Answers to some frequently asked questions about Anthropology and Climate Change. For suggestions to add to the list email gaellah@therai.org.uk.

What is climate change?
Is there a difference between climate change and global warming?
How do cultures vary in their understanding of climate change?
What kind of input can anthropology have into climate change debates?
My research is not specifically about climate change, how can I contribute?
What is anthropology?

What is climate change?

Climate change is a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet’s weather patterns or average temperatures. Earth has had tropical climates and ice ages many times in its 4.5 billion years. Since the last ice age, which ended about 11,000 years ago, Earth’s climate has been relatively stable at about 14 °C.  However, in recent years, the average temperature has been increasing (Source: the Met Office)





The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change and produces the most up to date technical information. The assessments of climate change by the IPCC draw on the work of hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The full IPCC reports can be viewed on their website.

Is there a difference between climate change and global warming?

Climate change used to be known as global warming. The term has shifted to climate change over the last few decades. One of the issues  with this is that although ‘climate change’ communicates that the problems are not only to do with the climate heating up, it does not communicate the trajectory of the change. It sounds more neutral than it actually is – it could be a good or a bad change, a small or a big change.

What kind of input can  anthropology have into  climate change debates?

There are two main  areas in which anthropologists have been getting involved in climate change research. The first is in exploring local and indigenous knowledge. Anthropologists have been measuring weather changes in terms of local knowledge about plants, animal behaviour and so on. They are also looking at what kinds of changes have been impacting people’s lives in problematic ways. For instance, Susan Crate’s work in Siberia with Viliui Sakha communities, where lakes have been disappearing because the permafrost is melting, shows how people have to re-envision their whole mythological views of the world. This has both practical and cultural implications. You can read more this in an open access article by Susan here: Crate 2010.  Susan’s work is also featured in the documentary The Anthropologist. 

The second main area that anthropologists have worked on is what has been described as “studying up.”   This means applying  the special ability anthropological research has “to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” to the practices of the powerful – corporations, governments, global institutions, scientists, policy makers  etc.. , treating them as distinct knowledge communities ( for more on studying elites see this blog article by Paul Robert Gilbert, who works on the mining and financial industries ).  Studying up in relation to climate change can involve looking at the activities of scientists doing climate change research, whether that is archaeologists doing the ice reports or other scientists contributing to the IPPC reports. It can involve trying to understand the practices of policy makers and politicians. Professor Steve Rayner, for example, in his 2012 lecture below How to eat an Elephant: Why Climate Change Policy is in a Mess and How to Fix it explores the creation of climate change policy as a cultural process:

More broadly, Barnes’et al  have identified 3 ways that a specifically anthropological approach can aid, enrich, and deepen contemporary understandings of climate change:

  1. First, the discipline’s tradition of in-depth fieldwork gives anthropologists insight into the cultural values and political relations that shape the creation of climate-related knowledge.
  2. Second, “is an awareness of the historical context underpinning contemporary climate debates.” Anthropological expertise gained from the study of development projects such as dam and road building can contribute to contemporary climate change mitigation projects, which may otherwise have unforeseen negative consequences for local populations.
  3. And third is anthropology’s “broad, holistic view of human and natural systems, which highlights the multiple cultural, social, political, and economic changes that take place in our societies.”

See the full article in Nature Climate Change

 My research is not specifically about climate change, how can I contribute?

Many anthropologists working on diverse topics find that people in their field sites mention disturbing changes in their environment. Climate change comes up in their fieldwork, regardless as to whether it was part of the original research objectives.  It is important not to bracket out such experiences or data from broader anthropological work.  Climate Change is not a niche or specialist subject. A good analogy is to imagine doing fieldwork today on any subject without taking gender into consideration.  Unimaginable? We believe the same is true for climate change. 

What can anthropologists actually do  about it?

It is vital that anthropologists  write about their research and work hard to disseminate their knowledge into mainstream climate change debates. There are multiple way to do this.

For example, Christiana Figueres, who was the  Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-2016 is an anthropologist.

Examples of projects:

On a personal level, for advice on reducing the carbon footprint of academia see this White Paper on running a (nearly) Carbon Neutral Conference by the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) at the University of California Santa Barbara

What is meant by the Anthropocene and why is it important?

Have  human beings permanently changed the planet? The Anthropocene is the term used to capture the idea that we are in  a new , entirely distinct geological epoch (beginning in the 1950S) in which scientists say we have significantly altered the Earth through human activity. These changes include global warming, habitat loss, changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soil, and animal extinctions. (http://www.bgs.ac.uk/anthropocene/)

Anthropocene is

Further reading
Kersten, Jens. “The Enjoyment of Complexity: A New Political Anthropology for the Anthropocene?” In: “Anthropocene: Exploring the Future of the Age of
Humans,” edited by Helmuth Trischler, RCC Perspectives 2013, no. 3, 39–
55. Kersten 2013



Welcome to th Anthropocene from WelcomeAnthropocene on Vimeo.

How do cultures vary in their understanding of climate change?

http://www.tracc.cc/ TRACC is a database for cross-cultural terminology of climate change.

What is anthropology?

Anthropology is, in the essence, the study of what it means to be human, across time and in different places. Anthropologists are interested in people: what they think, what they do, how they relate to each other. Biological anthropologists focus on the past, present and future evolution and ecology of the human species.