Frida Hastrup, post.doc, Department of Anthropology,
University of Copenhagen
Given the current tides in the political as well as the scientific world it seems difficult for researchers of any discipline to entirely avoid considering climate. Within anthropology, a range of studies have recently appeared, exploring the impact of global climate change on local communities around the globe as observed during ethnographic fieldwork. Often these studies focus explicitly on local communities’ experiences of environmental change and on their attendant practices of adaptation, and a common feature is an appeal that science ought to pay heed to these local understandings, which usually go by the name of ‘local knowledge’ or ‘indigenous knowledge’. Such local environmental knowledge can contribute to science quite simply because the locals in each their set of physical surroundings often have an intimate insight into their environment, enabling them to report any changes to outsiders. As anthropologist Susan Crate, co-editor of the book Anthropology and Climate Change. From Encounters to Actions (2009), writes in her chapter on perceptions of climate change among the Sakha in Siberia:
“We asked a simple set of questions about what elders observed, how their lives were affected, what the causes were, and what they thought their future would bring. The elders impressed upon us that they possess ecological knowledge about how the climate was and how it has changed. In lieu of availability of comprehensive local climatic data, village elders’ knowledge is vital” (Crate 2009:140).
While I certainly appreciate the recording of environmental knowledge of any kind, including that of non-specialists, and support the implicit acceptance of a diversity of forms of knowledge, there is still reason to be cautious of the conceptualization of local knowledge, which is expressed in the quote above. Sympathetic as the approach is, by seeing local knowledge as mere observations that can be tapped into as a contribution to “comprehensive climatic data”, I think we run the risk of reducing local knowledge to being a kind of 1:1 photographical representation of the surroundings. Local knowledge, when seen as sheer observations, remains quite literally a down-to-earth kind of knowledge without any potential theoretical content. Such a concept of local knowledge contradicts what I have come across during fieldwork in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, South India. The main focus of my research was analyzing the ways in which people recovered after the blow of the Asian tsunami that hit coastal regions all around the Indian Ocean in December 2004. What struck me during my fieldworks was that the local villagers kept communicating views of their environment, which combined a range of features into an implicit theory about the world. Thus, the fishermen repeatedly made statements that connected the experience of shifting weather conditions and recurring seasonal patterns with global climate change, which again was connected with the unique tsunami disaster that had engulfed most of the village. “After the tsunami, the climate is different. We catch less fish”, Soresh would say, and Raj would add that the rough season – the local term for the recurring monsoon season at the end of the year – could now appear at unexpected times, leaving the fishermen with limited ability to plan ahead.
In these and numerous other statements, the villagers pooled whatever occurrences and conditions nature threw at them into a composite whole; a compound set of surroundings, which they tried to navigate in practically and relate to analytically. For the villagers whose houses were threatened by erosion, it was a matter of moving to safer grounds. Among tsunami survivors, who had already been relocated by the authorities, there was talk of establishing a small port for the fishing boats at the mouth of the nearby river for future protection of the boats. For yet others, what was at stake was to seek new opportunities outside of the increasingly unpredictable fishing trade, either as industrial workers in Singapore or Malaysia, or by way of formal education, all with the aim of improving future possibilities in a long-term perspective. In other words, tsunamis, untimely monsoon rains, depletion of fish in the ocean, waves encroaching on people’s living space, and global climate change – often communicated through mass media – made up the compound reality, to which the local villagers reacted.
As I see it, these reactions have at least two features in common. First of all, it is clear that the villagers act in accordance with an inbuilt view to their future; they react to a distressing future scenario, which they attempt to replace with a less distressing one. This implies that the local practices extend beyond the time, at which they are enacted. Secondly, people’s actions also point beyond their specific locality; the villagers have a clear idea of being part of larger world, which for better or worse, directly or indirectly, splash their local setting. Accordingly, in both temporal and spatial terms, what the villagers do locally and the ideas that they have about their world transcend the near at hand and what is immediately ascertainable. The villagers’ practices are entangled in a wider world, which, of course, as any world, is seen from a particular point of view, but which is built on ideas and knowledge that clearly explode the category of the empirically local.
In other words, what the fishermen articulated was not just a down-to-earth kind of knowledge. While they might have based their statements on observations of the surroundings, they inscribed these observations in an implicit theory about their world, for instance a theory about the connection between climate change, the tsunami and lesser catches of fish. These remarks are not mere observations, which science can pick and choose from; they form part of a whole world-building process, which is locally based, as all world-buildings are, but which clearly extends beyond the empirically immediate.
To conclude: If we do in fact mean it seriously that we want to incorporate local knowledge in our studies of climate change and see it as a valuable contribution to science, we need to acknowledge its theoretical character. By theoretical character I simply mean to imply that even if local knowledge builds on spatially specific experiences and ideas, it is not restricted to represent these in a simple referential relation as a 1:1 model of nature. To the contrary, like all other theories, local knowledge proposes a way of understanding connections in the world; in other words, theorization is not opposed to the local, and it is not an exclusive property of scientists. Knowledge production, whether that of scientists or of locals, always takes place somewhere; in this light, we all produce local knowledge.
More generally, I think this has a bearing on the way in which we understand the relation between the local, the regional and the global. Very often, we tend to think of these in terms of proportions; the local is seen as a smaller perspective than the regional, which again is seen as an excerpt of the global. Analytically, I think we must discard such proportional thinking; surely words like local, regional and global can say something about the empirical scale of our field of interest (as in this blog’s focus on Asia), but they do not tell us anything the potential theoretical scope pertaining to each, and they are not to be seen as descriptive of a hierarchy of knowledge forms. In any event, and in whatever way we construe our field analytically, we need to acknowledge people’s capacity to imagine and think beyond their local setting – which, I should add, is not any less local for it. However insurmountable the challenges of climate change seem to be, from an anthropological perspective, we need to see p
eople everywhere – scientists included – as “locals” who from each their position engage in a world-building process, and whose environmental knowledge is at once experiential and spatially situated and theoretical and abstracted from a specific context.
Vikings vs the new economic superpower: the Tibet issue in Sino-Danish relations by Clemens Stubbe Østergaard, Aarhus Univ.Posted: December 14, 2009
Danes love to have their cake and eat it. Or as the Danish expression goes: to blow air and yet keep flour in your mouth. In the past, before globalization, we could say one thing at home, and do something else abroad. Or we could rely on being so insignificant that others did not bother to react to contradictory policies on our part. Being a small country, though, has never prevented us from imagining ourselves a great power – perhaps remembering Viking times. A number of times we accordingly collided with reality, got into wars above our head, and lost parts of our former territory to neighbouring countries.
Today we exercise this great power mentality a little more carefully: we usually side with the strong, and feel a boundless moral superiority towards the rest.
Our policy around the Tibet-issue has mirrored both principles. When the United States, with its 1-China policy, did not meet the Dalai Lama, we did not either, when they started to meet him in the 1990s, we did too. As late as 2003 this still went well. As for moral superiority, we rightly criticized Beijing’s policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but unfortunately based on such caricatures of China and of Chinese and Tibetan history that already for this reason our words carry little weight with the Chinese side.
Maybe it is the caricature that has prevented us from seeing that things were changing in the world. Just as the US needed China in the Cold War, and thus did not step on Chinese core interests, we today find that we need China to solve not only the problems of the global economy, but also most of the other global problems we are faced with. New ‘wars’ have replaced the Cold War, and the fact that China is now the world’s second largest economy, and a very strong actor in international organisations, means that once again we have to respect what they regard as core interests – in the case of Tibet, the question of sovereignty.
This has been clear to the smarter part of Danish officialdom, but not to the country’s politicians. There were many warning signs: Gordon Brown in mid-2008 felt China’s pressure and made sure that he met the Dalai Lama at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, clearly calling him a religious leader; Sarkozy in late 2008 did not take this precaution, and ended up having to make a declaration quite similar to the one Denmark just made; the Dutch cabinet decided that Prime Minister Balkenende in June would not meet with the Dalai Lama ‘because it would risk harming relations with China’; the New Zealand PM John Key read the signals from China and just declared: “I do not meet with every religious leader that comes to town”, nor would his other ministers. Obama of course has so far postponed any meeting.
Denmark was caught out. A new prime minister was faced with the daunting prospect of a motion in parliament forcing him, in case he followed the advice of his officials and declined to meet the DL. And here we are at the root of the problem. No politician has dared to, or been able to, explain the situation to his colleagues, the media and public opinion. In the vacuum, the international and national Tibet Lobby’s story has reigned supreme. Distorting history by calling Tibet an independent country, when no country in the world ever formally or diplomatically recognized it as such. Comparing the Chinese reclaiming Tibet in 1950 to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait, when anyone can look at the many world maps showing Tibet as part of China, even in the period between the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911, and the return to a unified China in 1949. Autonomy under Chinese suzerainty was the name of the game.
But at the same time, a large part of the Danish public and media has been ‘in denial’ in the face of Chinese economic and political development. We prefer to think of it as still fairly insignificant economically, and as not having moved an inch on human rights since Tiananmen. In a way it is Mao’s China we still imagine, and how cosy that is. But as was evident from Obama’s recent visit to China, the United States is in a very different place: it looks China straight in the eye as an equal and realizes the need to have it as an ally in world affairs. With the aim of stabilizing the global economy, the global ecosystem, and global security. It will be very costly if Tibet and the Dalai Lama distract the EU and China from working together.
No politician, and no media outlet (with a few shining journalistic exceptions), is ready take on itself the task of educating the public. And as long as China still has lots of human rights problems, as most developing countries do, it is possible to use this as an excuse. The same goes for China’s failed minority policies toward tibetans and uighurs. (though in all honesty not many countries can say they have completely successfully handled their minorities). There is certainly a lot to criticize and the verbal note to China in no way prevents us from doing that.
In fact we have now -after six months of icy relations – returned to a situation where dialogue can be resumed, and where we can begin again to work for the political goals of Danish foreign policy, not only as regards China, but globally. We are no longer “outside the traffic”. However, the uncertainty created meant that existing policy had to be restated more emphatically than we would have liked. We had to accept ‘oppose Tibetan independence’, while the French in April (i.e. before the Danish visit) were let off with: “France refuses to support any form of “Tibet independence” “. It has been very difficult for Danes to stomach the new reality: that we have to listen to what China identifies as its core interests, if we want the relationship to prosper. There is still a need for politicians to show courage and also update their often dismally low knowledge of China. Our criticism will have more effect if it is based on knowledge and cooperation.
We can no longer have our Chinese cake and eat it. Or to put it another way: if diplomatic relations are like a marriage, official meetings with the leader of a government in exile is flirting heavily. A few times may be tolerated, but if it goes on the marriage may break up.
Clemens Stubbe Østergaard
Department of Political Science
University of Aarhus
In the global struggle to combat climate change China’s sector renewable energy is becoming of increasing importance. High targets for renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind, biomass and biofuel), continued economic growth and the simultaneously increasing needs for energy means that the market looks extremely promising. In this brief note it is argued that five factors will work to make the sector one of the most dynamic places for developing renewable energy solutions.
Sustainable development: China’s efforts to develop renewable energy is based within a comprehensive understanding of sustainable development entailing sustainable use of natural resources, poverty reduction, rural – urban inequalities, demography and family planning, etc. Renewable energy is thus a part of a wider shift in development track, which has become of increasing political importance with the current Chinese leaderships introduction of the vision of a “harmonious society”. The fact that renewable energy is situated in such a wide framework also means that the hot issue of reducing emission of greenhouse gasses is not the only driver behind the sector. Hence, the ongoing expansion of the sector is not tightly coupled to the results of the COP15.
Environmental crisis: The backside of China’s impressive growth record has been a massive environmental degradation. And unlike the emission of green house gasses the environmental problems have reached a state where they are visible to everyone, which means that the government to a greater extent is forced to take action. Renewable energy is one of the answers to this problem, for instance as a way to avoid the air pollution stemming from transportation of coal from the West and North to the East and South. China’s environmental crisis therefore becomes a driver for the renewable energy sector.
Political commitment and financial control: The Chinese leadership has committed itself to develop renewable energy and mobilize the various resources of the Party-state to this end. A key feature in this respect is its tight connection to or even control of the financial actors in China, i.e. banks, investment funds and the huge state owned enterprises with an investment portfolio. Consequently, the Party-state is able to influence the financial underpinnings of the renewable energy sector through politically motivated lending policies and investment decisions.
Market development and political ambitions: China’s renewable energy sector is a subsidized market – without subsidies the market would be miniscule. However, the Chinese Party-state is keeping its eyes on the longer term and thus focusing on the opportunities that the emergence of the sector presents. The sector is therefore expected to produce what the Party-state calls “National Champions” – strong Chinese based multinational companies – and foster “independent innovations” – innovations owned and controlled by Chinese companies.
Market dynamics and reduction of production costs: The combination of fierce competition and cheap land and labor has made the Chinese marketplace world known for its ability to drive down production costs. The same dynamics are at play in Chinas sector for renewable energy, which means that this will be a main driver in commercializing renewable energy solutions and thus making them available and affordable to a wider audience – not only in China.
Taken together, I will argue, that these factors will work to make the sector one of and most likely the most interesting place for commercializing and even developing renewable energy solutions. You simply cannot find that combination of factors anywhere else in the world. However, the issue of developing renewable energy technology is often mentioned as the weak spot of the Chinese market. But the fact of the matter is that Chinese companies within solar are fully up to speed, they are catching up quickly within wind, biomass is more about production know how, and only within second generation biofuels Western companies are ahead. This aside, my point is that the nationality of company does not change the fact that if it has global ambitions it has to be in the Chinese market for renewable energy due to its size and future growth and it will also need to be in the sector in order to stay competitive in the longer run.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Prize Committee noted that their work could ‘contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind.’ Yet, in spite of this prestigious award, surprisingly little academic evidence has been produced within IPPC or elsewhere that point to a strong link between climate change and conflict. In fact, most peer-reviewed studies based on statistical cross-country analysis find no robust link between climatic factors and conflict.
The limited empirical support can be ascribed the fact that effects of climate change work through a complex web of multiple and often interrelated channels, some of which have not yet received enough academic scrutiny. Whereas the effects of climate change are local, dynamic, and multidimensional, the existing studies rely strongly on aggregate-level effects of environmental scarcity on conflict.
One of the few ‘iron laws’ of the Social Sciences is that a situation of change, regardless of whether the shock is climatic or political, is conducive to conflict. Change produces winners and losers, and it introduces opportunities to mobilize groups to contest existing social orders. Thus, what should matters from a conflict perspective is not necessarily the many adverse consequences of climate change (rising sea levels, environmental scarcities, vector-borne diseases, and melting glaciers) but rather the fact that change entails a phase of transition; a phase of increased transaction costs; and a phase of shifting power-relations. Therefore, instead of stressing the adverse impacts of climate change, one should place more emphasis on these broader political economy issues. In order to avoid underestimating the impact of climate change on conflict, I would suggest an increased emphasizes on
– Disaggregation. The lack of strong, unequivocal findings in many studies linking climate change with conflict is the use of country-level data, which do not reflect the fact that both environmental degradation and conflict often take place locally; the most common type of violent conflict, internal conflict, usually engulfs a few provinces or municipalities rather than entire states.
– Dynamics. The change in key variables might be more important than a stable state of deprivation. Deprivation itself seldom produces strong grievances, but where people perceive a gap between the situation they believe they deserve and the situation they have actually achieved, they are more likely to feel aggrieved. Increasing scarcity is therefore more dangerous than a situation of chronic scarcity; and fluctuating scarcity patterns that upset existing power relations could be even more conducive to conflict. For example, studies indicate that transient poverty is a stronger determinant of war and conflict than is chronic poverty. This is important because global warming changes environmental variables and increases their variability-which in turn causes power relations to shift and perceptions of fairness and envy to be recalibrated according to the new situation.
– Opportunities. Future impacts of global warming on conflicts are likely to be triggered as much by changes in opportunities as by scarcities and grievances. Some of the most elaborate cross-country studies of conflict conclude that proxies for greed (or opportunity) all do well at explaining conflict, while most proxies for grievances turn out to be less significant. For instance, the studies have shown that having a dispersed population, or having a mountainous terrain, appear to increase the risk of conflict, since these two factors work to the advantage of rebel groups that are capable of operating beyond the government’s reach. The effects of climate change could mimic these variables by undermining state logistics, making the terrain impassable, or dispersing vulnerable populations.
– Cumulative effects. Most studies have only focused on one or two dimensions of climate change, and historical data have not yet been able to mimic the cumulative consequences of simultaneous changes on several environmental fronts: ecological scarcity, rising sea levels, more floods, extreme climate, environmental migration, use of climate change to mobilize groups for conflict, and so forth. Large exogenous shocks to society (in the form of large-scale reforms or financial instability) appear to perpetuate conflict, and cumulative, coinciding shocks from climate change might do the same.
– Political mobilization. Existing studies do not address the fact that the perception of the explanatory variable, climate change, has developed. Natural hazards that used to be blamed on nature are now increasingly blamed on humankind. Today, the blame for drought and flooding can, at least in part, be placed at the doorsteps of the social groups and societies emitting greenhouse gases. This is an important difference considering the vital aspect of mobilization. It is difficult to mobilize against Mother Nature-and easier to mobilize against someone who can be held accountable for the disasters. Droughts and famines are increasingly blamed on the effects of global warming by governments eager to avoid being held culpable. Climate change could thus broaden the cleavage between the poor (who bear the brunt of the adverse consequences of climate change) and the wealthy (who are mainly responsible for global warming) locally, nationally, and globally. This could lay the grounds for climate change to be used politically as a tool for conflictual mobilization. Thus, rather than arguing that environmental factors might have causal impacts on the risk of conflict, it might be fruitful to look at climate change as a potential tool for mobilization-in much the same way that other major societal transformations (political reforms, financial crises, etc.) might mobilize different groups for violent purposes. Studies using historical data fail to fully capture this vital perceptional change in the explanatory variable.
The impact of climate change on conflict is likely to be indirect, weak, and strongly dependent on the country-specific political economy context. Thus, instead of mainly continuing down the path of seeking to determine the impact of environmental scarcities on violent conflict, one should turn to more context-specific studies capable of encompassing dimensions of political mobilization and the multiple channels through which climate change impacts different social groups. Area-Studies Institutes, such as NIAS, have a unique advantage in being able to conduct this type of context-specific research that is both multidimensional and disaggregated.
The content of this blog was based on a forthcoming article in Social Development Issues (Lyceum Books) entitled ‘Social perspective on the symbiotic relationship between climate change and conflict’ by Olivier Rubin.