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Head-In-The-Sand Approach to Climate Policy Doesn’t Work, Either

Today’s guest blog post is by the Chair of the AAA Task Force on Global Climate Change, Shirley Fiske. Dr. Fiske is also a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology argued last week in the Washington Post that we should not undertake climate policy because of “uncertainty,” while also claiming that cutting carbon dioxide doesn’t make any difference.  Hmmmm…..Who in this country lives a life free of “uncertainty”? And what part of the country isn’t feeling effects of increased carbon dioxide?  Farmers and ranchers in West Texas, New Mexico, and the Midwest face a great deal of uncertainty about the future, due to drought , excessive rains, and extreme storms – or is it climate change?

And despite the Chairman’s claims to the contrary, we do know how the climate has changed with increases in carbon dioxide – over long history.  Scientists have shown that increases in carbon dioxide are strikingly correlated with increases in temperature, through swings of geological epochs, not just the last 15 years of “steady” temperatures as heard in the hearing.    We also know that, at Mauna Loa at least, carbon dioxide has reached the highest point (400ppm) in human existence.

Because there’s no federal policy on climate change, states, counties, and people across the US are left on their own, trying to figure out how to adjust to and pay for increasingly disastrous coastal storms and flooding, more frequent severe tornadoes, and fires in the “urban-wildlands interface.” Some will be forced to relocate, others will be driving or walking on flooded roads because they cannot use flooded subway systems. Others will have to move entire towns just to keep their livelihoods and lives together. Climate change is linked to economic disasters in linear and non-linear ways.

Although the idea of restricting carbon emissions at the federal level has been conflated with increased energy taxes in the minds of some partisans, it makes no sense to ignore the obvious warning signs and impacts across the country. By failing to take a leadership role with climate effects, we are we leaving state and local people out to dry, as communities in forested areas are smoked out, aquifers are depleted, and winter storms destroy communities in Alaska and the mid-Atlantic region. Congress needs to re-energize climate policy by thinking about how it is going to assist those localities and people and area most vulnerable to long term changes in the weather.  It’s in Congress’ best economic interest to manage one of the country’s largest vulnerabilities – climate change.

Is Earth Day a Nice Thing?

Today’s guest post is by the Chair of the Global Climate Change Task Force, Shirley Fiske.

A nice thing. Except for the reality.

Earth Day is a nice thing, today celebrated in the District at Union Station with a farmers market, giveaways, exhibits fromNASA, and a recycling drive, all nice things.  Seems like a pale comparison of the Earth Days of earlier years, when the entire Mall was dedicated to booths, displays and lots of gatherings.  I supposed it’s not unexpected given the maturation of the event and the politicization of the environment and polarization politically that has developed in the intervening years. 

Earth Days are a secular celebration, birthed at a time when people felt more spiritually about oneness with Mother Earth. As a public celebration, it seems to have lost steam…perhaps the complexity of American celebrating, and lack of support of the private sector in making our American personal and family celebrations viable as Big Bang events.  Or perhaps it’s because the American public has learned through formal and informal education how to relate to the earth better, moving the threshold for Earth Day to a higher level of event-making. 

Earth Day has adopted climate change as their focus, and that’s also a nice thing. There’s a “spot on” quote from a spokesman that “climate change has real consequences for real people as well as places that we love and animals.” This is something that the Task Force has written about and that most anthropologists studying climate change know already, and now it seems to be appropriated by Earth Day.

However, the part of the message that gets left out is one that anthropologists are all too familiar with.  Yes, climate change is happening now to real people, but it is hitting the poorest with the least resources the hardest, forcing long-time residents on the coasts in the Pacific NW and Alaska to relocate or lose their resources.  Compare the two coastal scenarios:  (1) Alaskan Natives are fighting tooth and nail to find any scrap of federal resources (or any resources) to help them relocate from Shismareff (as Elizabeth Marino reminds us); and farther south, the Quinault are losing glacial melt from glaciers that feed their rivers and stream, and host the return of the salmon each year. They will lose those salmon as the runs continue to dwindle under climate change projections.  Compare this to (2) the unnerving persistence of politically-entrenched legislation that buffers well-heeled residents and homeowners of beachfront property in the Outer Banks, the mid-Atlantic’s storm-prone and beautiful barrier islands.  They enjoy the unique historical and political artifact of legislation that provides publicly supported coastal flood insurance, a dinosaur from the pre-climate change era, perhaps the only public insurance targeted to such a vulnerable geographic area.   Under conditions of climate change, where are coastlines will be increasingly battered by storms and rising tides, how come entire regions get support while others don’t?  where’s the environmental and social justice?  Too cynical or an uncomfortable reality?

Looking Back on Today

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Richard Wilk of the Global Climate Change Task Force. Dr. Wilk is Provost Professor at Indiana University.

Looking Back on Today

By Richard Wilk

How are we going to be remembered in a century, in two hundred or five hundred years?  Not as individuals – even the most famous people will be long forgotten.  But what about our civilization and our way of life?  As a trained archaeologist, I ask whether our time will be called a golden age, an epoch of art, learning and enlightenment, or a dark and troubled era of wastefulness, decline and division.

Archaeologists have tried to purge the more obvious value judgments from their snapshots of past times. They no longer call epochs “decadent” or “formative” though terms like “classic”  and “high civilization” are still  used for the times when a culture hit its peak of power, built its most magnificent cities, made the most beautiful and elaborate arts and crafts, or conquered neighbors and welded them into a vast empire.

And they can also point to genuine examples of decline and failure. The Norse, for example, successfully colonized Greenland in 986 AD, and grew to 16 parishes led by a Catholic bishop in 1350. But when their trade with Europe was cut off by the Black Plague a hundred years later, and colder climate cut down on their pastures, the colonies failed and everyone sailed back to Iceland and Norway (see Stull 1990).  The people of the American Southwest, in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and a series of other cultural centers  settled there for centuries, yet suffered a painful decline and dispersal between 1100 and the 1400 with continual raiding, warfare, migration and ultimately abandonment of sequential regional areas.

So what about our era, the rise of Western capitalism and its diffusion in the form of globalized trade and material aspirations? Pundits and preachers tell us we are at the edge of the cliff, about to fall into oblivion. Others claim just as certainly that we are entering a new period of growth and prosperity, as democracy and freedom spread and we transition into a sustainable economy based on green technology.

For a moment let’s just step back and look at one thing we have built our civilization upon – oil.  The amount we use is so large that the numbers are meaningless to most of us. Artist Chris Jordan uses huge canvases to help us really feel what 28,000 42-gallon barrels–the amount consumed in the USA every two minutes– looks like. As he says, it is “equal to the flow of a medium sized river” running 24 hours a day.

Maybe in 50 years but certainly in a century, free oil from the ground is going to be very scarce and a lot more precious.  There will be expensive substitutes from natural gas, algae, genetically modified palm trees and the like, but the idea that you could once pump oil and sell it for $100 a barrel is going to sound ridiculous. So looking back on today, from the distant future, the idea that people would burn the precious stuff just to drive around ‘sightseeing’ or on holiday, in a private vehicle, for fun, seems somewhat short-sighted.  A lot of the time these cars are not even full.

And why were their towns and cities spread out across the land, so people had to burn oil just to go to work or buy groceries? I have tried to explain this to European visitors several times, with little success. I somehow doubt that people in 100 years are going to have more sympathy. They are just going to think we were crazed, insane, and unbelievably wasteful; and that we were unable to understand what our own scientists were telling us.

At least the ancient Romans had an excuse when they poisoned themselves with lead in their water, food and wine. They had no idea that lead was responsible for their declining intelligence, miscarriages, memory loss and bad digestion. But look at all the poisons we ingest every day in our air, water, food and drink, despite dire warnings. How can we explain that in rational terms?

I just hope that none of our distant descendants ever runs across a catalog from Skymall or Hammacher-Schlemmer.  Like our giant yachts, trophy mansions and vanity museums, these catalogs demonstrate a rococo form of consumerism that has no pretense of being for or about anything, beyond the tiniest quantum of health or comfort. Are you ready to justify spending resources on an “indoor flameless marshmallow roaster”  to your great-great grandchildren, who are living in a world where oceans have risen to inundate most coastal cities, because of the fossil fuels we burned?

If these things were exceptional, my argument would be trivial. But our entire consumer culture has spun into a kind of ‘babes in toyland’ phase, that feels like one last big blow-out party where we try to recapture the innocent joy of a time when we didn’t know that our fun was wrecking the place.  The only difference is that in this case, it is the kids, not the parents, who are going to be asking, “What were you possibly thinking to leave us such a huge mess?”

Bloggers, political pundits, and social scientists have noted that the hallmark of the Anthropocene is that it is the only geological epoch where the active force in creating change (us, that is) consciously know that we are affecting the planet;  the question is whether humans have the interest and political will to do anything about it (Palsson et al 2012).  So far we have not heard any serious proposals to limit or control the wildest and most wasteful kinds of consumerism.


Palsson, G., et al., Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environ. Sci. Policy (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004   http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004

Stull, Scott 1990 Colonization in a Marginal Zone: The Norse in Greenland. Crosscurrents 4:1-15. http://www.academia.edu/637940/Colonization_in_a_Marginal_Zone_the_Norse_in_Greenland

Chris Jordan: http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#oil-barrels

New Task Force on Climate Change

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is proud to announce the creation of the Task Force on Climate Change, an effort to bring anthropology’s contributions to issues of environmental concern into the spotlight, and increase its engagement with current research, policy discourse and the communities they study worldwide.

While geophysical scientists and governmental bodies decry climate changes and the resulting ecological effects, anthropologists’ sociocultural and archeological interpretations are not as well known. Because of the specialized nature of their academic training (including extensive fieldwork, as well as expertise in biology, linguistics, and ethnography) anthropologists are uniquely positioned to interpret from multiple scales and perspectives and bring a new view to the effects that our changing environment have on livelihoods, identities and culture. Many anthropologists also study the asymmetries in global power dynamics and the inequities associated with global climate change policies and responses.

Appointed by former AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, the members of the Task Force include Chair Shirley J. Fiske, Susan A Crate, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisaa Lucero, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Ben S. Orlove, Sarah Strauss and Richard Wilk. Two additional members are likely to be appointed.

The Task Force has outlined an action plan for its activities for the next three years, which includes producing guiding documents to recognize, promote and develop anthropological contributions to global climate change-related issues; promoting engagement of the AAA and anthropologists in general with public policy agendas and the greater public interest, utilizing media and outreach modalities to reach beyond the discipline; supporting anthropologists and anthropology students who are interested and engaged in climate research across all sub-disciplines of anthropology, by promoting public and professional exchange of ideas and networks, providing forums to listen and learn, and producing guidance documents on human dimensions of climate and climate change; and Provide the AAA with proposed actions and recommendations to support and promote anthropological engagement with climate change.

“I am pleased that the AAA has taken this action to get members of our discipline focused on our potential to contribute in a significant way to current policy debates surrounding climate change,” Task Force Chair Shirley Fiske said in a statement released on Monday. “In the face of increasingly widespread and directional environmental shifts linked to this phenomenon, there is no better time for anthropologists to make their voices heard.”


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