Author’s Note: As always, my objective is to present ideas, resources, and topics of discussions through my blog posts. This is by no means a full summary of all the issues surrounding anthropology and climate change. I always feel like I could turn each blog post into a book of it’s own, but for now, I hope you enjoy this post.
Anthropology’s Stance on Climate Change
Although I don’t think there will ever be a single source that could confidently speak for all anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association might be as close as one source could get, at least for anthropologists in the US. The AAA Statement on Humanity and Climate Change put forth in 2015 lists “eight points for understanding the impacts of climate change from an anthropological perspective.” Within these points is an emphasis on the human causes of climate chance, the effects on vulnerable populations, and the ways an anthropological point of view could potentially help lesson some of climate change’s harmful effects.
Many tend to see climate change as an issue best tackled by natural science. After all, natural science gives us the data and physical evidence to see and understand the impacts of climate change as they already exist.
However, it is important to remember that climate change is a human issue—made by humans, with consequences for humans, and hopefully, to be remedied by humans. Anthropology helps us understand how societies process climate change, and how cultural values and practices have influenced it.
Anthropological Perspectives on Climate Change
Culture and History
As cliché as it may sound, when making decisions about the future, we often look to the past for answers. Societies are closely tied to their history, and this history shapes culture in the present. This is true for perceptions of climate change as well.
Every culture has a history of experiencing and adapting to shifts in local weather patterns. Societies have persisted through droughts, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, only to emerge with new ways of sustaining (although usually not without loss in the process). The inevitability of natural disaster can make the potential effects of climate change seem less concerning. This article by Ainka A. Granderson notes:
“Where changes are perceived as within the realm of past experience, anthropogenic climate change may not appear as a significant risk that warrants shifts in practice or knowledge.”
Space vs. Place
Granderson also points out how “meanings and values attached to places” can shape societies’ perception of climate change risks and levels of “acceptable level of loss.” In other words, the more tied to the physical climate a community is morally, spiritually, and emotionally, the more devastating they perceive the risks to the environment to be.
In my Space vs. Place blog post, I discuss how location is tied to identity through the idea of “Place.” As stated in that post, “Place is what gives a space meaning, ‘personality’ and a connection to a cultural or personal identity. It is the culturally ascribed meaning given to a space.”
This concept may explain why some communities are feeling the risks of climate change more strongly than others. Certain groups may feel that their cultural or personal identity is deeply tied to the land they inhabit, or land in general, and therefore, may be concerned by the loss of certain places to the effects of climate change.
As with most natural disasters, the effects of climate change are more likely to be felt by already vulnerable populations. This report from the American Public Health Association outlines the ways in which children, older adults, communities of color, and low-income communities are often “less climate-resilient” in terms of health.
People in poorer countries are already experiencing the negative impact of climate change firsthand. Many citizens of island nations in the Pacific are seeing their homeland literally disappear before their eyes. 60 Minutes Australia recently covered this event in a short documentary piece.
You can see my blog post on environmental justice here.
A Culture of Consumerism
The AAA Statement on Humanity and Climate Change’s fifth point explains how “a culture of consumerism” is contributing to climate change. Especially in certain parts of the world, a reliance on fossil fuels is deeply ingrained into the way humanity currently functions. In addition, a focus on rapid economic growth contributes to the depletion and destruction of resources. Unfortunately, the environment seems poised to strike back, as can be seen in this short documentary by CNBC.
Culture and Climate Change Denial
The history of climate change skepticism is complicated. Theories behind widespread disbelief in the phenomenon have been put forth by various experts and fields of study. For example, psychologist Michael Ranney of the University of California at Berkeley (quoted in this article by Nicole Mortillaro) credits much of this skepticism to the spread of misinformation online and confirmation bias in seeking out media sources.
The 2012 PBS Frontline documentary Climate of Doubt explores some of the political and economic drive behind the climate change skepticism movement in the US. In 2012, much of the controversy surrounding climate change stemmed from concerns about limiting the free market and of potential misuse of tax dollars, but a political-ideological base for the movement was rapidly solidifying at the same time. I think it is safe to say that the ties between climate change denial, politics, and cultural values have only become stronger. From my perspective, it seems that U.S. Americans are feeling more pressured to subscribe to all or none of the ideologies of specific political parties. For now, the belief that climate change is caused by humans and should be combatted by humans is sitting firmly on the left of the American political spectrum.
I think that there is a great deal anthropologists could learn by studying the political-cultural ties to climate change belief. Anthropologists – is this our next big project?
What Will Humanity Look Like After Climate Change?
We know that climate and physical landscape influences culture through the adaptations that groups create in order to survive in their environment. In the past, igloos were built and crops were carefully cultivated to fit the seasons. Now we build greenhouses and install AC units.
How will humans adapt to new climate conditions in the future?
Many who study climate change agree that re-location/migration is unavoidable. However, the way that governments plan for the move may be key in determining the outcome for affected populations. As this article by Saleemul Huq explains, people will move because of climate change, no matter what– they will be forced to. But without large scale assistance and proper policy changes, the consequences for these groups could be dire.
Other adaptations to climate change include shifting farming techniques on a large scale, building walls to combat rising sea levels, and painting roofs white to keep structures from overheating. You can read more about these efforts in this article from the New York Times by Jeffrey Ball.
What other perspectives on climate change are presented by anthropology? Leave a comment!
What Ethnology Can Tell Us about the Consequences of Climate Change by Ian Skoggard, 2019
Anthropological perspectives on climate change and sustainability:
Implications for policy and action by Hans A. Baer and Thomas Reuter, University of Melbourne