The April issue of Current Anthropology features an interdisciplinary forum addressing the communication of cultural knowledge of environmental change. Titled “Communicating Climate Knowledge: Proxies, Processes, Politics,” the forum is the product of discussion at a Climate Histories conference held at the University of Cambridge in 2011.
“The widespread perception of a changing climate, with its controversies, questions of evidence and complexities relevant to assessment and decision-making, has increasingly called for more communication and collaboration across scientific disciplines, different forms of environmental knowledge and policy making,” said Hildegard Diemberger, an anthropologist at Cambridge who helped arrange the conference. “In this debate climate change does not emerge as a single preformed ‘problem,’ as noted by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. Rather, different climate ‘knowledges’ appear as products of particular networks and agencies.”
The forum features two lead pieces by Simon Schaffer, a historian of science, and Kirsten Hastrup, an anthropologist, which highlight the role of agents and proxies—indicators that enable the representation and assessment of a certain environmental setting.
Hastrup’s article examines the role ice plays in climate knowledge for arctic peoples. She argues that the ice itself makes as powerful a case for a changing climate as science ever could. “I would suggest that the ice is its own argument; it is not for us to argue its case—it would only be a faint echo of its own powerful impression upon the Arctic world,” she writes. “Whatever climate history one wants to tell, it begins and ends with ice.”
Schaffer offers a historical account of mountains as proxies for western understanding of climate. He describes the work of the nineteenth century scientist John Tyndall in bringing his mountaintop discoveries to the public at large. Schaffer argues that the challenge for science then and now is finding ways to communicate knowledge that is often “judged remote, socially, geographically, and temporally.”
The two lead pieces are followed by five interdisciplinary commentaries that engage with the lead articles through new ethnographic material and a set of reflections by leading scholars of different disciplines, including a lead scholar of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We hope these cross-disciplinary exchanges will encourage further conversations and new approaches to action,” Diemberger said.