Jerome Whitington, National University of Singapore

This paper discusses three figures of climate anticipation in order to show that climate change poses the problem of anthropology per se, that is, the planet with respect to anthropos. The full paper can be accessed via the link above (about 8000 words).

A remarkable turn of events for climate scientists in the past several years has been momentous ecological changes that have accompanied current rises in average earth temperatures. What was before experienced as predictions about polar and glacial ice loss, ecological shifts and intensified weather is now increasingly confirmed. Moreover, the real-time changes in many cases are outpacing the predictions. This paper is an effort to think through the connection between ecological harm and recorded increases in average earth temperatures, the latter being a statistical touchstone for validating climate models which generally try to anticipate general climatological changes. It has been increasingly understood ‘Earth system’ (Crutzen 2006; also 2002a) is already undergoing profound changes, but the extent of these changes has barely been hinted at, and even less clear are the implications for specific ecosystems or indeed for human settlements. Reciprocally, this may be viewed as a problem of ‘man’ in a specifically neo-modern sense; Crutzen’s theory of the Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002a, 2002b; Zalasiewicz et al 2008) as a geological epoch succeeding the Holocene places distinct biophysical and chemical markers on Homo sapiens’ collective ability to transform biospheric conditions.

The language here is that of Earth in a ‘non-analogue’ condition, with implications for Earth as home. One is left with the original theoretical reflection on the possibility of climate change, long before it was understood as more than a problem of thermodynamics: Joseph Fourier in 1824 raised as a theoretical curiosity the basic question posed by a planet floating in space some 33deg. C warmer than an ideal blackbody of the same size and distance from the Sun (Weart 2003; Fourier 1827 [2004]). One can pose the problem from a different direction as well, to ask what the significance might be of a society and a mode of reason which is predicated on the geological extraction of billions of tons of fossil energy, stored hundreds of millions of years ago, then converted again via thermodynamic processes into a historically novel form of society (Mirowski 1989; Smil 2005). If the former figure relates to the arbitrariness of a planet floating in space then the latter provides a materialist engagement with practical activity within the human oikos (Arendt 1998). Either case, we might say now, hinges on the apprehension of open futures. With respect to climate knowledges I discuss in this paper, the question is, are there measurable events that might allow us to understand the changes in store for a climate transformation? Unlike modeling exercises, measurable changes underfoot create a new need to link the virtual to the actual and back again.

The scope of this essay must be tightly constrained for two main reasons. The first pertains to climate sciences themselves, which have long been unfairly accused of exaggerated claims about impending ecological collapse (e.g. Swyngedouw 2010, Romm 2012b). As a response to this, as many have noted, many public climate pronouncements including the aggregative scientific review work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have adopted conservative scientific assumptions for making politically relevant statements about scientific results. The result has been an extremely articulate awareness of uncertainties of climate science combined with a certain amount of obsessiveness or care in the public communication of science (and reflection on that public communication, e.g. Romm 2012a). The second constraint stems from the broad public interpretability of scientific results, which range from dismissiveness due to (incorrectly) presumed scientific uncertainty, to unnecessarily extreme assessments of impending doom by publics not used to thinking carefully about how climatic processes may or may not play out. There is a lot we don’t know, which allows for a broad range of imaginative potential. For some, uncertainty means inaction is a legitimate response; for others, it allows imagination to run unchecked. I focus here on three figures of anticipation that specifically constrain reasoned (imaginative) expectations about ecological futures with measured ecological changes discernible in the present.

As I describe below, the climate bellwether, the fingerprint and the model event each imply a specific sort of ethical or political relation forged between data and event. The first relates to understanding that measured changes are in fact climate change, that is, where specific changes bear a ‘fingerprint’ that indicates we are observing climate change and not something else. It is a figure that allows for calibration of the models. The second pertains to advance warning afforded by ecological processes, what some are calling climate bellwethers, that may be taken as signals of how climate events may play out, for example, geopolitically. The last I describe are ‘model events’ for the economic implications of climate change such as storm events that reveal the inadequacy of existing infrastructure for managing extreme weather.

Fig 1. Ancient permafrost dated to 740,000 years bp, discovered during a gold mining operation in Canada. © (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

Frederic Keck’s (2011) convincing utilization of the nonhuman sentinel relation as a figure for costly inter-species communication in times of uncertainty bears mention here. Increasingly the terminology of the climate bellwether or climate sentinel has gained relevance for a widespread outbreak of avian influenza, H5N1. For Keck the question of signaling refers to the species’ own communication of threat, but it also bears on the epistemological status of the threat, since what remains unknown is the given point and time, and precise nature, at which an anticipated virus may appear. The signal to act is made within a historical context defined by the intensity of industrial animal farms and the velocity of global circulation. The potentiality of the moment is generative.

Keck’s argument implies specific theorization of ornithological signaling within an evolutionary context. Because of the nature of the climate threat, usually ‘forward indicators’ do not pertain to individual species, since climate necessarily refers to a shift in pattern, rather than the emergence of some specific ontological threat (see Canguilhem 1989 on ontological theories of disease). I use the term bellwether rather than sentinel to preserve the distinctiveness of the climate threat and to hold in abeyance Keck’s assertion of the primacy of communication for his own theoretical resolution of the multiple contradictions raised by H5N1. For Keck the ethical ability to listen to sentinels involves awareness of the signaling being and hence interspecies communication (following Haraway 2008). I wonder if this interspecies ethics can be extended to ecosystems without being lost in a labyrinth of inadequate analogy. What happens when the activity of signaling is extended to ecosystems or to nonliving formations like glaciers? In particular, what ethics does it propose, that is, what are the beings here capable of being recognized? Meanwhile, the reciprocal configuration of now planetary contradictions force recognition of fossil energy commitments made long before any reasoned choice about outcomes could be determined. Keck’s figure of costly communication hinges on the communicative arbitrariness of prestige, one of Malinowski’s (1987) three primitive economies. But another figure of costly communication emerges from the necessity and impossibility of decision in which a concrete historical situation makes the assumption of risk compulsory.

Continue Reading here: Fingerprint, Bellwether, Model Event: Climate change as anthropology per se