Interdisciplinary Conversations on Climate Change Transformations

By Kosi Onyeneho, Nathan Coben, and Natalia Guzman Solano

As PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellows, we have moderated a digital, cross-disciplinary dialogue in response to David Rojas, Gökçe Günel, and Jerome Whitington’s symposium on climate change transformations. After receiving written responses from authors and moderating a digital video conversation about the symposium from scholars outside and inside of anthropology, we found that contributors across disciplines desired to transcend their current disciplinary frameworks when faced with the possibilities posed by climate change transformations. This was particularly apparent in suggestions to analyze the limits of domestic and international law, engage with varying ideological and epistemological perspectives about climate transformations, and encourage anthropologists to explain new social worlds arising due to global climate change.


The legal expert in Gökçe Günel’s (2016) article, “What Is Carbon Dioxide? When Is Carbon Dioxide?,” presents her with the problem of locating “what” and “when” carbon dioxide is in a composite of chemicals, environments, legal frameworks, and social worlds. Like the carbon dioxide lost between pipes and depleted oil reservoirs, markets, and policy papers, climate transformations occur in and generate deeply composite (nature and culture, human and non-human) worlds. Scientists, scholars, activists, and legal professionals are faced with a political decision when they delineate “when” and “what” climate change is. Perhaps it is because of this composite problem, and the apparent epistemological limitations of many efforts, that the authors in the symposium elaborate on the material and ontological dimensions of the problems of climate change.

In contrast, our idea to facilitate a cross-disciplinary conversation about the symposium articles emerged out of an interest in how we know our discipline-specific iterations of “climate change.” What are the different paths we take to talk about climate change? How do we come to know them? We were interested, too, in how the necessary dialogues between disciplines with regards to such a broad, composite problem are fraught with errors and omissions inherent to processes of translation.

Our conversations and responses yielded interesting insights. Scholars both within and outside the discipline indicated the importance of applied forms of anthropology when facing climate change-based social, legal, and ecological transformations. While this dialogue did reveal epistemological differences in how all of us understand carbon and climate change, the surprising consensus with regard to what climate change demands of anthropology arose in multiple ways, such as:

  • analyzing limits of domestic and international law
  • engaging with varying ideological and epistemological perspectives about climate transformations,
  • considering the role anthropologists play in elaborating intelligible social worlds for the public in the midst of climate change, and
  • understanding how different disciplines, including our own, understand the nuances of climate change

Overall, cross-disciplinary perspectives on carbon markets and climate change challenge anthropologists to reconsider our disciplinary constraints with the potential to profoundly impact the field.

The Limits of Legal and Traditional Frameworks – Calls for Direct Action

Tamara Slater’s response posits that changes to legal approaches to climate change may mitigate the sharp inequalities (at least those we can identify) shaped by climate transformations. Those inequalities, like the ones that Marine Franck details in her response, though newly enacted by unprecedented “natural disasters,” largely retrace and magnify pre-existing inequalities shaped by histories of nation-state making, racial ideologies, intense social stratification, and colonial legacies. Echoing Franck’s attention to a genealogy of human rights in relation to the UNHCR’s humanitarian remit, Slater suggests that by recognizing the mid- to long-term duties and obligations of individuals and corporations, and through cross-disciplinary exchanges on the nature of those obligations, legal professionals can potentially tailor the legal tradition to address the urgent ecological, social, and humanitarian disasters wrought by climate change.

Nonetheless, Slater concludes by signaling the limits of a legal framework for understanding how to proceed with, or how to initiate, those necessary interventions. This formulation of law as instrumental for an emerging political will, where law’s relationship to society is reflexive, points to a set of concerns where disciplinary understandings of legal problems, conjured through the languages and genealogies of particular epistemologies, might fall short.

Marine Franck, on the contrary, presents the problem of refugees’ vulnerability to climate transformations through international legal frameworks. Her concerns on climate change emerge out of questions about the welfare and status of displaced persons. Those global challenges faced by displaced persons can be collectively traced to a series of failures by legal and political frameworks, domestic and international. Working within institutions whose remit and authority come by international conventions, and working with people whose status as “displaced” is produced through similar international legal frameworks, an emphasis on law and policy genealogies, past and future makes sense. That emphasis, however, diverges sharply from the attentions to non-human material and ontologies in the symposium articles.

Self-Reflexivity and Climate Change Research

The review by Roberta Laurie constitutes a call for scholars to embrace open-minded communication in the midst of climate change transformations. Such a reminder is particularly notable at a time when open debate is becoming increasingly politicized, including in academic settings (Okeke 2016; Hudson 2016). This poses a nuanced set of questions particularly for anthropologists who embrace cultural relativism, scrutinize the creation and deployment of scientific facts, and as Rojas and Walford (2016) eloquently point out, are well-positioned to articulate emerging worlds without somehow trying to fix them.

To what degree do anthropologists become ideological in the face of current climate predictions, and is it with good reason? For example, studies supported by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that if humans continue emitting carbon into the atmosphere at current levels, the world has approximately five years left before global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees centigrade. They argue this temperature rise foreshadows widespread environmental catastrophe (Pachauri, Mayer, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2015; Carbon Brief 2016). These dire predictions grounded in science seem intended to spur listeners to certain kinds of action. Bringing to mind Laurie’s (2016) argument, how willing have anthropologists, particularly political anthropologists, been to scrutinize the motivations behind these messages and who they benefit in the short term?

For example, the label “climate change denier” seems charged with highly negative connotations in the United States, including in academic settings (Dunlap and McCright 2011; Rennie 2009; Kreutter 2016). Have anthropologists researched this phenomenon adequately enough (Crate 2011: 188), and are we guilty of any ideological entrenchment? Why is there currently resistance to reasoned debate about climate change, and who benefits from this silence? Laurie raises an important point. In order to be intellectually consistent, anthropologists may need to subject climate science to the same degree of self-reflexivity as other manifestations of science.

As the work expressed within this symposium indicates, it is important to problematize carbon and carbon dioxide (Whitington 2016b; Günel 2016). Not all carbon-emissions are human-made. Yet, as Whitingon and Rojas incisively demonstrate, a rapidly growing amount is clearly attributable to some forms of human activity and poses serious concerns for life on earth (Whitington 2016a; Rojas 2016). Apart from carbon emissions, processes such as oil spills, methane leaks, coal runoff, mountain top removal, and mine explosions, among many other human and environmental disasters tied to carbon, also create new worlds that require articulation.

In such cases of environmental catastrophe, do anthropologists immersed in such sites, conversely, need to take ideological stances when presenting them to the public? Is it right to feign objectivity when studying oil company executives who skirt safety regulations? In our research and publications, should we call out coal company lobbyists who serve as our informants? Public and applied fields of anthropology have long debated the merits of such questions. It may be time for anthropology at-large to ask such questions. Because of its potential moral weight, climate change transformations challenge academics, including anthropologists, to embrace a renewed sense of self-reflexivity and reanalyze disciplinary norms.

Taking Risks and Reconfiguring Worlds

During the planning phases for the video segment, we were inspired by Whittington’s assertion that “anthropology has a major role to play in developing careful, sustained public reflection on how an intellectual public might think about the problem of climate change” (Whitington 2016b: 10). Consequently, PoLAR teamed up with David Rojas, one of the Symposium contributors, and Antonia Walford, to discuss anthropology’s role in public conversations about climate change.

We decided to deliver this discussion, organized in a loose interview format, through a digital, audiovisual medium. Our aim was to incorporate an applied perspective to the theoretical discussion provided by the symposium. From the start, our conversation revealed important, albeit challenging, dimensions of engaging in an intra-disciplinary discussion on this topic. It was quickly apparent that the notion of “practice/practicality” required clarification in a conversation involving the articulation between academia and public policy, as the meaning of practical is not presupposed even in a conversation about climate change. In the same vein, though not a topic that was raised in the discussion with Rojas and Walford, the concept of “public” required equal scrutiny.

We chose to focus on the public, in terms of a society’s—or even a global—public sphere, as a way to bring the element of application into our treatment of the geophysical and climatological concerns implicating life on earth. Framing the discussion in this way not only narrowed the meaning of “applied” (largely limiting it to global policy), but also implied that this definition (as well as connected assumptions imbued in the notion of climate change) was refracted through the power hierarchies that anchor the public sphere in western, technocratic traditions. Our discussion thus demonstrated that even such tacit presumptions do not produce a dialogue that is any freer of ambiguity.

Thus, in asking our guests their thoughts on the contributions anthropology could make to public conversations on climate change, taking into consideration practical applications, several valuable insights emerged:

  • First, that anthropology is positioned to make more than a singular contribution.
  • Second, and perhaps more importantly, that the question we might pose ourselves is rather how anthropology can contribute to the reconfiguration of worlds as global climate transformations continue.

Drawing on Jerome Whittington’s (2016b) introduction to the symposium, the challenge that climate transformations entrusts us with is to reformulate our vision of what is happening around us so that we put aside a fixing mentality for one that opens up spaces for the articulation of different worlds and socialities created through the rhythms of climatic change.

Our discussion suggested that if global policy appears to inherently resist these approaches of “slowing down” the quest for finding solutions, as Walford noted in our discussion, then perhaps anthropology’s most significant efforts should aim toward taking risks that allow for the re-creation of time, spaces, and worlds that destabilize dominant discourses on global warming. Finally, as Rojas eloquently stated, from a “slowing down” perspective, “in practice” does not necessarily equate with “practical” in the sense of finding solutions. Perhaps for anthropology, this means, in practice, taking risks that might newly articulate different worlds. In articulating new worlds, we might better collectively pursue alternate viable futures.

The idea of questioning disciplinary traditions in the midst of climate transformations emerged as a strong theme in our cross-disciplinary conversation. This poses certain questions about how far to stray from disciplinary mainstays. For example, as anthropologists seek ways to engage with the public about climate changes, when do climate transformations pose moral questions that, ethically, demand answers?

Wading into such territory seems to move away from historical anthropological preferences towards cultural relativism. In the process of doing so, climate transformations can encourage disciplinary experimentation and growth. This cross-disciplinary dialogue is one such example. The intra-disciplinary video conversation also provides an important window into what such future conversations within disciplines may look like: assessing disciplinary trajectories and experimenting with how scholars can “practically” engage with publics in the face of climate transformations. With so much at stake in relation to current climate transformations, carbon seems set to instigate new spaces of study and practice within academia.


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Crate, Susan A. 2011. “Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (1): 175–94.

Dunlap, Riley E., and Aaron M McCright. 2011. “Organized Climate Change Denial.” The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, edited by John S. Dryzek, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Schlosberg, pp. 144–160. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Franck, Marine, Nathan Thomas Coben, and Kosi Onyeneho. 2016. “Interview with Marine Franck.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online. September 8.

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Günel, Gökçe. 2016. “What Is Carbon Dioxide? When Is Carbon Dioxide?” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 33–45.

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Rojas, David. 2016. “Climate Politics in the Anthropocene and Environmentalism Beyond Nature and Culture in Brazilian Amazonia.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 16–32.

Slater, Tamara L. 2016. “Will We Learn to Govern in the Long Term? PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online. September 8.

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

———. 2016b. “What Does Climate Change Demand of Anthropology?” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 7–15.


kosi-onyeneho-picKosi Onyeneho is a doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her dissertation examines how government infrastructural and institutional decay, caused by skewed government-oil industry relationships, impacts performance of state citizenship in Nigeria. Her research interests include infrastructure, citizenship, oil, and collective memory.

Version 2Nathan Coben is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research examines the socio-legal constitution of a “recovered” property market and economy in Ireland. His dissertation is primarily based in the border counties of Ireland and focuses on how contestations over real estate, revenue, and finance in post-austerity Ireland trace and reshape existing partition-based political formations.

guzman-solano_photoNatalia Guzmán Solano is a doctoral student in Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. She studies issues pertaining to post-liberal politics, social movements, the rule of law, and gendered patterns of political participation in the context of extractivism. Her research focuses on examining the nexus of gendered anti-mining activism and state enactments of legitimate politics in Cajamarca, Peru.


Recommended Citation

Onyeneho, Kosi, Nathan Thomas Coben, Natalia Guzman Solano. Interdisciplinary Conversations on Climate Change Transformations. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 08 September 2016,