Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Knowing the atmosphere: exploring conceptual and practical dimensions of weather and climate knowledge for environmental decision-making
Location British Museum - Studio
Date and Start Time 28 May, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Emma Garnett (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) email
  • Sophie Haines (University of Oxford) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Steve Rayner

Short Abstract

The panel uses anthropological approaches to address perceptions, measurements and understandings of atmospheric conditions (climate, weather and change) and their social and cultural entanglements with decision-making about environmental governance, resource management and human lives.

Long Abstract

Changes in atmospheric conditions on a range of timescales bear implications for environmental decision-making: from real-time fluctuations through days, seasons and decades, to the effects of such changes on human health and environmental resources. The panel will explore conceptual and practical interactions of climate variability, weather and change, and address the consequences for governance in fields including (but not limited to) natural resource use, environmental/public health, and disaster management.

The panel invites papers that address perceptions, measurements and understandings of atmospheric changes and their effects on humans and social groups. These may be located at different levels of governance; shared through common sensitivities and circumstances (e.g. gender, age, poverty, environment, sector, cultural practices); and developed in relation to particular technologies and scientific practices (e.g climate modelling, weather forecasting, environmental epidemiology). Questions we would like to probe include:

To what extent are histories (e.g records) and futures (e.g. forecasts) useful and used for decision-making?

How are anomalies, extremes, transitions and averages defined and experienced? What gets 'left out' in cases of uncertainty and complexity?

How is knowledge about weather and climate collected, produced and codified (e.g. through record-keeping, oral histories, data practices, experiments, modelling)?

Which processes, practitioners and outputs are deemed credible/legitimate for decision-making? What counts as 'evidence' in different settings?

Who has stakes in these decisions and how equitable are the processes and outcomes?

How can anthropologists and other academic and applied disciplines tackle these questions, and what opportunities and challenges are offered by innovative methodological approaches and interdisciplinary engagements?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Constructing ENSO

Author: George Adamson (King's College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on the historical and cultural processes that construct the El Niño, La Niña and Southern Oscillation. It reflects on the role of these constructs in development, disaster preparedness and broader climatic discourse, and postulates a number of research questions.

Long Abstract

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is often considered to be the most important mode of climatic variability, the 2015-16 El Niño being implicated in flooding in Chennai, Indonesian forest fires, a famine in Papua New Guinea, southern African drought and the record strength of Hurricane Patricia. Yet El Niño, La Niña and ENSO are social constructs, the outcome of generally under-appreciated historical and cultural processes. El Niño is an annual warm-water current off the coast of Peru that has morphed through historical accident into a new global 'weather god', La Niña is the gendered 1985 invention of an American climatologist, and the Southern Oscillation a statistical artefact given agency, the result of an overtly imperialistic project of early twentieth-century meteorological knowledge-generation through colonial networks. This paper will outline the processes that have constructed ENSO, and will particularly focus on how the practices of statistical climatology construct global climate-space. The paper will postulate a number of research questions regarding the ways that El Niño and La Niña are deployed globally, including the power of the terms 'El Niño' and 'La Niña' for decision-makers, reflections on the power relations within the geographies of ENSO knowledge, and the position of ENSO within wider geo-political climate discourse.

Reckoning resources and anticipating atmospheric futures in Belize

Author: Sophie Haines (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines social and cultural factors that influence how different forms of anticipatory knowledge are generated, recognised and acted upon (or not) in the context of efforts to address water management and hurricane preparedness in Belize.

Long Abstract

As a small, low-lying, coastal country, Belize is recognised as particularly vulnerable to impacts of climate variability and change at various timescales. The availability and skill of scientific predictions about future weather/climate has increased in recent years; however the social, cultural and institutional factors that influence their roles in decision-making about are incompletely understood. Drawing on fieldwork undertaken as part of an international, interdisciplinary study of forecast usability, I examine how participants in Belize's water and emergency sectors (including resource/emergency managers, scientists, environmentalists, regulators, forecasters, farmers) envision future quantities, qualities, and distributions of water and wind. In modelling workshops and forecasting centres, data-driven models and maps of future environments are generated and (re-)interpreted alongside situated knowledge and cultural practices, sensory experiences, resource politics and values, as researchers and practitioners engage with contested concepts of vulnerability, responsibility, ignorance and expertise. They and their interlocutors encounter challenges in identifying and living with shifting atmospheres, and in conducting the work of expectation given ambiguities in weather patterns, climate records, institutional resources and political commitments. Bringing anthropology, political ecology, and science and technology studies into conversation, I situate the contingencies that underpin predictions and policies in multi-scale contexts of environmental perception, socio-economic development, and the political and social meanings of anticipatory knowledge.

From Climate Knowledge to Decision making "User interface" experiences in the provision of Climate Services in South America

Authors: Maria Ines Carabajal (University of Buenos Aires )  email
Cecilia Hidalgo (University of Buenos Aires)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on the dynamics of co-production of knowledge towards the provision of climate services for the agriculture sector in Argentina. We analyze user interface experiences as key processes to improving communication among scientists, stakeholders and operational institutions.

Long Abstract

The provision of climate services promoted by global institutions such as the WMO underlines what has been called "user interface" thus requiring the building of relationships between stakeholders and information providers. This presentation shares results of an ongoing research on the recently launched Regional Climate Center in Southeastern South America (RCC-SESA) in which anthropologists have a leading role. It is carried by the Project "Towards usable climate science - Informing sustainable decisions and provision of climate services to the agriculture and water sectors of southeastern South America" funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) CRN-3035. Collaborative production of knowledge between scientists (social and natural) and stakeholders (governmental and nongovernmental) around the provision of climate services in SESA is being monitored and analyzed.

In this paper we will focus on collaborative experiences developed towards the provision of climate services for the agriculture sector in Argentina. Interviews and participant observation in dialog tables, consensual meetings and joint endeavors allow us to claim that the creation and maintenance of interaction spaces sustained over the time is identified by agents as a crucial aspect for success in the provision of climate services. We analyze the dynamics of co-production of knowledge not only at a local user interface level, but as a sample of a deep reflexive process on the changing identities, activities and representations of their role in society being experienced by scientists, stakeholders and institutions such as the National Weather and Hydrological services´ (NWHS).

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Modelling and sensing the atmosphere: an exploration of environmental decision-making through scientific data practices.

Author: Emma Garnett (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

I explore constructions and manipulations of ‘the atmosphere’ by a team of multi-disciplinary researchers, considering the ways in which modelled atmospheres incorporate both a material sense of the world through data, and a performative space for the playing out of environmental politics.

Long Abstract

I explore constructions, manipulations and visualisations of the atmosphere by a team of multi-disciplinary researchers working on an environmental health project studying the relationship between air pollution and health in the UK. I begin by tracing the ways in which 'the atmosphere' is made, sensed and known through computer simulation models, highlighting the theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of this process. I then use a policy engagement meeting to explore how articulations of the atmosphere emerged and were shaped by the science-policy interface, and how these relations then played out through modelling practices. For example, the atmospheric relations mobilised in the running of simulations were configured by pre-conceived future scenarios and climate change predictions, and thereby orientated towards policy action. Indeed, the atmospheric chemistry modellers manipulated their simulations according to requests from policy makers for certain kinds of data, with specific affordances and capacities, and which would allow for the making of 'evidence-based' environmental decisions. I therefore consider modelled atmospheres as particular kinds of scientific objects, which incorporate a material sense of the world through data whilst offering a performative space through which environmental politics can play out in tangible and prescriptive ways.

Exploring Knowledge Practices in Sustainable Urban Development

Authors: Lucía Liste (Norwegian Uni. of Science and Technology)  email
Lina Ingeborgrud (Norwegian Uni. of Science and Technology)  email

Short Abstract

What kinds of knowledge do cities need to deal with climate change? How is that knowledge collected, produced and shared? This article explores knowledge-practices involved in sustainable urban development in Norway. Our findings show three main practices: pilot projects, stories and site inspections.

Long Abstract

The last UN Climate Change Conference in December 2015 reaffirmed cities as key intervention sites to respond to the pressing challenge of climate change. Yet, in order to carry their sustainable transitions, municipalities need to secure, among others, their access to different types of knowledge and expertise. What kinds of knowledge do cities need to enact their pathways? How is knowledge collected, produced, codified, and shared? This article addresses these questions by examining how municipalities in Norway are carrying on their own transitions towards more sustainable forms of city.

In concrete, drawing on a sociomaterial approach, this paper explores knowledge practices and strategies involved in Cities of the Future (CoF), a knowledge-intensive and innovative program running from 2008 to 2014, which aimed to foster comprehensive collaboration for the development of urban areas with the lowest possible levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the improvement of physical urban environments. The study has been conducted through a combination a qualitative content analysis of relevant documents, 20 semi-structured interviews with participants in CoF, two weeks shadowing/observation in two municipal transportation planning agencies, and a workshop with relevant stakeholders.

We aim to contribute to the session by proposing a new notion to account for knowledge practices in environmental work, namely, translocality; as well as providing empirical descriptions of the set of knowledge practices through which sustainable urban development is performed, i.e: pilot projects, stories and site inspections. Our findings suggest that working towards more sustainable cities requires not only a diversity of knowledge types but of knowledge sites.

How big is a drought? The hybrid constitution of spatial scale in environmental modelling

Author: Catharina Landstrom (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper highlights the spatial scale represented in environmental computer simulation models as constituted in hybrid practices. A study of negotiations about scale in an interdisciplinary modelling project provides the starting point for discussing climate change models and policy.

Long Abstract

Climate change is constructed as a global phenomenon; to address impacts scientists 'scale down' global Earth System Models to spatial areas of more relevance to environmental decision making. Such downscaling creates an expectation that science will be eventually able to 'zoom in' and predict local impacts of climate change and that political decisions makers will make use of this 'scale-appropriate' knowledge. In contrast this paper insists that the spatial scales at which environmental computer simulation models represent physical processes are constituted in research practices that involve particular understandings of political scales. I approach the issue by way of an empirical example of modellers negotiating scale of representation.

Environmental computer simulation modelling is conducive to ethnographic investigation because it requires explication of all the assumptions made about the processes modelled. For example, hydrological modellers cannot simply assume that water runs downhill, they have to decide how to represent this mathematically and then code it for their models to work. I will present a case study of drought modellers in an interdisciplinary project negotiating the spatial scale of representation in order to accomplish the shared objective of representing the drought process. The negotiation was triggered by modellers from different disciplines discovering that they could not simply pass information between them to create a sequence of models covering sections of the physical process to gain a comprehensive understanding.

The example is followed by reflection on the implications for climate change science and policy of approaching model scale as constituted in hybrid practices.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.