The Project, Part I: Theory

Here goes, a quick pre-cap of my summer in Ecuador.  It’d be foolish to say that what I’m writing actually reflects what is going to happen: I have no doubt that research questions will change, contacts will fall through, and plans will go awry.  If anything, I think this will serve as a monument to naivety, to be laughed at when I return from the Oriente with an entirely new project in hand.

My first post will be a bit of theory and background; I’ll follow up with a description of the place I’m going and what I’m intending to do there.

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In the late 80s and 90s, when climate change was just beginning to attract some attention, it was framed as a scientific and technical issue.  The debate was dominated by questions like, is global warming real?  Is is human caused?  Can we do anything about it?  A decade later, for anyone who is really paying attention, these questions have all are answered.  In the wake of the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen, the key question is not whether we can do anything about climate change, but how to create the political ill to do it.  This new focus on the politics of climate change is reflected in a burgeoning literature on UN conferences, international negotiations, and national policy.

Alongside this new focus on climate politics, academics and policymakers are paying increasing attention to the developing world.  In historical terms, the emissions of developing countries have been minimal.  Particularly among the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, China), though, emissions are rising rapidly, and it is hard to see any climate mitigation regime succeeding without their participation.  As Oxford economist Dieter Helm argues, any amount of legislation and treaties and CFL lightbulbs will be completely irrelevant if China decides to keep building coal fired power plants and hundreds of millions of Chinese take to the roads in cars for the first time.

Trying to rope developing countries into the international climate regime, however, presents some unique problems.  Many developing countries feel entitled to the same energy-intensive development that worked in the West, and see attempts to limit their emissions as a subtle form of renewed colonialism.  Some countries—particularly, leftist Latin American countries like Bolivia—have publicized the idea of “climate debt” and demanded billions in compensation.  In short, climate policy is inseparable from broader dysfunctions in North-South relations on topics like trade, energy, and security.

Everything I’ve said in the previous three paragraphs, of course, is kind of obvious, which makes it all the more amazing how much has been written saying it.  I’m hoping to approach climate change from a slightly different perspective, grounded in anthropology, rather than the political science typically applied.

My starting point is that we have been too uncritical in accepting the idea that global warming is, well, global. Of course, on a scientific level, climate change’s global credentials are impeccable, since climate systems are interlinked worldwide.  At the same time though, climate change means very different things in different places: in Russia, it will increase agricultural productivity; in Ecuador, it may melt glaciers that entire cities depend on for water.  As such, what we experience as climate change is inevitably a local and positional phenomena.  What can be said for climate change’s impacts can also be said for attempts to mitigate emissions.  While climate policy might be set on a national level, every emission comes from a specific place—be it a car tailpipe, a slash-and-burned rainforest, or a powerpant smokestack.  It follows, then, that individual agency and choices—exercised at a local level by everyday people—are ultimately a key part of any solution to “global” warming.

Theoretically, my goal is to advance our understanding of the local politics of climate change.  What makes climate change into a compelling issue in some places and not others?  How does climate change filter into preexisting local debates and conflicts?  Why do some municipalities, organizations, and individuals feel the agency to do something about climate change, while others throw up their hands and concede that the problem is global?  While it’s hard to ascribe too much value to a master’s thesis, I do believe that answering these questions is at least part of the climate mitigation puzzle.

A brief teaser: next up, a less abstract introduction to Yasuní National Park.

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Jukebox: Thought Riot – Save the Humans

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