1.5ºC: The Future and Present of Anthropology in an Era of Climate Change

1.5ºC: The Future and Present of Anthropology in an Era of Climate Change

Simulated image of Earth centering on North America, with colorful red, green and blue wavy layers, simulating global humidity in June 1993
Image: Trent Schindler, NASA/Goddard/UMBC (https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/climate-sim-center.html)

Anthro{dendum} welcomes guest blogger Adam Fleischmann

Early Saturday morning, October 6, 2018, push notifications lit up phones across the eastern half of North America just as the rising sun hit the weekend coast. Messages were coming in from a time zone more than half a day away–from Incheon, South Korea. The 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had just come to a close. North American climate civil society organizations—never a cohort accused of respecting normal business hours—were writing home in exhausted celebration. The victory being celebrated? The approval of the IPCC’s Special Report on the impacts of 1.5ºC (or 2.7ºF) of global warming.

They were not celebrating the results of the research, per se. The report outlined new and disturbing revelations for the very future of humankind: if we keep on the current trajectory, we will reach a global temperature increase of 1.5ºC much sooner than anticipated, some time between 2030 and 2052. This 1.5ºC warming, the report warned, is more dangerous than we ever knew. An Earth of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels is an Earth of intensified droughts, wildfires and food shortages, inundated coastlines, increased poverty and a likely loss of 70-90% of tropical coral reefs. At 2ºC, we would very likely lose 99% of coral reefs. The situation is more dire than we ever thought, the report read; we have to get our act together now.

So what was good about this news, worthy of writing home about so early on a Saturday morning? In fact, the victory for civil society groups was their successful effort to meaningfully include a powerful and honest description of the impacts of 1.5ºC in the report (specifically in its Summary for Policymakers). Hard-won was the inclusion of the very real human and non-human suffering, ecosystem devastation and biodiversity loss due by around 2040 if we as a species continue living together as we currently do.

And, importantly, the report laid out the scope of efforts needed in order to halt warming below the 1.5º threshold: nothing short of an overhaul of our economic, social and cultural institutions.

~

What role can anthropologists offer as the world warms toward 1.5º?

Considering the stakes of the transformations it demands, anthropologists have had something to say about anthropogenic climate change for some time. In 2015, anthro{dendum} published (under its previous heading) the 21st issue of its Anthropologies series, the Climate Change Issue. In his introduction, Jeremy Trombley notes how anthropologists have for decades been at “the forefront of studying the ‘human dimensions’ of climate and environmental change,” in all their diverse forms. “Recently,” he continues, “with the release of the AAA [American Anthropological Association] statement on climate change (Fiske et al. 2014), it has become solidified as an important concern” for the entire discipline. As both Trombley and Sean Seary (who provides a review of some representative topics) note, the foremost focus of anthropologists’ work on climate change has been local impacts and adaptations.

Indeed, research in the anthropology of anthropogenic climate change has tended to concentrate its efforts on impacts on threatened communities, their vulnerability and adaptation to, and their resilience in the face of, climate change. Such research has been called “ethnographic climate change response research” (Baer and Singer 2014: 63). Studying the human dimensions of climate change has been instrumental in lifting up the stories of those who have often contributed the least to climate change, but suffer the most from it. This is a trend that will only intensify as we writhe toward 1.5ºC. At the same time this focus has allowed anthropologists to converse in the language of international negotiations and broader environmental change research, all while conducting research predominantly in what have been anthropology’s “traditional” field sites, in indigenous, small rural or otherwise marginal(ized) communities.

For a decade anthropologists have called for heightened focus on climate change and increased involvement in (and research on) natural science climate research (Crate 2008; Jasanoff 2010; Hulme 2011; Fiske 2012; Barnes et al. 2013; Fiske at al. 2014; etc.). Only recently, however, have calls to study the “power brokers” (Lahsen 2008) of climate change—scientists, researchers, journalists, government decision makers and business leaders—taken hold (e.g. Callison 2014; Whitington 2016; Howe and Pandian 2016). These power brokers are “much more important in shaping climate change and associated knowledge and policies than are the marginal populations we are accustomed to studying” (Lahsen 2008:587). Hall and Sanders in their piece for Anthropologies #21 suggest the way forward is “to anthropologise the myriad Euro-American contexts in which climate change knowledge is produced and put to work.”

So what does an anthropology of climate change look like if it moves explicitly outside the important work on impacts, vulnerability, adaptation and resilience? To what part of the massive climate change knowledge-producing apparatus does it look? In fact, anthropologists have turned their gaze to diverse sites. For example, Myanna Lahsen (2002) has looked to Brazilian climate scientists, science administrators and government officials; Candis Callison (2014) has pointed her analysis toward climate change journalists, scientists, denialists, business, religious and indigenous leaders; Jerome Whitington (2016) has considered carbon accounting, markets and trading in Asia, North America, at the UN and with activist groups. My colleague Jonathan Wald has worked with state environmental analysts in Brazil as they strategize and design for unprecedented change.

When it comes to the current state of global environmental change research, “we have developed a fair amount of scientific and technical knowledge on one level,” wrote P.J. Puntenney in 2009. “On another level,” she continued, “we have made real progress in sorting out the application of practical knowledge. It is between these levels, where managerial and scientific knowledge meet…that things are murky” (322). Who inhabits these borderlands? Can anthropology investigate this murky middle space?

This month at anthro{dendum}, I explore these questions and more. I’ll start by looking through the prism of my own research with non-state actors inhabiting the spaces where climate research meets organizing, policy and advocacy work. I examine what can be learned from those working on climate change in the United States in this time of rapid change. I will also ask what these spaces demand of graduate student “first research” and the ethics of “studying up.” The month will wrap up with reflections on the future of anthropological work on climate change. What politics and ethics does climate change demand of the anthropologist and their broader world?

References

Baer, Hans A., and Merrill Singer, eds. 2014 The Anthropology of Climate Change: An Integrated Critical Perspective. 1st ed. Routledge Advances in Climate Change Research. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group/Earthscan from Routledge.

Barnes, Jessica, Michael Dove, Myanna Lahsen, et al. 2013 Contribution of Anthropology to the Study of Climate Change. Nature Climate Change 3(6): 541–544.

Callison, Candis. 2014 How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Experimental Futures. Durham: Duke University Press.

Crate, Susan A. 2008 Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change. Current Anthropology 49(4): 569–595.

Fiske, Shirley J. 2012 Global Climate Change from the Bottom up. In Applying Anthropology in the Global Village. Christina Wasson, Mary Odell Butler, and Jacqueline Copeland-Carlston, eds. Pp. 143–172. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Fiske, S.J., Crate, S.A., Crumley, C.L., Galvin, K., Lazrus, H., Lucero, L. Oliver- Smith, A., Orlove, B., Strauss, S., Wilk, R. 2014 Changing the Atmosphere: Anthropology and Climate Change. Final report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Howe, Cyemene, and Anand Pandian, eds. 2016 “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Website. Cultural Anthropology. Theorizing the Contemporary,. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/788-introduction-lexicon-for-an-anthropocene-yet-unseen, accessed July 17, 2016.

Hulme, Mike. 2011 Meet the Humanities. Nature Climate Change 1(4): 177–179.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010 A New Climate for Society. Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3): 233–253.

Lahsen, Myanna. 2002 Brazilian Climate Epistemers’ Multiple Epistemes: An Exploration of Shared Meaning, Diverse Identities and Geopolitics in Global Change Science. Discussion Paper – 2002-01 presented at the Environment and Natural Resources Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass, January. http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/2792/brazilian_climate_epistemers_multiple_epistemes.html.
2008 Commentary on “Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Glocal Climate Change” by Susan A. Crate. Current Anthropology 49: 587–588.

Puntenney, P.J. 2009 Where Managerial and Scientific Knowledge Meet Sociocultural Systems: Local Realities, Global Responsibilities. In Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions. Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, eds. Pp. 310–325. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Whitington, Jerome. 2016 Carbon as a Metric of the Human. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 46–63.

Adam Fleischmann is a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, located on unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territories. His research looks at the community of non-state climate change actors at the intersection of science, politics and technology.

13 Replies to “1.5ºC: The Future and Present of Anthropology in an Era of Climate Change”

  1. Everywhere we look nowadays we see men with long beards and lunatic eyes holding up signs saying “REPENT – THE END IS NEAR.” They are standing on their soapboxes and preaching, to no one in particular, that our selfish indulgences have brought us to the brink of extinction. After reminding us that “the science” cannot possibly be mistaken and that all “deniers” will be either going to Hell or dispatched there, they inform us that things are already even worse than anyone thought, that “tipping points”of all sorts lie before us like mines in some infernal minefield that could never be crossed.

    But just before each sermon ends — wait for it — they raise a hopeful finger to remind us that “it isn’t too late,” that if we take action NOW to “fight climate change” there is still some hope of saving the planet nonetheless. As should be obvious, short of a worldwide uprising and the establishment of what would amount to a universal totalitarian regime, there is no way the burning of fossil fuels will ever be cut back to the degree demanded by “experts” such as James Hansen and Michael Mann. And, realistically, even if that were possible, based on the findings of these same “experts,” it will already be too late.

    As should be obvious to anyone with the curiosity to look into the history of the “climate change” movement, it has ALWAYS been “too late” to avert the predicted catastrophe. Zealots want us to believe “we” could have done something if action had been taken back in the 80’s when Hansen first sounded the alarm. Yet the same obstacles that exist today existed back then as well. It’s always been “too late” and what is more, anyone with any capacity for critical thinking would have seen the truth of this even back then.

    Which tells ME that the agenda behind the “climate change” movement is not at all what it seems. If there never was any way to “save the planet” then all the efforts over so many years to convince us that “it’s still not too late so long as we take drastic action NOW” represent not merely a flawed argument but an argument in bad faith. Saving the planet could never have been the real agenda. And no, I’m not some nutcase claiming it’s all some sort of communist conspiracy to empower “big government.” My politics is closer to that of Bernie Sanders than anyone else. Nor do I believe that Hansen, Mann et al. have been deliberately deceiving us. The answer is more interesting than that. Perhaps one would need to write a book titled “The Impossible Demand,” in the tradition of Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan, etc., experts all, only not on “climate change” but: self-deception.

    According to climate skeptic Tony Heller, “Every ten years, climate scientists say we have ten years left to save the planet. Sometimes they want to save it from global warming, other times they say they want to save it from global cooling.”

    Here’s his latest take on this issue, in response to the IPCC report cited above:
    https://youtu.be/VPGK6pNO0Qw

    Seems to me, the “experts” have been crying wolf for a LONG time, and this time isn’t likely to be any different.

  2. In the midst of a loud and strident chorus warning of the perils, soon to be irreversible, of climate change, it is refreshing to hear a brilliantly discordant voice – that of Victor Grauer. It is especially refreshing in that Grauer, rather than jumping into the melee of predictions – how many tenths of a degree in how many years, etc. – cites authorities on how meaning (and deception) are produced in society: Kristeva, Derrida, Lacan. Don’t hear much about those folks these days. Anthropologist-devotees of the cult of climate change claim to know the future (down to the tenth of a degree), but in the process embrace a hopelessly dated positivist vision of a world of indisputable, objective fact out of touch with what is actually going on in contemporary scientific discourse. Models of climatic change are far too complicated for the average anthropologist to grasp, leaving them with the out all of us take all of the time (if we were honest with ourselves): mythologize experience, create webs of meaning of sheerest gossamer that are nonetheless believed, and passionately. The truth, sadly frustrating, is that climate change is not subject to predictive models. There are too many variables, known and unknown, that interact in complex, often haphazard ways. We can’t even tell where a hurricane is headed when it is five days out at sea, not with the precision to let us know whether to head for higher ground or wait it out.

    If anthropologists are not much good at prediction, at least we know something of the human past. Here I’d like to propose a predictive fable, based on the modest expertise we do have as a discipline:

    A Paleoanthropological Fable: Predicting Climate Change

    The genus Homo has been around some three million years. Only in the last two or three centuries have we possessed a technological civilization, which some now fear is a grave threat to the planet’s climate. Now suppose, just suppose, that our ancestors had been just a tiny bit more clever in the technological arena. So clever, in fact, that Homo attained its present level of technology 15,000 years or so ago. Not much of a stretch, mere seconds on the paleoanthropological clock. Also suppose that those precocious moderns were as enlightened and concerned about things, particularly the climate, as we are. Their representatives in the media, like those today, would broadcast the warning far and wide from their skyscrapers in Manhattan: the world is warming; we are all but lost! But, oops, that would have been tough to bring off – since what is now the island of Manhattan at the time was buried under several hundred feet of ice, courtesy of the Laurentide glaciation.

    Heretical as it sounds, maybe we should take a breather, thank Gaia for the warm, pleasant Holocene that paved the way for a transition from a life of chasing animals around with pointed sticks and digging roots out of the half-frozen ground to a life of villages and, eventually, skyscrapers with media towers.
    Just a thought, a mythical musing.

  3. Grauer and Drummond have provided us with smart, sharply worded, skeptical responses to those of us who worry about climate change. In a style all-too-typical of anthropological debate that involves quantities, they provide no data; preferring, instead, to dither on with critique based solely on readings of intellectual history. I, too, will provide data – but I know that the data exists, and exists in massively growing quantities. One of our company’s clients is JAMSTEC, the Japan oceanographic and earth sciences agency, which now operates a growing network of data collection buoys in the Pacific and Indian oceans and coordinates its data collection with sister agencies in North America and Europe.

    Grauer is right that climate scientists have been predicting disaster since the 1990s. It is also true that the original forecasts were based on relatively thin and scattered data.

    It is known, for example, that cyclonic storm (hurricane and typhooon) frequencies were severely underestimated prior to the 1950s. Why? Only storms that made landfall in data collecting countries were counted. The advent of tropical storm tracking aircraft resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of storms counted, which now included storms that never made landfall. But not only are climate scientists aware of this methodological problem, they have taken steps to solve it. Adding ocean data collecting buoys to satellites and other sources of data has resulted in a massive increase in available information – “Big Data” indeed — and what Grauer’s argument misses is that the data question do not support the claims of client change skeptics. They consistently support the position of the 97% or so of climate scientists who agree that catastrophic climate change is not longer a decade away. It is already starting.

    Yes, they could still be wrong. But I look at the morning glory blooming on my veranda in November and scattered reports of cherry blossoms and other spring flowers in other parts of Japan. Something is going on. I pray that my grandchildren’s world will not be the one that climate science now predicts. But, truth be told, I am no great believer in the power of prayer. Given a choice between scientists who collected and analyze relevant data and skeptics who rattle on with nothing on offer but “critique,” I know where I’m placing my bet.

  4. Lee Drummond writes: “Anthropologist-devotees of the cult of climate change claim to know the future (down to the tenth of a degree), but in the process embrace a hopelessly dated positivist vision of a world of indisputable, objective fact out of touch with what is actually going on in contemporary scientific discourse.”

    Lee, this isn’t just a matter of models and ‘knowing the future’, but recognizing the changes that we are seeing now. From the Executive Summary of the 2017 climate report:

    “Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe. These trends are expected to continue over climate timescales.”

    Also, check out the film “Chasing Ice” by the photographer James Balog. Might be of interest. Balog started off as a climate skeptic, by the way, but changed his mind. For what you might call certain positivist reasons, I guess. I do think there are some things that cannot be defined out of existence by Derridian deconstructionism, and this includes well documented, long-term changes in glaciers. Have a look:

    https://chasingice.com/team-member/james-balog/

  5. First, there is a vast epistemological continuum between positivism and postmodernism, replete with a variety of approaches to knowing the world. Without delving into that contested space, let’s acknowledge that inquiring into how “facts” are constructed and presented to the public does not make one a raving deconstructionist.
    Second, I freely recognize that the planet’s climate is changing. Isn’t that what climate does? If we lived in a world where it was 75 degrees every day, with an inch or so of rain falling every week, there would be no “climate.” Really, not even “weather,” since that concept is interesting only when it flags changes in the atmosphere and ocean.
    What I find perplexing – though not at all unusual, since this is the kind of thing people do – is how climate change has become an ideological, almost religious rallying cry, one that is quick to make a radical distinction between true believers (represented by right-thinking “climate scientists”) and apostate “climate deniers.” And what greatly disturbs me about that distinction is that the plethora of numbers, the Holy Data McCreery embraces – is bundled into value-loaded committee prose, executive summaries massaged by politicians and bureaucrats with little or no scientific ability. Hence Fleischman’s breathless reporting of the UN’s 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Anderson’s citation of the definitive Executive Summary of the 2017 climate report. The latter reports the following shocking news:

    “Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization.”

    One degree over the past 115 years? Somehow I’m not ready to open my veins in despair.
    It may come as a surprise to some, but I am a strong advocate of science, hence my repeated call for anthropology to be a “science of humanity.” The defining feature of science is that its pursuit is the furthest thing from bureaucrats issuing reports of what is “settled science” certified by 98 percent of “climate scientists.” Science is never “settled”; rather, it is always contested, subject to the sharpest attacks skeptics can muster. To smear those skeptics as “climate deniers” is to subvert science itself.
    Finally, the little paleoanthropological fable I presented earlier seems not to have made its point: what’s so terribly wrong about the planet warming up a bit? The Holocene, which kicked in in earnest 12,000 years or so ago ended the cold, dry Pleistocene with its erratic series of glaciations and issued in warmer climes that promoted humans settling down in agricultural villages. To denounce the continued trend of global warming today seems a kind of ingratitude (to mother Gaia), the sort of thing a spoiled child would do surrounded by the goodies lavished on it.

  6. Why is 1 or 2°C warmer something to worry about? From little changes large effects may grow. Extreme weather events, out of control brush fires as well as massive flooding from bigger, slower, more destructive cyclonic storms, shrinking glacier sources for the major rivers of Asia (water wars within the next decade or two), rising sea levels. The latter is particularly nasty since so much of the planet’s population is now concentrated near sea coasts. In Out of the Mountains, David Kilcullen paints a particularly chilling set of scenarios for what he calls the coming age of urban guerrillas, operating in largely ungovernable coastal cities, which are also key intersections in global trade, communications and finance networks, making them prime targets. The holocene was long and human populations small, and still recorded history is full of migrations leading to wars, the rise and fall of empires. The anthropocene is likely to be short and, with human populations large and access to sophisticated weaponry easy, pretty ugly all around. Me, I’ve had a good run. I worry about the grandkids.

  7. Hi everyone, glad to see that my piece inspired such ebullient responses!

    Reading some of these comments makes me think I could intervene with some resources. Here are some that I hope will be helpful.

    1) This piece seems relevant to current discussion about the significance of 1ºC:
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/09/22/why-even-a-one-degree-change-in-the-earths-average-temperature-is-a-big-deal/

    2) Since the 1970s, anthropologists of science, and, more recently, anthropologists of climate science (which I am not, strictly speaking), have usually been the first demonstrate the contingency rather than ‘objectivity’ of science. ‘Objectivity’ is impossible and anthropologists instead analyze the entire assemblage of technology, machines, processes, calculations, people (their biases, cultures, etc.) that make up the fairly-obviously-not-objective vision of the world that is science. There’s a reason why anthros love to cite Paul Edwards (2010)’s history of climate science!

    For a recent and very lucid recapitulation of this type of work (and how, in its critique and unpacking of all the ‘black boxes’ of science, it has gotten science in trouble), see this month’s NYT Magazine story on Bruno Latour:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/magazine/bruno-latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html

    3) The scientific consensus, such that such a thing can exist, for anthropogenic climate change has now been deemed statistically and figuratively equivalent to the consensus for gravity! Isn’t that wild? What theories, if any, in, say, the paleo-sciences have an equal amount of consensus as gravity? Are they still considered valid until the next best alternative comes along? What about gravity?
    https://cleantechnica.com/2017/06/10/believe-climate-change-way-believe-gravity/

    And that 97% consensus number you keep hearing about? Of the 3% of research papers that don’t agree with the consensus, none of their results are replicable:
    https://qz.com/1069298/the-3-of-scientific-papers-that-deny-climate-change-are-all-flawed/
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/aug/25/heres-what-happens-when-you-try-to-replicate-climate-contrarian-papers
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00704-015-1597-5

    And let’s remember to keep our comments under 500 words in keeping with the Anthrodendum Comments Policy! https://anthrodendum.org/comments-policy/

  8. Lee:

    1) Yes, of course it’s possible to examine the socially constructed nature of ‘facts’ without devolving into a raving deconstructionist.

    2) Yes, the climate changes. There’s no such thing as a stable climate. These changes have shaped human history (eg the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene and all the agricultural fun and human expansion that came with it). The last 7000 years or so have been quite stable. That appears to be changing. The current issue is not so much about change (we’ve seen it before), but about the rate of change, the potential effects, and of course the causes and possible solutions. Change in and of itself isn’t really the issue.

    3) It’s ironic that in your first comment you bring up “Anthropologist-devotees of the cult of climate change,” and in your second you lament the “ideological, almost religious rallying cry” of climate discourse. So far as I can tell, you’re the only one reducing the discussion to these (very) limited dichotomies. Granted, ideologies, beliefs, and positions abound on this issue, and this is where things get interesting for anthropology. Anthropologists (eg Shirley Fisk) are doing some great work on questions of climate change discourse/belief. And there are plenty of scientists who rightly take a hard, critical look at these issues, as they should (this is how science works). At the same time, there are also plenty of folks who are engaging in ‘skepticism’ in less than good faith (eg Fred Singer; see the 2011 book “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway for more). Dissent is all good, but some arguments about this issue are more useful—and accurate—than others. There are in fact many skeptics/denialists who have ulterior motives (see: Exxon Mobile and friends). It’s probably helpful to sort that out a bit instead of aiming for some sort of weird relativism that prioritizes ‘dissent’ at all costs.

    4) You write of reports “massaged by politicians and bureaucrats with little or no scientific ability.” Have you looked at some of the people who have written these reports? Asking for a friend.

    5) You write: “One degree over the past 115 years? Somehow I’m not ready to open my veins in despair.” First, that’s one degree Celsius, which is about two degrees Fahrenheit. It adds up (as John notes). Check Adam’s link too, which is a decent start. Sometimes these seemingly incremental changes turn out to be sort of…problematic. Especially for humans who have gotten comfortable during the last 7-8k years of relative stability. A few degrees can go a long way.
    6) And finally you ask: “what’s so terribly wrong about the planet warming up a bit?” Well, if you’re looking to start a vineyard for warmer weather varietals in Greenland, you may be in luck. But for many others around the world, this warming, especially if it continues, will be a serious problem.

  9. Lee: One degree over the past 115 years? Somehow I’m not ready to open my veins in despair.

    John: Why is 1 or 2°C warmer something to worry about? From little changes large effects may grow.

    Ryan: First, that’s one degree Celsius, which is about two degrees Fahrenheit. It adds up (as John notes) . . . Sometimes these seemingly incremental changes turn out to be sort of . . . problematic.

    I think we’re all right here. Let me explain. John’s observation that “from little changes large effects may grow” nicely sums up a key feature of complexity theory, that butterfly fluttering its wings in China and a subsequent heat wave in the U.S. Midwest thing. That parable issues from complexity theory’s important contribution to modern thought: the concept of self-organized criticality: Any large historically established system is made up of inherently discordant elements always on the point of disrupting other elements. What we call “stability” is thus a perpetual teetering on the edge of chaos. Human societies, the earth’s crust, the stock market, and, yes, weather patterns are such systems. Anything, any seemingly minor event, can induce drastic changes in them. So I must agree with John and Ryan: that one degree change may be enough to throw the existing climate into a tailspin. But here’s the rub. Climate, as I suggest in an AD submission of yesterday, Nov 8 which somehow FAILED TO POST, is an n-body problem: any number of dynamic elements other than that one-degree change can have equally dramatic results. Which element and when it kicks in are unpredictable. Thus the more complete a climatological model, the greater the chance that one variable will jiggle just a little bit and throw off the whole prediction. On a smaller scale, isn’t this the built-in problem of predicting the landfall of a hurricane a few days out at sea? Make that decades and centuries rather than days and the whole project becomes, well, meaningless.
    Meanwhile, on the level of everyday life we all experience, n-body problems abound. The next time you’re out driving, a drunk’s car can cross the median and game over. Your trip to the movies or dance club may be interrupted by a madman. Your 401k may be gutted by the next market collapse. Any number of other devastating traumas can affect you or your family. Yet somehow you soldier on. If someone brings you the news that the planet’s temperature increased by a degree over the past 115 years, well, that may not rock your world.

  10. Adam, can you give us a more complete citation of work by Shirley Fisk? A quick search isn’t showing me anything relevant. I’m asking for me, not a friend. I’m teaching an Environmental Anthro course in Spring that will focus on rupture and the possibilities of how we can adapt in climate change. I’ve given up on proving climate change, since that would be like proving gravity. It’s been done, don’t need to do it again. Most of my students are Environmental Studies students with little to no social science background, so this is going to be an interesting class …

  11. Oh, skip that last comment, I’d missed your references by skipping down to the comments. What a spaz. I needed a break from grading, not a complete lapse in common sense.

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