For The Australian Journal of Anthropology 19(1): 62-65. Apr 2008.

'Soapbox forum' with papers from Kay Milton, Hans Baer, Simon Batterbury, PeterDwyer/Monica Minnegal, Megan Jennaway,  Debbie Bird Rose.




Anthropology and global warming: the need for environmental engagement


Simon Batterbury

Dept.of Resource Management and Geography

University of Melbourne

Carlton 3010 VIC

Simonpjb “at”       And - James Martin Fellow, University of Oxford, 2007-8


[Last draft needs a few things – draft archived on




Over decades, a relatively small group of anthropologists have contributed to understanding of how societies deal with environmental change and climate variability. Those contributions aside, the discipline is not strongly positioned in public debate about - or research and action on - anthropogenic global warming.


This lack of professional engagement is surprising. Climate variability and weather patterns are a permanent backdrop, and often a central force, in social life. Climate changes, the longer-term shifts that take place in a climate regime, are central to the fate of cultures, ecosystems and regions. Although a humorous article in The Age pegged global warming as the ‘world’s most boring topic of conversation’ (17 July 2007), it is hard to avoid. Anthropogenic global warming results from accumulated human actions that have burned carbon and reduced its sequestration, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. It is thus a result of the ‘…basic material processes of modern human life’ as anthropologist Paul Richards notes, and ‘…dealing with the problem apparently implies the most ambitious plan to reshape human values and existence ever mounted’ (Richards 1999: 497). The culprits are hard to isolate, and include ourselves. Urgent emissions reductions to avoid more than 2ºC warming, deemed a notional  threshold beyond which significant sea level rise and major extinctions will occur, are proving elusive. Inadequate response has potentially world-changing, but still uncertain consequences (IPCC 2007).


These consequences are of sufficient magnitude to re-position societal notions of risk, effectively pitching once-marginal environmentalist discourses straight into mainstream public debate with discussion of sea level rise, storms, regional temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and alarming tipping points affecting ocean circulation and melting of polar ice (Hansen et al, 2007). But in fragile environments like the Arctic, global warming is already ‘…an issue that affects the Inuit on a daily basis’ (Nickels et. al. 2006), and the same is true of many montane, atoll and low-lying communities (Rudiak-Gould, 2008). Scientific debate about the existence of anthropogenic warming has reached consensus on many points, and the debate in the world’s universities and research organisations has moved on to the design of effective strategies for emissions reductions, adaptation to present and future changes in climate, and monitoring to establish how the latter may present itself regionally (pers.comms, D Frame, Oxford Univ. Oct 2007).


In Europe, far more than in Australia, emission reduction has become a public concern. It is signified in supermarkets, commerce, religious worship, schooling, modes of travel, housing choice, and even in the financial markets, where brokers are trading vast quantities of carbon (Bumpus and Liverman fc). Media and publicity casts the major producers of CO2, including energy suppliers, miners, loggers, airlines, cows and the super-rich, against a cast of real or perceived victims of sea level rise and lost livelihoods and habitats. While it is easy to dismiss the cultural and social framings of the issue as reflecting ‘value choices’, the weight of scientific evidence behind this lexical shift suggest these are more than cultural ‘constructions’ of scientific claims (Pettinger 2007). To be blunt: the world is warming, whether individuals sense this or consider this important.


The publication of the Stern (2006) and fourth IPCC reports (2007) have increased visibility and urgency. Levels of engagement by academics as a whole are for the first time, impressive. In research, climate specialists, including social scientists, are in demand. For example the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, never central to this major research university's mission in previous decades, has grown from a modest soft-funded group in the 1980s to around 60 overworked academics and policy specialists working on climate, with others (including anthropologist Steve Rayner) elsewhere on campus. ECI is working on raising public awareness in Oxfordshire, lowering national carbon emissions in the national domestic and commercial sectors, rethinking energy policy, developing more effective carbon trading, briefing industry and government, and in a nod to Geertzian humanism, the TippingPoint workshops are placing artists and writers in dialogue with climate scientists. Adaptation and mitigation in development countries, and carbon sequestration analysis in tropical rainforests receive significant funding (refs can be added if needed - Mahli et al). The UK also hosts a government-funded, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research ( with nodes at UEA, Oxford and other universities. Elsewhere the UK’s biggest food retailer, Tesco, has awarded £25million ($AU 58million) to the University of Manchester to set up a Sustainable Consumption research centre that will include work on cultural values underlying green purchasing, product life cycles, and the introduction of carbon labelling in stores; other retailers are following suit.


Some anthropologists I have talked to are uncomfortable with the tenor of the public debate and the financial backers of this concern, or more happy deconstructing the representations of nature that are driving these academic preoccupations and this new civic and corporate environmentalism (which may be questionable, in Tesco’s case!).  But they might consider more engagement with the large international research and policy effort. Back in 1989, Steve Rayner – one of the first anthropologists to address social impacts of anthropogenic climate change directly – accused his colleagues of ‘fiddling while the globe warms’ (1989). He did note that Margaret Mead and William Kellogg had convened a workshop on the issue in 1976 (they apparently suggested a ‘law of the air’ for emissions), and certainly by the late 1990s there was talk of ‘climate anthropology’ emerging as a field (Brown 1999). The publication of Rayner and Malone’s major collection (1998) was the most sustained intervention by social scientists to date, attempting to balance out the work of atmospheric scientists, physicists and geologists. Rayner, re-surveying the field five years ago, was able to note a ‘resurgence of anthropological interest in weather and climate’ (2003: 277). But so far this has been driven by only a few individuals, conference sessions, and scant publications (Baer 2007). Given that Bruce Kapferer, surveying the discipline in his AAS address published in this journal a year ago, terms anthropology a  ‘threatened discipline’, and talks of it ‘…losing sight of its direction’ as  a ‘…rigorous knowledge practice’ (Kapferer 2007), this appears to me to have been a missed opportunity. I am not sure by what metrics ‘losing direction’ has been measured, but surely, the


 ‘…specific tendency in anthropology to explore the particularities of human action, practice and value within the embracing complexities of

their specific and wider contexts’ (p79)


must include the actions, practices, and values developed around anthropogenic climate change, as well as much deeper attention to the ‘specific and wider contexts’ of physical environments and social structures that constitute the milieu for ever-more visible signs of atmospheric warming.


To do so is honest work for a discipline that has in the past represented Indigenous and local climate and environmental knowledge and, implicitly at least, has tended to support the rights of those holding it (Dove, 2001). Environmental anthropology, and cultural studies of climate variability, already offer key directions for future research and advocacy, as does some biological and evolutionary research (could add refs eg Homewood). Research has uncovered how drought, floods, and particularly long term changes in weather patterns are culturally mediated through practices, institutions, and knowledge. Vital work was done by cultural and human ecologists studying everyday subsistence activities and indigenous knowledge systems in small scale societies and among mobile groups (Ellen 1982, Netting 1993), and showing how environmental perturbation is negotiated (Richards 1986, Minnegal and Dwyer, 2000). In addition, this type of investigation:-


 ‘revealed substantial differences between the assessments made by scientific experts and those held by local people who draw their livelihoods from those environments’ (West et al, in press, 2).


Perhaps the most important outcome of this research is to document Indigenous and local perspectives and bring them in to a debate about climate and environmental change that is coarse in scale and science-dominated (Dove, 2001, see also Leach and Fairhead, 1996).


Local fieldwork allows such perspectives to be critically assessed (Roncoli, 2006). For example several studies have been conducted on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso in the Sahel of West Africa, where the Mossi practice rain-fed cropping, and are dependent on a single rainy season. An entire region anticipates rain, although modernity and development now provide some buffers to food shortage if it is too variable or nonexistent. There are local methods of predicting seasonal rainfall (West et al in press, Roncoli et al 2001) and my own direct comparisons of rainfall histories elicited from ethnography, focus groups and rainguage data also show accurate institutional memory of rainfall events (Batterbury 1997). Responses to drought include shifts in soil types and cultivars where possible, and livelihood diversification to buffer crop failure. But since the multi-decadal droughts of the last 35 years, the situation has changed and resilience has been lost. Development project support, mainly from European agencies like Oxfam and GTZ has assisted the construction of stone contour bunds on fields in over 2000 villages, now so widespread that their effects are visible from satellites. Social science research was essential in the design of these structures, and they were developed through extensive dialogue and technical experimentation (Batterbury 1997). Although the bunds also have symbolic value as displays to other NGOs offering assistance in other sectors like health and education and are themselves laden with meaning (Batterbury 1996, Falk Moore 2001), research and development aid in this domain has added to, rather than detracted from, community resilience in an area that remains exposed to climate variability and many other risks.


Efforts to provide climate forecasts to rural households more effectively have also been made, a field in which anthropologist Carla Roncoli and others have worked. Understanding the ‘human dimensions of inter-annual climate variability’ and local responses is a central theme in ‘climate anthropology’ (Vásquez-León et al 2003, Finan and Nelson 2001, Magistro and Roncoli 2001, Roncoli et al 2001, Roncoli 2006, Strauss and Orlove 2003). Climate knowledge is transmitted inter-generationally and across social networks, but new weather patterns render it uncertain. Scientific forecasting can now assist farmers and herders in remote regions by providing event probabilities, but understanding how this is interpreted and understood is an ethnographic task (Brown 1999). Ben Orlove (a prominent anthropologist in his own right), and his colleagues have demonstrated ethnoclimatological knowledge among Andean farmers, who, use the visibility of the Pleiades constellation in June from mountaintops as an indicator of planting times for potatoes. They discovered these indigenous methods have around 65% forecasting accuracy, and may exist elsewhere (Orlove et al 2002). In a region strongly affected by El Niño, Orlove and his team gave additional credibility to the practice by finding high cirrus clouds at this time correlated to El Nino events. Thus,


‘Atmospheric scientists may benefit from having their attention directed to the phenomena that indigenous people observe….much as indigenous

farmers could consider attributes of the atmosphere other than the ones that they already note’ Orlove et al, 2002, p434.


A climate anthropology operates in multiple knowledge communities. Bridging these was the goal behind a meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and climate scientists in Darwin in 2006, organized by Donna Green and myself, in which CSIRO climate projections were compared with local experiences from across Northern Australia ( Two ‘expert’ meetings on ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Changing Environments’ were held in Cairns and Paris in 2007, and an interdisciplinary meeting on ‘Indigenous People and Climate Change’ in the UK, organised by ethnobotanists Jan Salick and Anja Byg.  Understanding alternative climate knowledge guides Orlove’s own research in Latin America, on climate knowledge in northern Australia (with Nigel Tapper –see Young 2003).There are at least two new books in press -  a collection on the science and symbolism of glacial retreat (Orlove et al 2008), and a forthcoming anthropological collection on climate change (Crate and Nutall, in press).


In addition to these tasks, anthropologists have had some role as participant-observers of climate change science and policymaking and have conducted at least one broad survey of values. Myanna Lahsen has examined the ‘climate business’ from inside for many years, demonstrating through ethnographic work just how ideas and models are formed and are transmitted in social networks of scientists (Lahsen 2007).  Kempton's survey of American environmental values in the mid 1990s shows that the public and many policymakers shared concern for global warming, among other issues, making the consistent national resistance to lowering emissions even more puzzling (Kempton et al, 1995). [much to add here]


There is also the important study of risks from combinations of changing climate and land use changes. Research here is too voluminous to list, for it involves an interdisciplinary effort in which individual contributions are blurred. Environmental anthropologists like Emilio Moran are combining remotely sensed data with field investigation in areas of Amazonian settlement and forest loss (2000) and contribute to the IPCC process. Anthropologists of disasters are working on sudden onset events like the Central American hurricanes and storm surges (Hewitt 1983, Hoffman and Oliver Smith 2002).


As Orlove’s work illustrates, understanding climate knowledge requires scientific as well as cultural understandings (Orlove et al 2002, 2008). A critical realist philosophical position asserts that there are ‘facts’ to anthropogenic climate change, although we have not yet appraised all of them and people see them differently. Since globally the interpretation of facts about warming follows lines of power and patterns of belief, mutual comprehension is often frustrated and is elided with other issues (Leach and Fairhead 1996). But this is part and parcel of ‘late-modern science’ that admits to uncertainty (Dove 2001, 91). Critical realism appeals to anthropologists who do voice concern for global warming issues, which is repeatedly expressed on the environmental anthropology listserv (E Anth) and in published work. It eases the building of bridges, in terms of research and advocacy, and the resultant ‘Interdisciplinary research often yields insights otherwise not attainable’ (Malone and Rayner 2001: 178). Social and technical skill is needed to understand why emissions have risen so rapidly, and how millions of people in risk-prone regions and societies will actually suffer its consequences. As part of this broad effort, more partnerships are vital (particularly with geographers, whose research on these issues often overlaps with anthropologists), and with participation in policy and activism (Dove 2001).


My view as an outsider with good knowledge of the discipline is that that anthropology has far more to offer the study of global warming, even if the mainstream policy debate will always occur elsewhere. In view of the urgency of the issues, a general acceptance of the sentiments and the practice of an engaged (applied) anthropology is also overdue. This will be pivotal to the public profile and the work of the discipline (Batterbury and Horowitz fc). This means shedding much of the exceptionalist thinking that infests anthropological debate, and embracing rather than resisting the ‘realities of other disciplines’ (Kapferer 2007: 81). This will permit more effective research groupings and knowledge coalitions that are already attacking the big issues from a Big Tent (inside and outside the university sector). It means forging, and participating in collaborations, cataloguing opportunities for adaptive strategies and mitigation worldwide (while of course being mindful of the terminology, which has an interesting genealogy), and finding new audiences for anthropological research and advocacy with, and on behalf of, ‘others’.


For me, anthropology without a sense of urgency about global warming is unthinkable.



To Raj Puri, Peter Dwyer, Colin West.




Batterbury, S.P.J. 1996. Planners or performers? Reflections on indigenous dryland farming in northern Burkina Faso. Agriculture and Human Values 13 (3): 12-22.

Batterbury, S.P.J. 1997. The Political Ecology of Environmental Management in Semi-Arid West Africa: Case Studies from the Central Plateau, Burkina Faso. PhD, Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, USA.

Batterbury SPJ and L.S. Horowitz. (eds) fc. Engaged Political Ecologies. In prep.


Brown, K.S. 1999. Climate anthropology: taking global warming to the people. Science 283 (5407): 1440-1441.


Baer, H. 2007. Global warming, human society and critical anthropology: a research agenda. SSEE Working Papers in Development no.1, University of Melbourne.


Bumpus A.G. and D.M. Liverman. Accumulation by decarbonisation and the governance of carbon offsets. Economic Geography In press.


Crate, S. and Nuttall, M. In press. Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions. Walnut Grove, CA, Left Coast Press.


Dove, M. 2001. Interdisciplinary borrowing in environmental anthropology and the critique of modern science. In Crumley, C (ed) New Directions in Anthropology and Environment, pp90-112. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.


Douglas, M, D. Gasper, S. Ney, and M. Thompson. 1998. Human needs and wants. In Rayner, S and Malone, E.L (eds). Human Choice and Climate Change, pp195-264. Columbus, OH: Battelle Press.


Ellen, R. F. 1982. Environment, Subsistence and System: The Ecology of Small-scale Social Formations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Finan T.J. and D.R. Nelson. 2001. Making rain, making roads, making do: public and private adaptations to drought in Ceará, Brazil. Climate Research 19: 97-108.

Hansen, J, M. Sato, P. Kharecha, G. Russell, D.W. Lea, and M. Siddall. 2007. Climate change and trace gases. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - A 365: 1925-1954.


Hewitt, K. (ed) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity: From the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

Hoffman S.M and A. Oliver-Smith (eds). 2002. Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. New Mexico: SAR Press.

International Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Climate Change 2007. 3 vols and synthesis. Cambridge University Press.

Kapferer, B. 2007 Anthropology and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: A Discourse on the Definition and Ideals of a Threatened Discipline. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 18 (1): 307-321.

Kempton, W., J.S. Boster and J.A.Hartley. 1995. Environmental Values in American Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Lahsen, M. 2007. Trust Through Participation? Problems of Knowledge in Climate Decision Making. In M. Pettinger (ed.). The Social Construction of Climate Change, pp173-196. London: Ashgate.

Leach, M. and J. Fairhead. 1996. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press.


Magistro, J. and C. Roncoli. 2001. Anthropological perspectives and policy implications of climate change research. Climate Research 19: 91-96.

Malone, E.L. and S. Rayner. 2001. Role of the research standpoint in integrating global-scale and local-scale research. Climate Research 19:173-178.

Minnegal, M. and P.D. Dwyer. 2000. Responses to a Drought in the Interior Lowlands of Papua New Guinea: A Comparison of Bedamuni and Kubo-Konai. Human Ecology 28: 493-526.

Moore S.F. 2001.The International Production of Authoritative Knowledge: The Case of Drought-Stricken West Africa. Ethnography 2 (2): 161-189.

Moran, E. 2000. Human Adaptability: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology. Second Edition. Boulder: Westview.

Netting, R.McC. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

Nickels, S, C. Furgal, M. Buell, and H. Moquin. 2006. Unikkaaqatigiit – putting the human face on climate change: perspectives from Inuit in Canada. Ottawa: Université Laval and National Aboriginal Health Organization.

Orlove, B.S, J.C.H. Chiang, and M.A. Cane. 2002. Ethnoclimatology in the Andes. American Scientist  90: 428-435

Orlove. B.S., K. Wiegandt and B. Luckman (eds). 2008. Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science and Society. University of California Press.


Pettinger M. (ed). 2007. The Social Construction of Climate Change. London:  Ashgate.

Rayner, S. 1989. Fiddling while the globe warms? Anthropology Today 5 (6): 1-2.

Rayner, S. 2003. Domesticating nature: commentary on the anthropological study of weather and climate discourse. In Strauss S and B.S. Orlove (eds). Weather, culture, climate, (pp277-290). Oxford: Berg.

Rayner, S and Malone, E.L (eds). 1998. Human choice and climate change. 4 vols. Columbus, OH: Battelle Press.

Richards, P. 1986. Coping with Hunger: Hazard and Experiment in an African Rice-farming System. London:  Allen & Unwin.

Richards, P. 1999  review of Rayner and Malone (eds), Human Choice and Climate Change. GeoJournal 47: 497–498.

Roncoli, C. 2006. Ethnographic and participatory approaches to research on farmers’ responses to climate predictions. Climate Research 33: 81–99.

Roncoli, C, K. Ingram, and P. Kirshen. 2001. The costs and risks of coping with drought: livelihood impacts and farmers’ responses in Burkina Faso. Climate Research 19:119-132.

Rudiak-Gould, P. 2008. fc. Climate Change and Culture in the Marshall Islands. MPhil, Social Anthropology, University of Oxford.

Stern, N. 2006. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge University Press.

Strauss S. and B. S. Orlove (eds). 2003. Weather, Culture, Climate. London: Berg.

Torry, W.I. 1983. Anthropological perspectives on climate change. In Chen R.S., E. Boulding and S.H. Schneider (eds). Social Science Research and Climate Change (pp207-288). Dordrecht: Springer.

Vásquez-León, M., C.T. West, and T.J. Finan. 2003. A comparative assessment of climate vulnerability: agriculture and ranching on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Global Environmental Change 13: 159-173.

West, C.T., C. Roncoli and F. Ouattara. In press. Local perceptions and regional climate trends on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso. Land Degradation and Development 18.

Young, E. 2003. Koalas fight, shepherd's delight. The Guardian (London) October 23.