Anthropologists’ studies of adaptations by coastal communities to climate change

Sunset over a destroyed Gulfport, MS (2005)

Sunset over a destroyed Gulfport, MS (2005)

The study of how present-day climate change is impacting local cultures in coastal areas is an emerging field in anthropology. I found this surprising when I first began reviewing studies done by anthropologists of climate change impacts on culture in 2011.  What about the Dutch and their seawalls I thought? What about the longer crop growing season in Greenland, the huge increase in insurance premiums to cover wind and flood damage along the increasingly hurricane-prone Gulf Coast, or the impacts of less sea ice on traditional hunting and foraging of the Inuit? The global impacts on local culture (or “glocal” per a certain anthropologist) due the rising sea-level, melting polar ice caps and warming upper latitudes combined with a growing number of climate-related natural disasters didn’t just start a few years ago (Piertese 1995:49). These things have been impacting coastal communities for a long time. Since coastal communities have been adapting to these things for a while now, where are the anthropologists?

When I started my anthropological literature review while in graduate school that year, I found surprisingly few examples of anthropologists studying cultural adaptations to climate change impacts on coastline communities. The coastal communities of Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and the Gulf Coast which have been directly impacted by the rising sea levels and extreme weather events for years have been almost ignored by the anthropological community (at least the ones in the community who publish in English in the main anthropological journals).  The few anthropological studies that I did find were mostly reports on the impact of climatic change on non-industrialized and prehistoric communities by archeologists and environmental anthropologists (Büntgen 2011; Crate 2009; Crate 2011; Fagan 2008; Strauss 2003). It also seems that anthropologists are still less likely to collaborate with other scientists from other fields. Most of the climate change studies that I found were cross-disciplinary projects by scientists working from other perspectives: geography, economics and political science.

The climate change issue has taken on urgent and moral dimensions as climate change-caused extreme weather-related disasters are predicted to rise to 50 percent of all meteorological disasters by 2030 according to the Global Humanitarian Forum 2009 (Mearns 2010: 11). The traditional foci of anthropological research has been of non-Western and  traditional societies who depend on the natural environment to live by hunting, fishing, or farming. These are the communities which are the most vulnerable to climatic changes. The current research on climate change indicates that non-industrial indigenous communities as well as socioeconomically marginalized communities are the most vulnerable to changes in the climate and are affected disproportionately (Mearns 2010:50).

This review of the anthropological literature on present-day climate change adaptations is limited to coastal areas due to my own interest from living in a coastal community. It is also due to my previous fieldwork experience doing disaster relief in coastal Mississippi after the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In this review, coastal areas are defined as less than 100 kilometers from the coast and below 100 meters elevation. Coastal areas are particularly important to human beings. They are where about one fifth of the world’s population live (Buhaug 2010:77).

The more current perspectives of adaptive responses to climate change have gone beyond simplistic notions of environmental determinism versus human agency–or if anthropogenic climate change even exists. They deal with, instead, the complex interactions of social inequality, agency and a changing climate’s impacts on the local ecology.

Most of the recent anthropological studies of the social impacts of climate change involve a social justice perspective that addresses the socioeconomic issues of inequality that prefigure the increased vulnerability of certain coastal communities. The key concept in these is “vulnerability” and it is directly associated with poverty.  “Poverty is the most salient of the conditions that shape climate-related vulnerability,” according to a 2010 report by The World Bank. The World Bank report said that for a “adaptation” policy to be deemed successful for impoverished community, that it should do more than return people to their “normal” deprived state of vulnerability that existed before the climate change impact (Mearns 2010:50). Anthropologist Neil Adger defines  “vulnerability” to climate-related disasters as the “… inability of individuals and social groupings to respond to, in the sense of cope with, recover from or adapt to, any external stress placed on their livelihoods and well-being”. To Adger, a community that is in poverty and vulnerable to climate change is a social justice issue (rather than a technological or environmental one) with a moral dimension (Adger 2000:328).

The political ecology perspective of a few anthropologist describes the adaptations made by marginalized indigenous  non-industrial communities to forage, hunt, fish or farm a means of sustenance from a rapidly changing ecological environment (Henshaw 2009). Again this perspective addresses the adaption issue of these communities as beset by their marginalized status and inability to obtain the resources needed for adaptation as the driving issue of their vulnerability–not the changing climate.

Other perspectives include a global post-modern framework that looks at the climate change issue as dominated by a privileged scientific discourse of Western elites. The scientific discourse discounts local knowledge based on experience and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as inferior and “un-scientific” (Marino 2009:216).

The interpretive theoretical approach is used by several anthropologists to explain the adaptations (or lack of adaptations and feeling of helplessness) of some communities when faced with rising sea levels in the Marshal Islands and elsewhere. I will describe the studies I found which were using these different anthropological approaches below.

Social Justice Perspectives

These researchers see climate-related natural disasters as “unnatural” events that are “products of preexisting social and economic forces within the society” that place the poor in harms way (Zaman 1999:193). These researchers share a historical materialist perspective with Eric Wolf who explained that a socioeconomically marginalized population is the product of a  “totality of processes” based on a synthesis of political, economic, and social “relationships” that go against their interests (Wolf 1982:3). As such, individuals in marginalized groups are made vulnerable by a social system of “relationships and forces that direct their will and their desires” (Wolf 1982:386).

According to Mohammad K. Zaman, it is the historical foundation of social inequality based on competing class/caste interests that makes disasters “unnatural” political problems in the rural lowlands of coastal Bangladesh where if the sea level were to rise one meter, nearly a third of the country would be under water (Zaman 1999:197). Since over 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, their physical vulnerability to climate change is more due to social and economic vulnerabilities resulting from the status quo (Zaman 1999:195).

Political economy, the “analysis of the relations between the political, economic, and social spheres of a society,” influences the social justice perspective in many contemporary studies of cultural adaptations to climate change (Peterson 2009:73). For example, Diane Austin discuses the historical construction of the Hurricane Katrina disaster as produced by economic and political inequality in the Gulf Coast and the hurricane revealed a profoundly unsustainable and un-sound ecological and political system (Austin 2006). In “Global warming as a by-product of the capitalist treadmill of production and consumption – the need for as alternative global system” anthropologist Hans Baer advocates an alternative to the “present global political economy” based on resource-exploitative capitalism and carbon dioxide-emitting fossil-fuel-based energy to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change (Baer 2008).

W. Neil Adger explores the lack of resilience to sea-level rise in marginalized sectors of the coastal population of south Vietnam in “Social Vulnerability to Climate Change and Extremes in Coastal Vietnam” (Adger 2000).  Adger defines “vulnerability” as not only a biophysical risk of injury but also as a social construction that is based on historical “socio-economic and political characteristics, processes” (Adger 2000: 329). Effective mitigations and adaptations to climate change requires the political empowerment of historically marginalized groups (not individuals) so they are less vulnerable to climate change according to Adger (Adger 2005). He sees the rural Vietnamese as “under the constraint of relationships and forces that direct their will and their desires” much as a historical materialist (Wolf 1982:386). Adger demonstrates how the political empowerment of rural farmers in south Vietnam are helping them to adapt to sea-level rise by increasing their resilience through coastal management with social capital in “Social Capital, Collective Action, and Adaptation to Climate Change” (Adger 2003).

Anthony Oliver-Smith, an often-cited anthropologist specializing in cultural responses to natural disaster events, makes the case that social justice issues dealing with human displacement and resettlement will become critical in the near future due to the “increasing intensity and frequency of climate-driven disasters,” such as Hurricane Katrina (Oliver-Smith 2009:119). Oliver-Smith describes how the “conditions of inequality and subordination in the society rather than the accidental geophysical features of a place” that determine vulnerability of certain groups of people and “post-event recovery or reconstruction” in places such as rural Vietnam and as well as the Gulf Coast (Oliver-Smith 2009:121). In the article “Opal Waters, Rising Seas: How Sociocultural Inequality Reduces Resilience to Climate Change Among Indigenous Australians,” by Donna Green, the anthropologist reveals how sociologically and politically marginalized sectors of the population are more vulnerable to losing their ways of life due to “government mismanagement and neglect” and the disregard of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) (Green 2009:219). In “Vulnerability and Place: Flat Land and Uneven Risk in New Orleans” anthropologist Craig Colton describes the correlations between socially marginalized populations and more flood prone topography unduly exposed those with the least economic and political resources to suffering flood damage from Hurrican Katrina (Colten 2006).

Political Ecology Perspectives

Political ecology is focused on how the relationships between humans and the natural environment are “mediated by wealth and power” (Peterson 2009:73).  Cultural ecology aims to show how culture is based on subsistence practices (“production”), technology, and cultural patterns. According to Steward, all three are produced historically to create a distinctive “culture core” (Steward 1959:37-39). The inability of some communities to adapt to climate change impacts seems to be due, in part, to their  “cognitive inflexibility” based on adaptations to a formerly stable environment that inhibit them from the ability to  “adapt to material changes in their environment” (Rappaport 2000[1969]:241). Another reason for the less resilience of some communities to adapt to climate change impacts than others involve their history as former colonies or resource extractive communities within the global political economy according to Rappaport. He states that the unsustainable exploitation of social and material resources by core-states (rich industrialized countries) of dependent periphery states –former colonial states and/or hinterland communities– “both generate troubles and impede the capacities of social systems to respond adaptively to them” (Rappaport 1993:300).

Climate change-caused loss of sea ice is jeopardizing the traditional life ways of Inuit and other Arctic peoples according to Anne Henshaw in “Sea Ice: The Sociocultural Dimensions of a Melting Environment in the Artic” (Henshaw 2009: 153).  She uses a cultural ecology perspective to show how the traditional toponyms used by native arctic groups are based on their adaptations to their environment and are being used by climate scientists to piece together the historical climate in the Artic.

Anthropologist Finan discuses local Bengladeshi traditional cultural adaptations to recurrent flooding in the delta and uses the political ecology lens to describe recent culture change through subsistence change as flooding is becoming more severe due to anthropogenic climate change (Finan 2009). Christopher Dyer and James Goodwin looks at how climate change-related severe hurricane disasters devastated the economy and social coherence of a Gulf Coast communities that rely on fishing–a ecological subsistence economy–from a political ecological perspective (Dyer 1999:215).

Post-modern Perspectives

Scientific discourse is privileged over other discourses in Western society. Science is associated with the West and powerful elites by many. Unsurprisingly it is resisted by those who identify themselves as not Western and not elite  according to several anthropologists studying climate change in indigenous coastal communities. In Alaska, Elizabeth Marino and Perter Schweitzer document the resistance by local people to the term “climate change” being used to describe climate change impacts on the artic such as the recent and historic permafrost melts and sea-level rise (Marino 1999:209). This resistance is produced by the local perception of the lack of respect by the scientific community for their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and locally produced knowledge of climate impacts based on experience. The authors claim that the  “global discourse on climate change is bounded and limited, with a predetermined field of knowledge, agents of knowledge, norms of discourse, and acceptable concepts and theories” (Marino 1999:216). Michel Foucault situated the production of scientific knowledge historically, culturally and politically on socially conservative bourgeois Western culture (Rabinow 1984: 27). Nigel Clark explores the issues of climate change vulnerability from a post-modern dialectical perspective citing Derrida as he warns that to “depoliticize” the climate change issue would risk “in-justice and irresponsibility” to the world’s most vulnerable populations–especially if an abrupt climate change event such the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet with rapid sea-level rise occurs (Clark 2010:34).

Climate change as a post-modern dialectical issue is emphasized by anthropologist Nancy Lindisfarne when she criticizes the Copenhagen Accord of the United National Framework on Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) at COP15 in December 2010 an example of the “dialectics of inequality” (Lindisfarne 2011:2). Lindisfarne calls the agreement “illegitimate” because it is based on what she calls the “destructive politics of colonialism and imperialism” that promote that climate change as an inevitable force created by the industrialized West (Lindisfarne 2011:2). She calls this discourse “carbon spin” and urges anthropologists to advocate for salvaging endangered indigenous communities through “collaborative, community-based work” much like Malinowski and Boas years ago (Lindisfarne 2011:3). Lindisfarne’s reflexivity evokes the perspective of “Post-Modern Ethnography” by Stephen Tyler (Tyler 1986:122-140). Tyler calls out the privileging of Western science as a self-appointed “authorial authority” that is based on a hegemonic “ideology of power” that denigrates local indigenous cultures (Tyler 1987:131).

The article “Indigenous Nations’ Responses to Climate Change” by Grossman is a manifesto for indigenous groups located in coastal regions of the Americas and Pacific Islands to declare their independence from hegemonic Western discourses and adaptations to climate change (Grossman 2008).

Interpretive Theoretical Approaches

The interpretive theoretical approach investigates how the meaning of a changing climate galvinizes a community to adapt to it (or not adapt). The interpretive perspective says that the worldview of a community affects their strategies for climate change adaptive action (or inaction). These theoretical approaches investigate how the local beliefs about the current climate change affect the local values and behaviors of people living in coastal communities. Even though coastal environmental changes are significant such as the impact on a coastal community by the rising sea levels with loss of land and ground water salination, the community’s ability to adapt is mediated by less by social inequality or lack of scientific knowledge and more by local beliefs. In “Living in a World of Movement: Human Resilience to Environmental Instability in Greenland,” by Mark Nuttall employs a Geertzian model of ethnography that is focused on “understanding how people know about the world, how they move within it, how they relate to it, how they think and feel about it, and what they say about it” (Nuttall 2009:292-293). Anthropologist Lipsett strives to describe the local indigenous meanings of rising sea-levels among the Murik who live on the coast in Papua New Guinea (Lipsett 2011:2).  He employs both an interpretive and post-modern perspective which views the cultural impacts of climate change impacts as both a result of globalization as  “the consequences of industrial capitalism on processes of various kinds in nature” and the as the result of the integration of both scientific and local notions of the “global risk” that threaten the Murik of their individual agency  (Lipsett 2011:21). Lipsett analyzes their traditional rituals for how they maintain their traditional “human social and psychical structures” from a symbolic Turnesque perspective as well (Turner 2009[1969]:4).

In the book Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island (2009), anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould describes how his Marshall Islands respondents respond to the loss of their territory due to sea-level rise by either “declining to talk about it” or interpreting the receding shorelines as the beginning of the apocalypse–a  catastrophic biblical flood sent to punish Marshall Islanders for their sins (Rudiak-Gould 2009:233; Rudiak-Gould 2010).  As an interpretation of culture, Rudiak-Gould employs Geertzian view of culture as “webs of significance” that the islanders themselves have spun (Geertz 1973:5). Rudiak-Gould describes Marshallese attitudes toward climate change as a contradictory system of binary oppositions, indigenous categories and multi-vocal symbols according to the symbolic theoretical frameworks of Victor Turner where everything “by convention stands for something other than itself” (Turner 2009[1969]:15). The Marshallese cosmology is therefore “not a monolith but a stew of circulating memes, some widespread, others dissident…the locus of this agreement and disagreement, concurrence and contradiction, is not just in the public world of social interaction, but in the private world of individual minds as well” (Rudiak-Gould 2010:101).  The notion of cultural categories of order and disorder by Mary Douglas could apply to the maladaptive reactions of these islanders. Their silence, disbelief or doomsday pessimism could be construed as their rejection of what Douglas calls the “uncomfortable facts which refuse to be fitted in” such as the rising seas (Douglas 2008[1966]:46).

In his 2010 Ph.D. dissertation, The Fallen Palm: Climate Change and Culture Change in the Marshall Islands, Peter Rudiak-Gould describes how sea-level rise is threatening the traditional culture of the Marshall Islands. He employs the concept of Barth’s definition of ethnic identity as being a function of indigenous behaviors and beliefs that differentiate one group from another (Barth 1969:15; Steward 1972:6). Marshallese identity includes “being true to mantin majel” which means living according to “Marshallese custom” or what they call “living a good life” by living by traditional island means of subsistence– a way of life that is free of monetary charge (Rudiak-Gould 2010: 18). Rudiak-Gould believes that it is the Marshelles notion of identity that is the source of their maladaptive reactions of either denial or despair about climate change and their inaction to to it (Rudiak-Gould 2010:85).

Rudiak-Gould advocates for less “observation studies” of how local cultures interpret and respond to climate change events that affect them. Instead he calls for more awareness of the interplay of non-Western identities and a rejection of Western perspectives such as science. He advocates for more “reception studies” of how they respond and interpret the “scientific discourse of global anthropogenic climate change” that is increasingly available to them (Rudiak-Gould 2011).

The few instances of climate change cultural research within industrialized communities that are not socioeconomically marginalized or “vulnerable” that I could find did not have a specific or single locality. However, two recent studies that deal with Western cultural responses to climate change that are worth noting are by anthropologists Jennaway and Wilk (Jenneway 2008; Wilk 2009).

Megan Jennaway disputes the attempts of climate change deniers to discredit scientific climate change discourse by aligning it with marginalized groups such as Christian millenarian groups. She cites the work of Mary Douglas and religious scholars to show anything that doesn’t fit traditional categories or threatens “a way of life” are often made to seem deviant (Jennaway 2008:68). Wilk deals with the anthropology of consumption in “Consuming Ourselves to Death: The Anthropology of Consumer Cultures and Climate Change.” He tries to explain how a cultural shift to a less carbon-based economy will require “pivotal political and historical decisions” for a less consumer-item based economy in order for effective climate change mitigation and adaptation (Wilk 2009:29).


Most anthropological reports on climate change use a qualitative “observation study” research methodology with a political ecological perspective on how climate change is impacting communities with land- and sea-based subsistence economies (Rudiak-Gould 2010). This contrasts with most of the climate change research outside of anthropology which use a multidisciplinary and quantitative approach. The non-anthropology studies also privy the regional or multi-site in scale over a single or local site of study. I think the non-anthropological researchers could learn from the anthropologists as all culture, even when impacted by a global phenomenon,  is local (Appadurai 1990; Friedman 1995; Piertese 1995). They are also more advocacy-driven with a perspective of engaging the local communities and government decision-makers for more effective adaptations to climate change (Crate 2011; Endter-Wada 1998; Puttenney 2009; Shove 2010).

Most of the present-day coastal climate change research analyzes the global climate change adaptation from a single site and as a local native conflict with a global climate change threat that originated in the Western industrial economy. In this view the non-Western, developing or mostly socio-economically marginalized community is portrayed as a vulnerable, helpless and blameless “them” who are victims of the industrialized and unsustainable carbon-emitting bad guy “us” in the West. I found this a bit unsettling in an era of post-colonial discourse in general anthropological theory. These studies also vary from reflexive perspectives (dealing with the privileged status of scientific climate change discourse for example), social justice, political ecology and interpretive research.

As the impacts of climate change become more devastating and more widely felt I expect to see more anthropological perspectives that are not as polarized between the climate change resilient “haves” and vulnerable “have-nots”.  I also hope to see more engaged and action-oriented anthropological research used for applied work in climate change adaptation. Anthropology has a unique and methodologically useful cross-cultural and historical way of analyzing socio-cultural problems that can be tremendously helpful in helping communities become more resilient. The need for local communities in our global economy to switch to more environmentally sustainable and carbon-free energy sources will only increase. As will the need for increased resilience to future “natural” disasters. Every society, in one way or another, will have to engage in some cultural change to successfully adapt to the changing climate in the years ahead.


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