Response to Symposium on Climate Transformations

By Lauren Gifford

In response to the symposium on Climate Transformations, I draw on my training as a geographer to explore ideas of carbon as both a signifier of climate change and an element by which all human activities are quantified. As a critical environment/society geographer, I use science and technology studies (STS) and political ecology to identify social and political networks embedded in tools and technologies of environmental governance. My current research looks at global climate change policy, with a focus on carbon markets and the development and inclusion of forest carbon offsets (sometimes identified as REDD+). This line of inquiry has brought me in conversation with many of the same subjects and authors engaged by Whitington, Rojas, and Günel—from Donald MacKenzie and Heather Lovell’s work on carbon commensuration and “making same” multiple forms of carbon, to Lovbrand’s work on the co-production of scientific knowledge and policy. We all offer critical takes on bureaucratic governance structures, the role of expertise, and the messiness of policy production and implementation.

My own work is driven by the following questions: How is a forest carbon offset made? What are the specific social, political, technical, institutional, environmental, scientific and policy-based factors that contribute to the creation of a tradable carbon offset credit? I have conducted field research on multiple forest carbon offset projects, including a voluntary forest carbon project in the Peruvian Amazon, and a compliance offset project in northern Maine. I tie together connections between global policy discourses and the realities of project implementation with additional field research at the United Nations annual climate negotiations. The details of this work continually return to the complexity of carbon accounting—the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon in order to make multiple forms commensurate and tradable on markets. I’ve found a need to open the black box of carbon accounting as processes deemed technical or “outside the domain of politics” are, in fact, deeply political (Gupta et al. 2012; Clarke and Fujimura 2014).

In that vein, all of the pieces in the special issue in some way speak to what Goodman and Boyd (2010) call the “carbon-ification” of all social and political problems, or the notion that the “social life” of carbon is so extensive, and permeates so many aspects of culture, that climate change now dominates nearly all human-environment narratives.

In that vein, Whitington writes that, “Climate change is organized with respect to a single variable, anthropogenic carbon emissions, which can be used as a metric for people’s activities all over the world” (2016:46). Distilling human activities down to their relationship with one element, carbon dioxide, reconfigures how humans interact with environments, and how those actions are valued socially, financially, politically, and beyond. This distillation, to what Whitington calls “carbon as a metric of the human,” is key to understanding how climate change is influencing the social sciences across disciplines, and how scholars will adapt to meet this emerging opportunity.

While anthropologists operate with humans as the object of analysis, and geographers focus on space, discourses around the ways in which carbon is taken on as an object of inquiry in many ways supersedes disciplinary boundaries. In critical social science, broadly, there is a dance around whether carbon might be seen a single variable with an increasingly penetrable influence, or a malleable idea, used intentionally and unintentionally, to shape and define human-environment relationships.

Rojas writes that he studies REDD+ initiatives, “as projects that operate beyond Nature and Culture in the sense that they are carried out by experts who see themselves as inhabiting worlds of ‘suffering’ wherein old environmental orderings collapse” (2016:19). Rojas’ notion of “suffering,” what he contextualizes as “an emerging type of climate politics whose problems are not derived from striving to preserve the world as it is or to improve it as it should be,” helps feed the idea of humans having “differentiated relationships” with carbon. I have found that forest carbon projects often serve as mechanisms to produce “virtuous” commodities, either through the credits themselves or linked environmental certifications, which are gaining in popularity.

Very often, there is an element of virtue bestowed upon project funders and beneficiaries engaged in forest carbon projects. Because of their tie to carbon markets, REDD+ and other forest carbon initiatives enable environmental NGOs and local governments to draw in significantly more funding than straight conservation projects. The carbon offset credits attached to REDD+ projects, both on voluntary and compliance markets, imbue investments with a sense of virtue—a form of corporate “green washing” that both adds value to the credits and inspires funders to invest more. This notion of virtue is especially attractive since many REDD+ projects are tied to voluntary markets that simply sell credits back to the investors in cyclical, bureaucratic schemes that allow investors to tout steps toward carbon neutrality. But in privileging carbon sequestration over other forest uses, forest carbon schemes provide virtue for some, and “suffering” for others.

Günel’s piece serves as an excellent counterpoint, in that she identifies the challenges of refining carbon to a singular metric. She takes on administrative and legal measures toward “linking” multiple forms of carbon. While she pushes back on MacKenzie’s work about commensuration, she touches on some of the very points he made a few years later, with Heather Lovell, concerning the politics of the accounting profession – namely their efforts to incorporate their field as a necessary component of emerging carbon markets. Lovell and Mackenzie (2011) found that members of a European accounting professional association saw their mission in policy-making as two fold: 1) To design methods for accounting for multiple states of carbon, and 2) To carve out a long-term role for the accounting profession within the European Emission Trading System (EU-ETS). This history speaks to questions of how, and by whom, expert knowledge is created. It acknowledges the tensions existing between evolution of scientific knowledge, policy, and implementation.

Gavin Bridge (2010) claims that carbon is unique because it is severely reductive, situating global environmental change in terms of a single variable and translating complex social relations onto a simplistic concern with a molecule.

Yet, despite attempts to technically, administratively and bureaucratically reduce carbon to a single variable in order to manage it, critical social science has shown this task to be impossible. This revelation creates a space of opportunity for anthropologists, geographers and other social sciences to engage in public conversations regarding climate change politics.

Our work shows that attempts to “make same” multiple forms of carbon, an element that has so strongly become a metric of the human, by which past and future actions are judged, is problematic. Such commensuration overlooks or obscures complex social and power relationships, with implications for social justice, humanitarian relationships, sustainability, and even the future of neoliberal environmental management. If carbon continues to go rogue, if it remains unwieldy, or if, as Günel writes, it stays “hard to grasp,” (2016:34) then carbon itself poses a challenge to the integrity of the market-based mechanisms designed to harness it. Ultimately, this means that as social scientists concerned with carbon and climate change, in order to understand carbon’s role in human/environment futures, we must explore multiple ontologies, new realities and evoke, as Whitington writes, “speculative experimentation” (2016:13).


Bridge, Gavin. 2010. “Geographies of Peak Oil: The Other Carbon Problem.” Geoforum 41(4): 523–30.

Clarke, Adele E., and Joan H. Fujimura. 2014. The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth-Century Life Sciences. Princeton University Press.

Gupta, Aarti, Eva Lövbrand, Esther Turnhout, and Marjanneke J. Vijge. 2012. “In Pursuit of Carbon Accountability: The Politics of REDD+ Measuring, Reporting and Verification Systems.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4(6): 726–31.

Lovell, Heather, and Donald MacKenzie. 2011. “Accounting for Carbon: The Role of Accounting Professional Organisations in Governing Climate Change.” Antipode 43 (3): 704–30.



Lauren Gifford is a PhD student in geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is working on a dissertation titled, “See the carbon through the trees: Market-based climate change mitigation, forest carbon offsets, and the power of carbon accounting.” She is an affiliate at the Media, Environment and Climate Change Observatory and the International Collective on Environment, Culture & Politics at CU’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.


Recommended Citation

Gifford, Lauren. Response to Symposium on Climate Transformations. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 08 September 2016,