livelihoods, and cultures, as well as our physical environment. Threats of this magnitude affect our stability—our sense of cultural identity, our well-being, and our security. As the discipline most clearly devoted to the human condition over time and space, anthropology offers important insights that can help create workable solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We put forth the following eight points for understanding the impacts of climate change from an anthropological perspective:

  1. Climate change is a present reality that alters our physical environment and impacts human cultures around the globe. Climate change is not a crisis of the distant future or a myth. It affects us now, at home and abroad.
  2. Climate change intensifies underlying problems—poverty and economic disparities, food and water security, and armed conflict—heightening these issues to the point of widespread crisis. Anthropologists predict climate change will accelerate migration, destabilize communities and nations, and exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases.
  3. We can expect to see widespread impacts on communities as they face dislocation and pressure to migrate. Climate change will challenge peoples’ cultures and beliefs as their sense of safety and daily habits are undermined by an increasingly unpredictable relationship with their environment. People in both developed and developing countries will feel the pressures. Those who have directly depended on natural resources for centuries—in high latitude/altitude areas, low-lying island nations, coastal environments, and other biomes— will have their lives most disrupted.
  4. While climate change affects all of Earth’s inhabitants, the impacts will fall unevenly and with particular weight on those already affected by existing vulnerabilities, including children, the elderly, those who live with handicaps and restrictive health conditions, and those who do not have sufficient means to move or change their lives. The most vulnerable will be uprooted or forced to move. As climate impacts intensify, public expenditures needed for emergency aid and restoration will escalate.
  5. Specific human actions and choices drive climate change by emphasizing fossil fuel as the primary energy source, creating a culture of consumerism, and favoring land use practices that undermine ecological resilience. Anthropologists recognize that humanity’s actions and cultures are now the most important causes of the dramatic environmental changes seen in the last 100 years. We consider this period the Anthropocene.
  6. The archaeological record reveals diverse human adaptations and innovations to climate stresses occurring over millennia, providing evidence that is relevant to contemporary human experience. The archaeological record shows that diversity and flexibility increase resilience to stress in complex adaptive systems, and that successful adaptations incorporate principles of sustainability.
  7. Climate change is a global problem with local and regional impacts that require local and regional solutions. Successful adaptation to climate change varies by locale even within regions experiencing similar environmental pressures. Thus, it is important for there to be community involvement in crafting, determining, and adopting measures for adaptation, not solely global and national governance and plans.
  8. Focusing solely on reducing carbon emissions will not be sufficient to address climate change—that approach will not address the systemic causes. Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Real solutions will require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities, not only from the natural sciences. Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.”

Much food for thought here.

The anthropological take shares much in common with the earlier Rayner and Malone suggestions, particularly the emphasis on (1) seeing the climate-change challenge as more than a question of emissions reductions, and (2) the need for place-based, local and regional approaches.

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[1] The report was largely the work of a AAA task force: Shirley Fiske, Susan Crate, Carole Crumley, Kathy Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisa Lucero, Tony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss, and Rick Wilk

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1 Response to Climate Change? Anthropologists weigh in.

  1. Great work. However, I think there might be a 9th point that is needed.

    In 8, they say “Focusing solely on reducing carbon emissions will not be sufficient to address climate change—that approach will not address the systemic causes. Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Real solutions will require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities, not only from the natural sciences. Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.”

    While I completely agree with the second and third lines, the first one is not complete.
    I find that our research agrees that collectively we can not “solely on reducing carbon emissions” to effectively address climate change. The committed changes in the climate system and the lags will lead to more changes in our climate that we need to be more prepared for today and in the coming decades.

    That said, the IPCC and NCA assessments clearly show if we keep the warming under 2 degrees the ability to adapt is much easier, but not easy at all. However, if we don’t follow the RCP 2.6 path our communities will have a very hard if not impossible time adapting to those increased impacts.

    While it is true that “focusing solely on reducing carbon emissions will not be sufficient to address climate change.” It is also true that we need to effectively focus on “reducing carbon emissions to sufficient[ly] to address climate change” while also increasing communities resilience. These are coupled efforts. The better we do with the reductions with emission, the more possible to increase communities resilience.

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