Climate Change

Core Concepts

Climate Change

Oxford Languages

Climate change increases the intensity of events we consider “natural” such as wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes. Being able to see the linkages between already-occurring realities and underlying structural causes is a first step in solidarity.


The term “Anthropocene” has been gaining traction of late. Building on“anthropogenic” (caused by humans), it declares us to be in a new geological epoch, one dominated by human action, replacing the Holocene, which began at the end of the last Ice Age 11,700 years ago. In 2008, the Royal Geological Institute voted to consider officially adopting the term, and in 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group formally voted to adopt it. Both terms—anthropogenic and Anthropocene—in their attempt to show the influence of human actions on nature also reproduce a dichotomy that defines Western thinking, separating mind from body, and human from animals. But at the least it is an acknowledgment from natural scientists that human beings are a part of the world’s ecosystem, and that social sciences need to be incorporated into natural sciences. This recognition of the role of humans in shaping our climate also calls upon anthropologists, ostensibly those studying the human race, to do something to address it. However, the term “Anthropocene” is problematic. It focuses too much on humans, whereas we know that our actions cannot be isolated from nonhumans. Also problematic is the gloss over which “humans” created this particular problem. Aiming at greater specificity when defining the era, Jason Moore proposed “Capitalocene,” and critical Black studies scholars such as Katherine McKittrick center plantations in their analyses.

Chapter Overview

The very aspects that make climate change a challenging issue to organize around—scale, timeline, constituency, the need to track back and forth between local and global, and the identification of the interconnectedness of apparently disparate issues—are the core of what an anthropological imagination can provide. Unfortunately, discussing climate “change” doesn’t go far enough. The climate crisis is the deadly outcome of racial capitalism and white supremacy. While activists and governments from the Global North point the finger at India and China for scaling up their economies, humanity would need our Earths if all seven billion people on the planet consumed like the average U.S. American. Herein lies a major, less often discussed “Inconvenient Truth.” Given the massive inequalities in opportunity and capital, and the brutality of how the “West” became dominant in the first place discussed in the previous chapter, it is no coincidence that communities with higher climate vulnerability are disproportionally those of people of color or within the Global South. For all these reasons, our anthropological imagination helps us see that the conversation needs to be about climate justice, not just climate change.


What does the anthropological imagination offers to our understanding of climate change?

  1. Within an anthropological timeline, which began millions of years ago, we can see that this contemporary climate change is real and significant.
  2. Truly and without exaggeration we can acknowledge that our species itself is at risk of annihilation.
  3. It becomes clear that contemporary climate change is a human-created phenomenon.
  4. But it is not some distant dystopian future—climate change is already happening now to many in tropical coastal areas, not to mention it has been happening for several hundred years as Indigenous populations were murdered, taken from their land, and forced to assimilate into settler society, their climate already irrevocably destroyed.
  5. We can see that the roots of climate change are anchored within the global economic order and the racism inherent to it, needed to justify the widescale murder, theft, forced removal, and enslavement necessary to make it run.
  6. Therefore, we know that climate change is always about justice, since societies most at risk of losing their lands and resources are usually the survivors of colonialism and slavery.
  7. We can tell the struggle is always local and always global and that localized struggles tend to have different languages, different terms of the debate, and different and multiple strategic foci besides the ones that we may think are important.
  8. We understand that we need to learn lessons about adaptation on a massive scale and that our flexibility, cooperation, and diversity have helped us to survive.
  9. Anthropological evidence can identify societies that have rejected hypercompetition and short-term gain and have adapted, resisted, and survived.

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An important biological species is at risk of extinction because of the rapid and progressive liquidation of its natural living conditions: humankind.

United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992)