Climate Science Needs Anthropology

1978 snowfall in Culloden, West Virginia (where I grew up)

1978 snowfall in Culloden, West Virginia (where I grew up)

Climate Science Needs Anthropology

Below is a paper that I wrote for one of my graduate courses at Marshall University Graduate College. I had the privilege of being invited to attend this seminar with Dr. Susan Crate who is a a Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. An environmental and cognitive anthropologist, she has worked with indigenous communities in Siberia since 1988. 

I did a poll on Instagram and it seemed that a great deal of people would enjoy reading the paper, so here you go, I hope you learn something and enjoy: 

Anthropology, the study of human beings through time, has the means to provide a varied, necessary, and perhaps vital understanding of climate dynamics at the local level. Humans, particularly indigenous humans, are drastically affected by the direct and indirect effects of climate change all over the world. We all share this Earth. All voices, including the politically powerless, need to be heard about climate change and how it is affecting them. Anthropologists have the tools necessary to bridge the gap between science and daily reality for these individuals and for all of us. Conversely, without an interdisciplinary approach, climate scientists, and the public, will not be able to see the larger picture of what is at stake.

Both editions of Susan Crate and Mark Nuttall’s Anthropology and Climate Change help me frame the discussion as to why anthropology is essential to a broader understanding of climate science. In addition by sharing my own climate story, I hope to exemplify how we can enact the tools of anthropology to advocate for our own people. We can only truly understand how our climate is changing when we stop to listen to those being affected firsthand.

Climate change deserves definition, as there are a number of misconceptions. We are all familiar with weather. Weather is what we see changing in the sky, which informs meteorologists as to predictions about what we can expect via our local news station. Weather can be fickle and change from moment to moment and day to day. Climate, however, is the statistical average of weather in an area over a long period of time. There can be the climate of West Virginia, the climate of Appalachia or the climate of the Earth itself. Crate and Nuttall offer this:

We can define climate change as a variation in climatic parameters attributed directly or indirectly to human activities, the growing use of technology, industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, resource depletion, environmental degradation, and consumer lifestyles, all of which is entangled with natural variations in climate. (Crate et al, 16, 2nd ed.)

Anthropology is a fairly broad discipline which focuses on the study of people through time and space. “Anthropology solidly contributes to understanding past and present human adaptive strategies and the effects of climate change, how humans observe and perceive these changes, and how they think about and relate to the weather” (Crate et al, 16, 2nd ed.). Anthropologists consider different aspects to come to a full understanding of the human condition, both past and present. “Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology” (American Anthropology Association).

Climate scientists have traditionally understood climate change as a nature problem. Anthropologists are unique because they see climate change as a human problem. “Anthropologists work on the human rights aspects of climate change; they assess and evaluate the vulnerability and resilience of communities” (Crate et al, 12, 2nd ed.). While both climate scientists and anthropologists conduct important research surrounding the issue of climate change, the two have not always been compatible. Many reasons inform us as to why anthropologists have struggled to be a part of the climate change dialogue. The necessary training and funding are often lacking that enables the two disciplines to work together on research projects. “Fundamentally, anthropologists are methodological individualists. We are not trained in collaborative research, and we are not socialized to work together; instead, we compete for publications, jobs and visibility” (Crate et al, 270, 1st ed.). Anthropologists have since realized, through expanding their awareness of how weather affects populations and culture, the importance of their work in the climate change dialogue. “Anthropologists are engaging research that has a concern with resilience, vulnerability, adaption, mitigations, and displacement. Anthropologists have developed significant work on the politics of climate change, inequality, health, carbon sequestration, and water and energy” (Crate et al, 11, 2nd ed.).

To further exacerbate the difficulties in cross discipline discussions, climate researchers, and natural scientists in general, tend to speak in technical terms. Climate change can be a very scary and overwhelming subject for someone to understand. Not everyone has the education or exposure to climate change information to understand what is happening around them in terms of weather or climate when it is filtered through the vocabulary and vernacular of climate scientists. Anthropology is in a unique position. Increasingly, climate change is being understood as a phenomenon with multiple causes and stressors. Because of this, anthropologists are being asked to collaborate with climate scientists on climate science research and projects to develop “more human-inclusive approaches to understanding change” (Crate et al, 152, 1st ed.).

Anthropology is science of the totality of humans and our existence. The discipline deals with the integration of different aspects of the humanities and human biology. Humans have long used the humanities to understand the world around them. “Contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how an artist's life affected her creative decisions. Reading a book from another region of the world might help you think about the meaning of democracy. Listening to a history course might help you better understand the past, while at the same time offer you a clearer picture of the future.” (Stanford University) Watching a documentary about a mother and daughter documenting how societies are being forced to change their ways of life because of their changing surroundings or a documentary about beautiful photography showcasing the changes in ice over time might help you better understand what climate change is and how it is affecting people around the world. Listening to stories being told from someone in your community about weather from their childhood might help you to make connections to the changes in weather patterns you have noticed in your own life.  

Anthropologists use methods and tools to figure out how local livelihood is affected by any number of factors (Crate et al, 155, 1st ed.). In considering local observations of weather and climate, they gain insight to incorporate into a larger conversation on climate change. If communities are going to truly understand climate change and what it means for them and their families, there has to be “locally relevant information” (Crate et al, 155, 1st ed.) available to them. “Climate change is not something that may happen in the near or far future but it is an immediate, lived reality” (Crate et al, 9, 1st ed.) for a vast number of people. For example, local communities, especially community elders, are able to tell stories of their own experiences with weather and climate. Anthropologists are in a unique position to be able to listen to the communities they work with and also to witness firsthand the changes affecting that group. Anthropologists can use the knowledge and insights they gain from the communities to advocate on their behalf. “Advocacy is key not only in our collaborative relationship with communities but also in representing their best interests in policy and other advocacy contexts” (Crate et al, 148, 1st ed,). Not only can anthropologists affect policy, they can also “link [their] research partners with other communities who have gone through similar experiences” (Crate et al, 148, 1st ed.). In this way, anthropologists are a crucial actor in the understanding of climate dynamics in our increasingly globalized world.

One example of how anthropologists have petitioned for the human rights issues affected by climate change is seen in the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). The ICC was founded in 1977 in order to bring together and strengthen the voice of the Inuit people. The past chair of the Council spoke about climate change as a human rights issue (Crate et al, 15, 1st ed.). Prior to speaking out about how climate change is a human rights issue, the ICC used their meetings to talk mostly about science and policy. As we can see, anthropologists provide crucial information in absentia of voices who are not typically heard. This means they are in a unique position to bridge the gap between the general public and climate scientists.

What can anthropologists bring to the table that has not already been served? In an article “Storying Climate Change” Dr. Susie Crate discusses how local testimony can evoke our deep connection to our neighbor, more so than any amount of scientific fact. “People are more moved by stories about those who are directly affected.” Anthropology and ethnography allow us to use time tested tools to carve out the stories of those affected by climate change. “It turns out that no matter where people live, they are moved by stories that resonate with their sense of place and mode of being on the planet.” We can see this firsthand in the documentary “The Anthropologist” featuring Dr. Susie Crate and her daughter, Katie. As the story unfolds, it forces introspection as to how we are dealing with climate change in our own personal lives. There are many takeaways from the documentary: why climate science needs anthropology, the importance of participant observation in the areas that are being most affected by climate change, and an undercurrent that we should not and cannot force others to change; we can only change our own thoughts, habits and actions and hope that it inspires others to do the same.

Jökulsárlón is a magnificent glacial lagoon in South-Iceland right by ring-road 1.

Jökulsárlón is a magnificent glacial lagoon in South-Iceland right by ring-road 1.

Serendipitously, I found myself traveling to Iceland for vacation in the midst of my climate science research. The scenic country of Iceland is known for its waterfalls, views of the Northern Lights and their black sand beaches. While in Iceland I visited Vatnajökull National Park which houses the largest and most voluminous glacier in the country. I was moved by the size and beauty of the glaciers. I was even more struck by the rapidity in which they seemed to be breaking off and floating into the lagoon. I recalled what I had been reading in Anthropology and Climate Change; many anthropologists are conducting fieldwork in areas that have glaciers and are working alongside glaciologists and climate scientists alike.

The range is extreme, depending on the initial size, location, and orientation of the glacier in question. What will happen if these glaciers disappear? In Leukerbad, local people have varying opinion, from ‘Nothing at all,’ to ‘We will have to leave the valley where our families settled over five hundred years ago.’ Within a couple of generations (by 2050), this community will have to make difficult decisions about water resource distribution and energy supplies that may have implications extending well beyond the reaches of their narrow valley. (Crate et al, 169, 1st ed.)

I wondered if this will be the same reality for Iceland and realized that it already is. The Earth is undergoing rapid changes and the best visual representation of that is in our ice. 

I recently watched a climate science documentary titled “Chasing Ice” (found on Netflix) which is following National Geographic photographer, James Balog, and his team as they photograph and document the changing in glaciers around the globe. “Powerful symbols of unspoiled, unconquered nature, glaciers attract tourists and mountaineers from different parts of the world. At the same time, they are emblematic of cultural identities.” (Crate et al, 92, 1st ed.) Iceland and many other countries as well, have a sense of fierce attachment to their mountains and glaciers. These images are displayed as symbols of their economy and of their culture. “Chasing Ice” opened my eyes further to the important role that the humanities can play in bringing awareness and understanding to climate change. James Balog’s photographs are beautiful and world-renowned. When you compare a photo of the glacier in 2005 with a photo in the exact same spot a few years later it is impossible not to notice the differences. James, like Dr. Crate, is not trying to force anyone to believe in climate change. James and Dr. Crate are presenting the realities and stories of human beings and how they are presently dealing with changes in their landscape.

Through this research I myself keep finding, time and again, that our sense of home and purpose are intrinsically bound together and woven throughout everything that we, as humans, do. When we hear a story about someone from “home” who has been adversely affected by climate change, we are much more likely to listen and to take action. In 2016, West Virginia experienced a catastrophic flooding event. The National Weather Service called in a ‘one in a thousand year event’. If you read the national news on the event, you will not find much in the way of local interviews and instead you will be reading bits from politicians, meteorologists or even climate scientists. Rarely, however, are you able to find the stories being told by elders and locals on just how rare this extreme rainfall and flooding was for southern West Virginia. Autumn Hopkins, an Elkins native, shares her story through the Huffington Post:

My name is Autumn Hopkins; many of you know me just as Aum.  My family and I are from Elkview, West Virginia, for many generations back. You may [have] never heard of Elkview until recently when you saw it on the news. I am the crazy . . . animal lady in Elkview, or people know me from yoga class, or Itty Bitty Kitty Committee, or roller derby, or church, or as Fred’s wife, or Sarah’s mom. I have many titles but now I have one I never wanted: homeless flood victim . . . I lay my head down at night in a bed that doesn’t belong to me, and when the panic attacks stop, I wake the next morning to find the nightmare is real and we start again.

With such stories of individuals affected by extreme weather events, an audience may react with empathy. Understanding another human’s plight in such cases, awareness is better raised about how weather is changing and not returning to more familiar expectations. By using anthropology as a platform to tell our stories, we find a sense of purpose and connection to one another and perhaps listeners can then be motivated to increase their awareness and education, which may lead to action.

Autumn lives in West Virginia, as I do, and West Virginia is part of the larger region of Appalachia. This region is a case in point regarding populations deeply affected by climate change but has had little in the way of voice on the subject. As a youth in West Virginia, I always felt we were up against the rest of the world: I felt that we were looked down upon, made fun of and that we were taken advantage of. Appalachia has long been misrepresented by the media as a degenerate region and these media portrayals have inflamed negative stereotypes of West Virginians. Part of this is due to our terrain, which is mountainous, and lends itself to isolation in some aspects, and therefore, typically voices not heard. The dehumanizing rhetoric has, in part, allowed for the exploitation of our people and our vast natural resources. Take, for example, surface coal mining otherwise known as mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is the process of clearing, blasting and digging away the top of a mountain in order to excavate coal. “If coal mining continues at its current pace, the authors predict the next 12 to 20 years will see Southern Appalachian forests switch from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source — meaning the area will emit more carbon than it takes in” (Foley, Appalachian Voices)

As I read through Anthropology and Climate Change, it struck me how this same sense of feeling inferior can be intrinsically tied into the impacts I now feel on the weather and our climate here in Appalachia. “On a temporal scale, the effects of climate change are the indirect costs of imperialism and colonization . . . These are the same peoples whose territories have long been a dumping ground for uranium, industrial societies’ trash heaps, and transboundary pollutants. Climate change is environmental colonialism at its fullest development” (Crate et al, 11, 1st ed.). Constantly surrounded by chemical-drenched and polluted air, having little choice but to drink contaminated water as well as permanently altering the state of the land to extract natural resources, we have now truly begun to see how the actions of others have impacted our livelihoods and quality of life here in West Virginia. Our region’s cultural identity has been closely tied to the coal industry. This is a deeply personal example of why we, West Virginians, need anthropologists to help us understand climate science and advocate on our behalf.

Despite the obvious collaboration that should be forged between anthropologists and climate scientists, doubt remains. Some may be hesitant or wary about anthropologists and their role in climate science. My grandparents would have been leery because “real scientists” were the only ones that were trusted. However, I also know that they loved to tell stories and speak about their past. Thankfully, the tide is changing, literally and figuratively, and climate scientists seem to be encouraging more and more experts to the table. I imagine that both of my grandparents would have been more than happy to be a part of Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the area. PAR is a research approach that seeks to emphasize community participation and local knowledge and skills on a given topic. “The understanding that reality is socially-constructed and viewed in different ways by different actors in a system points to the need for external researchers to be engaged in processes of joint learning with those directly affected by climate change” (German et al, 10). In Anthropology and Climate Change Button and Peterson talk about the importance of community members coming together to tell their stories in order to create a “shared memory bank” (Crate et al, 33, 1st ed.). Members of the community could come together to tell their own oral histories and understandings of culture and climate.

I believe West Virginians are quite a resilient people, but could certainly benefit from a strengthening and preserving of cultural knowledge especially regarding extreme weather. I conducted a handful of interviews with lifelong West Virginian natives, careful not to use the term “climate change” and instead focused on changes in local weather patterns and local environment. “In general, when asked about ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, consultants gave summaries about what they had heard from a scientist . . . or media outlets” (Crate et al, 212, 1st ed.). I spoke with a Saint Albans, West Virginia native, Mindy Ilar, who elicited a powerful narrative about the importance of memory, local knowledge and the climate:

I remember playing in the snow when I was a kid. It felt like it was for like a month that we stayed home to play. There were six of us . . . siblings, I mean. It was fantastic, all that snow. We made igloos and tunnels and they stayed intact for days. I can remember having enough snow that we could go sledding up at an old school on the hill and there were lots of us kids that went to play. There was just always plenty of snow in the winter. In ‘85 or ‘86, we had a snow storm that generated enough [snow] that we were able to go sledding. We went at night and there was a group of us, the snow was wet and packed down so it made for great sledding.

Through this narrative we can see how a collaborative effort between anthropologists in the field and natural scientists is ideal. Anthropologists compile local stories and knowledge and look for patterns such as abundant snow in winters past and compare that with real time weather and climate data. Communities are then able to see these climate changes and how they can enact positive change in their own neighborhoods if they realize that conditions require action.

For 26 years, the West Virginia valleys have been my home. My parents cultivated a deep appreciation of the outdoors in me. Living in West Virginia, I think it’s easy to take the outdoors for granted because nature is so vast and so abundant where we live, but my parents made sure I knew how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful place. I spent countless hours in my grandparent’s garden growing up, plucking cherry tomatoes from the vine and blackberries from the bush and being scolded to stop eating them all. Summers were dedicated to family camping trips, hiking, and enjoying the outdoors. We experienced all four seasons in West Virginia so distinct that you didn’t even need a calendar to label the month. I was never a fan of winter, because I always preferred a hot summer day to a blistery, cold winter day. Yet, I remember playing in blizzards as a child and having white Christmases. As I have gotten older, I have noticed a distinct difference in our weather here in West Virginia. It gets warm enough in the spring to feel like a summer day, and additionally the summers have gotten warmer and warmer as the years pass by. And despite my dislike of winter, I found myself wondering how many more winters we would have snowfall at all.

An interesting juxtaposition is present in West Virginia. Residents always seemed to have a deep bond with the land. Lakes, rivers and streams are worshiped for teeming with life and the mountains stand as a symbol both politically and poetically. However, I remember the smell of dirty air with a faint but constant smell of some kind of chemical from a nearby plant and the way that the Kanawha River ran yellow and stained your light-colored clothes. I remember watching entire mountaintops being blown away and never replaced, wondering where the wildlife would have to run to. My grandmother was the more religious member of the family and I recall her understanding of "climate change" to be tied into religion. There was one specific interaction when I was a young girl, probably seven or eight years old, and we must have been talking about the weather. We were both in the kitchen, facing toward the window and my grandmother was telling me that it was getting harder and harder to distinguish between the seasons. She told me that in the book of Revelations it states that when the end is near you will no longer be able to tell one season from the next.

I grew up in an environmentally-conscious family, even if they wouldn’t label themselves as such. When I was little, my grandparents scolded me for leaving refrigerator doors open or leaving the water running or the lights remaining on. I guess you could say that many of our family traditions were built around sustainable practices. I helped my grandfather take the waste out to the compost to use in the garden. My grandparents always recycled and reused. My grandmother saved every paperclip and rubber band to use again in the future. My grandfather always asked for paper bags rather than plastic. I was too young to ask if it was directly because of their concern for the environment or if it was more because they lived through the Great Depression and knew that it was wasteful to throw things away. Regardless, they planted a deep appreciation in me for doing my part in reducing, reusing and recycling.

When my friends hear about climate change on television or read about it on Facebook, most of them know that climate change is happening and they don’t try to negate the fact of it.  Yet, I also think they feel unaffected in their personal lives. Maybe they are just nonplussed about the changes taking shape across our Earth. They roll their eyes in a playful manner and chuckle to themselves when I refuse a straw in a restaurant for my drink and instead opt for the reusable glass straw that I keep tucked away inside my bag. They brace themselves when I start explaining the effects of animal agriculture on the warming of the planet and the detriment the waste has on our ocean systems. They pretend to listen as I rattle on about glacier retreat in Iceland. My former work colleagues, however, feel that climate change is a political issue. It seems they are mostly blinded by the politics and refuse to unpack the science. They are hesitant to believe what they read because there are so many political opinions dressed as facts; it can be hard to wade through false and true information.

Friends, family and coworkers alike are also enmeshed in the coal culture that we were raised in here in West Virginia, and it can be hard to trust your own logic and knowledge to go against decades of tradition. It is touted that coal is the savior of West Virginia; the propaganda is far-reaching and dates back for years. We are not raised to understand sustainability today. If we are taught to understand sustainability, it is sparingly at best. You rarely hear stories here in West Virginia of the environmental or human impacts that coal power plants have and continue to have. This mindset can be a tough one to shake.

As time has gone on, however, it has become harder and harder to disregard the natural phenomena taking place right here in our own backyards. Winter snow has become elusive and white Christmases seem to be long gone. Uncharacteristic rainfall has led to unprecedented flooding that has devastated the lives and well-being of many West Virginians. Record temperatures are met and exceeded and cannot be ignored.  Most months would be difficult to label by the weather patterns alone, as the temperature and weather patterns are too unpredictable. The Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century but most of the warming has occurred in just the past 35 years. The warmest year on record is 2016; eight of the twelve months were the warmest on record for those respective months according to NASA. The well-being of one ecosystem is linked to the stability of dozens of others, making it an indicator of the chain reaction that can occur.

My experiences in nature as a youth pushed me to be more involved in its sustainability in my adult life; I have taken time to educate myself on the climate and various ways that I can make a change. Because of the deep appreciation for the environment that my family instilled in me, I carry my grandfather’s legacy by taking action.  I went vegan almost two years ago for the sake of animals, but I quickly learned how animal agriculture affects the planet.  I have decided to travel back to Iceland this winter to explore the glaciers firsthand. “While a great deal has been written on glacier retreat, very little empirical research has been conducted on human responses to its varied impacts.” (Crate et al, 92, 1st ed.). I hope to gain further insight from locals and guides that have witnessed firsthand the changes in their surroundings. This is how I make meaningful connections between my life and the changing climate around me. Using anthropological tools, we can encourage more individuals to speak up and tell their own stories. Anthropologists are trained to be able to notice patterns in these stories which, in turn, will add to the credibility of climate science.

There are obstacles to overcome, political and also cultural, but I have no doubt that through education and the continuing collaboration between climate change scientists and anthropologists/ethnologists we will be able to have a healthy planet for future generations. I know that my actions, along with the actions of others, can lead to a chain of smarter and more informed decision-making and innovation. Here in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, storytelling and oral traditions are a cultural characteristic endemic to our culture. Story is a part of being human and has survived all technological advances. Whether orally or electronically, we should be encouraging storytelling about our weather and its changes to help citizens see in a non-threatening way how crucial understanding climate change and taking appropriate action can be.

All in all, climate science would be incomplete without anthropology. Anthropologists conduct in-depth and long term research and community engagement that are necessary to understanding local communities and their connection to the environment. Anthropology allows local observations and knowledge to be brought into the conversation on what is happening to the globe on a smaller scale. Without the connections being made between normal, everyday citizens of the world and the effects of climate change, no real progress will be made. The statistics are out there: the Earth is warming at an alarming rate, ice is melting, sea levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming the norm. I am not arguing that these statistics pushed out by climate scientists are not vital and highly valuable but these statistics become useless unless citizens receiving the information place value on them. The consequences of leaving anthropologists and their work out of the climate conversation are lethal. Anthropologists are in a unique position to use the tools of their trade to advocate for indigenous people and the larger cultures at risk of climate effects, including story climate change on a local level, contribute to a broader global understanding of climate change and are able to see the human aspect of the climate problem.


Work Cited

American Anthropological Association. “What is Anthropology?” American Anthropological Association,

Beasley, Jerry. “Weather Patterns and Changes.” 10 Sept. 2017.

Crate, Susan Alexandra, and Mark Nuttall. Anthropology and climate change: from encounters to actions. Left Coast Press, 2009.

Crate, Susan Alexandra., and Mark Nuttall. Anthropology and climate change: from actions to transformations. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

Foley, Melanie. “A Clearcut Connection Between Mountaintop Removal and Climate Change.” Appalachian Voices, 20 Feb. 2013,

German, Laura. The Application of Participatory Action Research to Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. International Development Research Centre, 2012,

Hopkins, Autumn D. F. “The Flood.” The Huffington Post, The Huffington Post, 30 June 2016,

Ilar, Mindy. “Weather Patterns and Changes.” 12 Sept. 2017.

Vickers, Kim. “Weather Changes.” 11 Oct. 2017.

“What is climate change?” BBC News, BBC, 4 Oct. 2017,