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. Continue reading


Copenhagan Accord: Significant progress was made–an eye witness report

KIRF Co-Founder Mark Kirwin attended the United Nations sponsored COP15 Climate Change Talks in Copenhagen as well as the runner-up conferences in Bangkok and Barcelona as a volunteer mediator for Mediators Beyond Borders. As a witness to the plenaries in Copenhagen he saw first hand the difficulty of reaching accord with the many different interests, situations and perspectives represented by the international negotiators.

The COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen were not a failure. Quite to the contrary, great strides were made in weaving the diverse cultural and political differences of our world into a cohesive whole to attack climate change. Having personally observed the many contact groups negotiating text in Bangkok, Barcelona and Copenhagen, it became apparent that the negotiators were trying to create a climate change document that would be legally binding while at the same time addressing the concerns of their individual countries and groups of countries.

For instance, addressing adaptation in neighboring nations that are experiencing cross-border desertification as opposed to an island nation that faces rising sea levels and acidification is complex and multifaceted. Choosing a certain text option proposed by one country group, as opposed to another option proposed by another group, could have devastating effect on the economies of the group whose option was not chosen for the final text. Therefore, the contact group chairs worked tirelessly trying to form consensus on bracketed text and agreeable options to the text.

To complicate matters more, there were two separate treaty tracks being negotiated, one under the further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 5), and the other for long term cooperative action under the convention (COP 15). When negotiating text in the contact groups, it was often mentioned that a particular group needed to know the decisions of another group because those decisions would have significant impact on the text that the first group was negotiating. And, due to the need for consensus, before a particular option was chosen or brackets taken off text, the contact groups were constantly seeking information from the other groups negotiating text in order to ensure cohesiveness as the treaty documents developed.

It seemed that the flow of information and the arrival of the ministers from around the world, who became involved in the negotiations, became the biggest challenges during the last few days of the conference in Copenhagen. It was apparent by most that a legally binding treaty would not result from Copenhagen due to the complex differences on key elements of the text that still existed.

However, leaders from 193 countries meet, talked and negotiated in Copenhagen to address the reality of climate change issues. And, an Accord was reached on climate change with a deadline of next year to agree upon the legally binding text and to begin funding for adaptation and setting mitigation targets by major emitters around the world.

Yes, significant progress was made at Copenhagen. And, as a taxi driver told me, “The treaty will have a major impact in our lives so it is better to get it right than rush it.”

COP15 talks in Copenhagen: World Leaders Are Here

KIRF Co-Founder Mark Kirwin is attending the United Nations sponsored COP15 Climate Change Talks in Copenhagen as a volunteer mediator for Mediators Beyond Borders. Here is his update:

A truly tremendous event is unfolding here in Copenhagen. Amid all of the street protests, press summaries, security issues and vast numbers of NGOs (many of which have provided valuable information to the Parties), is a gathering of the leaders of the world. This is an historic gathering of world leaders who are here to address the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change.

As Gordon Brown just said, “It is no use saying we are doing our best, we must do what needs to be done.”

This week I spoke with delegates from around the world at the COP 15 climate change talks in Copenhagen. I spoke about mediation being used as a mechanism to resolve climate change disputes as well as about the interpretation and implementaion of the anticipated treaty. I walked by world leaders trying to reach agreement on climate change policies. Yes, it is difficult and complex, with words and numbers having significant multi-level meanings and impacts to different nations. But the negotiators are working hard. (Mark Kirwin, volunteer mediator for Mediators Beyond Borders, and Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat.)

Let us continue with our hope that a positive outcome will be reached in Copenhagen.

P. Mark Kirwin, Esq.

COP15 Climate Change Talks: COP President Resigns

KIRF Co-Founder Mark Kirwin is attending the United Nations sponsored COP15 Climate Change Talks in Copenhagen as a volunteer mediator for Mediators Beyond Borders. Today he was present at the plenary “Meetings of the Parties” to the Kyoto Protocol organized as the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). Here is his update:

At the high level segment plenary at the COP15 Climate Change Talks in Copenhagen, the chair for the AWG-KP announces no agreement based upon numbers. So, at this stage of the Climate Change Talks there is still a low consensus on the key issues and, thus far, there is no amendment to the Koyoto Protocol. The COP/CMP 5 President is trying to set in motion dialogue with the Party heads of state on the issue. In addition, security is so tight that Party heads of state are having problems getting into the Plenary sessions. Several major groups put forth that the text is not yet in the form to be considered by the high level conference as suggested by the COP chair. They request that the political aspects be considered by the high level, but the technical aspects be sent back to the AWG-KP for further work for a period of one day. Yet there are other major groups that recommend that the political bargaining to take place. Rather that reconvene the AWG-KP, there can be informal discussions on some of the remaining issues.

Today this meeting was suspended because the President of the COP resigned. She has been reassigned by the Foreign Minister as the special representative to conduct informal negotiations between the ministers of the Parties.

COP15 Climate Change Talks, Copenhagen: Two Treaties Now

MBB mediator Mark Kirwin, Esq. at COP15 in Copenhagen

MBB mediator Mark Kirwin, Esq. at COP15 in Copenhagen

We are now halfway through the second week of the COP15, climate change talks in Copenhagen. It appears that there is general acceptance that there will not be one treaty. Instead, the parties are working on two separate tracks, one under Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and the other under Long Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA). As a result, there are discussions of two separate treaties.

As one can well imagine, the negotiations are very tough at this stage. The ministers of the countries are arriving and now working in the negotiations. The negotiators must answer to their countries. And, the world expects results at COP15. There are strenuous objections to certain text to the proposed documents and also concessions so that no particular party is pictured as the one stalling the negotiations. The contact group chairs are working very hard to build the bridges necessary for consensus by the Parties to the text.

As I write, negotiations are underway for the contact group on other issues for the AWG-KP on further commitments for the Annex I Parties. The Parties are discussing greenhouse gases, sectors and source categories; common metrics to calculate the carbon dioxide equivalence of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks; and other methodological issues.

In the earlier session, the Draft decision -/CMP.5 for consideration of information on potential environmental, economic and social consequences, including spillover effects, of tools, policies and measures. This draft decision will now be sent to the Chair of the KP for consideration. This is one area where mediation can be used as a mechanism to resolve conflict under the potential consequences that will arise under the treaty and climate change from the local to international levels.

Promoting Mediation at Climate Change Talks, COP15

Mediator Mark Kirwin, co-founder of KIRF, is helping promote mediation as a resolution mechanism for accord at the UNFCCC Climate Change Talks with Mediators Beyond Borders. As the reality of global warming and it’s increasing impacts on food production, economies, poverty, human health and energy usage is becoming more widely understood, alternative dispute resolution tools such as mediation are important tools for peaceful resolution of climate change issues.

The climate change talks are progressing towards helping countries mitigate global warming and adapt to it’s impacts peacefully. Mark will be attending the upcoming COP15 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Understanding global warming: our atmosphere is like a bathtub about to overflow

Finally, I have found a cogent and easy to understand explanation of the process of global warming. It is in the article “The Carbon Bathtub” in the December 2009 issue of National Geographic. Explaining the issue of global warming in a manner that inspires people to take action has been difficult for environmentalists as well as politicians. Sadly, the most memorable visual about global warming for many is the hungry polar bear swimming fruitlessly for polar ice in the movie an Inconvenient Truth.

To date it has been hard to get more support of global warming mitigation and this may be because the process is hard to understand and seems removed from the average person’s life. According to John Sterman, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, this is because of a cognitive limitation of most humans. Dr. Sterman found out that even his smart MIT graduate students couldn’t get a grasp of how exactly CO2 is building up in the atmosphere using the standard climate change jargon. This was until he explained the process using the metaphor of a bathtub. Like a bathtub with water pouring in from a tap and the drain open, when more water pours in that can drain out, the level of the water rises and will eventually overflow. Dr. Sterman explains that this is similar to how the level of CO2 is rising in our atmosphere. More CO2 is flowing in than can drain out. See a graphic of the bathtub-like process of global warming on the National Geographic web site.

Last year 9.1 metric tons of C02 was released into the atmosphere but only 5 billion metric tons was “drained” by being absorbed by plants, soils and oceans. “At the current emissions rate, CO2 is released into the atmosphere nearly twice as fast as it is removed–so the bathtub will continue to fill,” the National Geographic article stated. The leftover 45% of “un-drained” CO2 that remains in the atmosphere is causing global warming. The excess carbon dioxide absorbs more heat radiation coming from the Earth’s surface and re-radiates it downward, warming up the atmosphere.

Where does most of the human-created CO2 come from? “Four-fifths [of the C02 emissions released by human activity] is from burning fossil fuels. Nearly all the rest is from deforestation and other changes in land use,” according to the National Geographic article.

Even if we stop increasing the amount of C02 emissions there will still be global warming for a while according to climatologist David Archer, author of The Long Thaw. It will take hundreds of years for the planet to absorb the CO2 created by industrialization. In 2008 the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was 385 parts per million (ppm). The pre-industrial level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 271 parts per million. The amount of CO2 hasn’t been this high for “at least 800,000 years, say the oldest air bubbles found in Antarctic ice cores,” the National Geographic article reports. The highest ice core reading of CO2 in the atmosphere was 299 parts per million, dating 333,000 years ago.

To stop the level of CO2 at 450 ppm, still too high according to many scientists, would require the world cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. To do this we will have to make a massive shift in our global carbon-based industrial economy to cleaner sources of energy such as wind, solar, or aquatic energy. This will require a global understanding of the climate change process and a political will to enact expensive changes. The industrial revolution created global warming. There will have to be a sustainable living revolution to un-create it. Hopefully, the Copenhagen COP15 Climate Change Talks will be a productive step forward towards stopping global warming before it’s too late. The consequences of global warming include rising sea levels, more droughts, more flooding, less ice and snow and more extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina that wiped out coastal communities of the entire Gulf Coast in the United States.


Ministry of Climate and Energy of Denmark
2009, “What consequences can we expect, and what can we do?” COP15, retrieved on November 16, 2009, from:

Sterman, John and David Archer
2009 “The Carbon Bathtub,” National Geographic, December 2009, P.26-29.

Sterman, John and David Archer
2009 “The Carbon Bathtub,” National Geographic, retrieved on November 15, 2009, from