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.