Musings from the murky middle ground of climate science and action

Musings from the murky middle ground of climate science and action

Bird's eye vie of a mountainous glacier, white on deep brown, fingers of glacial lakes a light aquamarine
Image: NASA (,_Bhutan.jpg)

“There are many reasons why people in our field work remotely,” one data analytics coordinator tells me. We are talking on the phone one afternoon, me from the far East Coast, him from the flat Midwest, having met each other at the Global Climate Action Summit on the West Coast. He continues. For one, it’s more sustainable. Plus it’s 2018, he says, we have the technology, so why not? This allows them to draw from a diverse and well qualified pool of staff and collaborators from all over the globe. Climate change is a global issue. He mentions the practical reason that you need people on the ground in and from local communities to understand the socio-political, economic and environmental issues related to his organization’s work on climate. Sure, he finishes, the staff get together twice a year, and they appreciate this face-to-face time, but they really value cutting down on travel. They are a climate change communication and mitigation organization, after all. I nod periodically. Remembering he can’t see me, I grunt or “hmm” at the appropriate times, thoughts racing at these mundane revelations.

Is this what fieldwork in the “murky middle” between political practice and scientific or technical knowledge looks like? I ended my first post this month with a series of questions about how an anthropology of climate change manifests when it explores other venues than the impacts of climate change. In this post I go deeper. What does anthropological research look like not among climate scientists or international policy negotiators, but, rather, with conveners of states and regional governments interested in working on climate change? Or the technicians who provided the data analytics and interactive computer tools for decision support among high-level leaders and middle schoolers alike? Or even the experts that provide the scientifically accurate and public-appropriate messaging for the latest viral piece of climate journalism?

Here, I introduce the shape that this field, and therefore this kind of fieldwork, between climate science and action can take. I also consider where this work takes place and how this milieu forces a change in the shape of research—or at least the shape it has taken during my own ongoing PhD research. This is also an attempt to open up a space for conversations in upcoming posts about the politics and affect (or emotions) of graduate student fieldwork, before leading to ethnographic anecdotes and reflections on the future.

Returning to the opening phone call, at the time I remember thinking that what my interlocutor was saying made perfect sense to me. It was completely reasonable, and perfectly quotidian. But the normality of it was surprising, and a bit disappointing. I became aware that I was hoping for more. I was holding out for a grand organizational philosophy or a complex strategic insight for why he and his colleagues, like so many others in this space, work remotely. Writing down his response in my notebook, I come to this realization. The mundane logic of telecommuting has largely structured my work and emotional life for the last year.

This is because my interlocutor’s organization, a non-governmental organization working on non-national climate action, is not unique in this regard. The murky middle ground of climate change work is made up of a diverse community of actors and techniques. Some are conveners, bringing together sub-national or national and international stakeholders from different states, in the face-to-face venues governments prefer. They often work closely with others who are policy coordinators and analysts, making sure climate policies add up and are consistent with scientific understandings. Others do data analytics or are technology developers, providing the tools and analysis to move knowledge and practice between what are deemed scientific and political realms. Yet others are science communicators, playing the role of translator for the public and leaders.

While most of these actors come from the non-profit world, academics are strewn throughout, collaborating and complementing existing work. Most people play multiple roles and the different types of climate actors often co-exist within the same organization. Yet most of the organizations I’ve followed so far are made up of people spread out across North America.1

They are staffed, if sometimes only partly, by telecommuters, who work remotely together—over conference calls and email. They periodically meet in person. Often these reunions occur at the diplomatic and organizing summits that are the culmination of months of work: this year’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco; the Climate Group’s Climate Week New York City; the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)’s meetings of scientists, or; the yearly COP (Conference of Parties) meetings of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). This is the case at a 10-person U.S. non-profit modeling and communications think tank, as it is at the Canadian branch, consisting of 4 full time staff, of a large international non-profit network, and even some large, international climate NGOs. The exceptions are either the biggest international environmental NGOs or those that have small offices staffed by just a handful, often shared with other environmental or climate groups. A different interlocutor tells me that, in his organization, “the operations/logistics person and the domestic policy person stay home, but the rest of the staff move around a lot because this is what the work demands.”

Anthropologists attempt to let the shape of what they study dictate the shape of their research. In academic speak, this means that we allow our objects of study and their manifestations to provincialize us, as Povinelli (2016) has recently put it. In other words, how we do fieldwork should follow after what we work on. In my case, the structure and logic of how my chosen object of research organizes itself out in the world has inevitably and necessarily changed the shape and methods of my doctoral fieldwork.

I realized early on that if much, but not all, of the work of the organizations working to bridge the gaps between climate change science and climate politics is realized remotely, my fieldwork would have to be follow suit. This has meant conducting interviews and casual conversations over the phone and video chat; sitting in and participating in conference calls and webinars; engaging in fleeting in- person meetings over coffee and between presentations; and travelling to conference and summits, the culmination of months of my field collaborators’ work. Currently in the murky middle of my research on the murky middle, the shape of this research is bound to continue to transform.

Before we dive into the ethnographic detail of a case study later this month, in the next post I explore how “murky” plays out as an affect for this type of fieldworking itself. I muse over the complicated nature–and the potential limits—of conducting first (doctoral) fieldwork like this; I reflect on power, positionality and the ethics of “studying up.”


Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016 Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke Univ Pr.

  1.  Note that, although anthropogenic climate change is a global issue, I’ve focused my PhD research on actors working mainly from North America. This was a strategic and methodological choice. 

2 Replies to “Musings from the murky middle ground of climate science and action”

    1. Hi Andrew, I was there for a moment but unfortunately had to run to meet someone. Met Julie Raymond at her post presentation, too. Let’s link up, interested in what you’re doing!

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