Anthropology in Climate Change

by Yijing Zhang

Barnes (2013) strongly suggests that natural scientists cannot solve the climate issue alone even if they have understood every scientific aspect of it. Therefore, anthropologists can further enrich the study of climate change in three ways, particularly when the climate debate involves social, cultural and political topics.

The first way to improve the climate study is to apply ethnographic insights. Instead of focusing on one specific community, Barnes argues that the climate change requires a broader perspective. Extending subjects from local places to international environments, and from science departments to companies and non-profit organizations, Barnes suggests that anthropology research is able to study how pure scientific knowledge could be incorporated into policies. By studying the language used in communication and debate, anthropologists can analyze how scientific knowledge is conveyed to the public.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a typical example of how scientific knowledge is interpreted. Research, which focused on how decisions were made and how presentation affects the debate in the panel, finds that anthropological elements help participants in the debate to think more broadly and help them to include cultural and social factors.

The second perspective that anthropology can offer is historical. As climate change is studied in a very long time scale, anthropologists suggest that the debate topics in environment and climate are not new. Since the time of Hippocrates, people have pondered whether humans can control environmental change. In addition, when scientists are talking about impacts of climate change on susceptible groups, they are, in fact, talking about uneven development processes in different countries, which has been a frequently discussed topic over the years. Hence, Barnes argues that discussions on past topics can effectively improve present mitigation or adaptation strategies.

The last way that anthropology can help is offering a holistic view. In contrast to solely emphasizing on the big picture, Barnes suggests that it is better to think about how new policies can influence people’s livelihood. Though people’s living quality, determined by politic environment and cultural influence is difficult to quantify, it is still important to address these issues, and anthropological approach helps to prevent an overemphasis on climate change data, bringing social responses into the picture.

Barnes, J., et al. (2013). “Contribution of anthropology to the study of climate change.” Nature Climate Change 3: 541-544.

TAGS: Yale school of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale Climate & Energy Institute, anthropology, fieldwork methodology, climate change.



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