Part II: Eroding – How the Archaeology of Climate Change Denial is Threatened by Climate Change

For Part II of the mini-series on climate change, we welcome guest blogger Kevin Gibbons, a fourth-year PhD student in the Zooarchaeology Laboratory at the University of Maryland.

In Part 1 of this series, we surveyed some of the roles that archaeologists are playing in grappling with climate change. Archaeologists are engaging in climate change research to better understand how societies have coped with shifting environmental conditions in the past. We’re also confronting the significant loss of cultural heritage due to increased erosion, thawing, flooding, pollution, development, and other such threats in the present day.

Soil erosion in Iceland.

Soil erosion in Iceland. (Photo: Rachel Rubin)

Political Challenges to Accepting a Species’ Worth of Responsibility

It is no secret that the issue of climate change is contentious within American political discourse. The very existence of global warming is debated by the Republican Party and its elected officials. The Republican presidential nominee has asserted that it’s a Chinese hoax to somehow hamper the American manufacturing sector. While this denial appears to be an insidious combination of political expediency, conflicting economic interests, and a result of years of denigrating intellectualism, rationalism, and the scientific process, it’s also served to block any meaningful dialogue within Congress about how to address our collectively harmful impacts on a national scale. It follows that, until we can install enough politicians who both understand that anthropogenic climate change is real and a global threat, we as a nation will be unable to mount a sustained and comprehensive strategy to mitigate the worst of the coming impacts. Under the Obama Administration, U.S. negotiators successfully signed the (non-binding) Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, potentially signaling a tipping point in global efforts to avoid the worst forecasted outcomes.

Yet, despite the importance of tackling climate change to the collective future of our species and our planetary home, the issue has been a non-issue for Americans during both the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. And while some have argued that its exclusion from our national conversation might ultimately be a good thing, it’s hard to see how ignoring such an unprecedentedly complex problem for yet another national election leads to a positive future. Or, as Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is quoted as saying in The Guardian: “I’ve been shocked at the lack of questions on climate change. It really is fiddling while the world burns. This is the great issue of our time and we are skirting around it. I’m just baffled by it.” And while the energy advisors from the Clinton and Trump campaigns did actually hold a debate on climate change at the University of Richmond last week, Vox’s Brad Plumer rightly notes that it’s difficult to debate a topic when one side refuses to acknowledge its existence.

Luckily, our unelected federal civil servants are driving more climate change research in the government than you might expect. For a few examples:

  • The Department of Defense knows climate change is going to be their problem and is already gaming out a future with massive migrations of climate change refugees and ecologically-induced conflict. Both of which are already occurring both at home and overseas – you’ll find copious examples in the news media from Syria to Standing Rock, even if the connections are never explicitly made.
  • The National Park Service has been tasked with managing the federal government’s response to mitigate the effects of climate change on our nation’s cultural resources across the board. Dr. Marcy Rockman, the Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources at the National Park Service, is currently drafting the government’s comprehensive strategy for assessing and responding to adverse effects on our cultural resources that draws on the best lessons to be learned from the efforts of other nations and focuses on telling the ‘climate story’ of every location within the Park Service stewardship. Dr. George Hambrecht, my advisor at the University of Maryland, is contributing to this project as well.
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program exists. Not many people are aware that Congress, under President George H. W. Bush, mandated thirteen federal agencies cooperate to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” But the USGCRP does exist. And, this April, they asked a bunch of archaeologists to come visit them in Washington, D.C. to make the case for archaeology’s contributions to global change research (more on this below).

Clearly, anthropogenic climate change is a significant political stumbling block that we have yet to come to grips with. There are indications  that, in our age of identity politics, one’s belief, or skepticism, of the reality of climate change might have nothing to do with one’s education or rational intelligence, but everything to do with one’s self-conception and constructed social identity. At least those are topics with which archaeology can also meaningfully engage!

An Archaeology of Climate Change Denial?

            Since the early twentieth century, archaeologists have recognized the potential to investigate the environmental conditions that surrounded and shaped the people and cultures whose artifacts we recover. Like many archaeological advances during this period, the majority of this work was undertaken in Scandinavian and English contexts under notable archaeologists such as Grahame Clark at the University of Cambridge. The development of a formalized field of environmental archaeology followed after the Second World War as technological advances buttressed the sophistication with which archaeologists could recognize, recover, and test environmental data alongside material culture. And in recent decades, many archaeologists have begun to ask, specifically, about how their archaeological research could be conversant with our developing understanding of anthropogenic climate change (e.g., Chambers 1993).

But what exactly is an ‘archaeology of climate change?’ Kathryn Catlin, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, summarizes the argument in a recent article in press at the journal Anthropocene that such a formulation is not particularly useful (see also Casledine and Turney 2010). The boon of archaeology’s ability to understand changing social-ecological systems through time is just that: our data and chronologies are at the ‘human’ scale of years and decades and not at the scale of paleoclimatology’s centuries and millennia. We have the ability to situate our narratives of changing environmental conditions through time in a discreet, bounded landscape. Thus, archaeology is best suited to understand how a specific community, in a specific location, organized themselves to best interact with their environment in (subjectively) sustainable ways. Or didn’t.

We don’t need archaeology to solve our current global climate change challenges. Other sciences have already given us both the data we need and the solutions to the problems that face us. The issue today is the lack of implementation due to a myriad of social, political, and institutional paralysis. Archaeology can help localized communities understand how people have successfully adapted to specific problems, such as erosion, flooding, or drought within specific landscapes, but archaeological data will not solve the problem of climate change. However, perhaps, as Catlin suggests, it’s be better to frame our approach as an ‘archaeology of climate change denial.’ What are the cultural factors that led to rigidity traps in past societies? Could humans in the past recognize and understand when environmental parameters were transitioning to a different pattern? If they could recognize this, were they able to overcome institutional barriers to action and effectively shift behavior to mitigate their circumstances? Archaeologists today are asking these kinds of questions. For a few of the most recent examples, see the work of Boivin et al. (2016), Crumley (2016), Dugmore et al. (2013), Hegmon et al. (2014), Harvey and Perry (2015), and Nelson et al. (2016).

Archaeology is Key to Collaborating on Global Change

The archaeology of environmental change, then, is facing two major challenges:

  1. We now have the sophisticated tools to answer complex questions about human ecodynamics in the past using interdisciplinary approaches to archaeology.
  2. And at the very moment we’ve unlocked this new archive of socio-natural data, it’s being lost due to climate change. Sites across the world are being eroded into the sea, thawing out of permafrost, being destroyed by development, and a dozen other threats.

Archaeologists are organizing to address these problems and to communicate to other scientific disciplines, funding agencies, research groups, governments, and various publics how archaeology is both threatened, why it matters, and how we think we can contribute to expanding our baseline information about the trajectory of climate change through time. With support from large NGOs like Future Earth, groups like the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) are funding and coordinating archaeological research that connects with the best of other natural sciences, historical sciences, environmental humanities, and others to attack these issues comprehensively.

Solar-powered soil chemistry tests in Greenland.

Solar-powered soil chemistry tests in Greenland. (Photo: Jørgen Hollesen/Nationalmuseet.

Indeed, the relatively recent field of ‘historical ecology’ has emerged as a framework for bringing this research together with a strong focus on governance, social and ecological justice, the inclusion of indigenous and settler communities, and the uses of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). PhD candidates Chelsey Armstrong at Simon Fraser University and Anna Shoemaker at Uppsala University and colleagues are currently publishing a paper in PLOS ONE that seeks to codify the state of the field and the range of questions that we feel historical ecology can best address.

Within groups such as IHOPE and the Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance, networks are coordinating the work of academic and governmental researchers and enabling long-term investigation of specific regions. Part 1 of this series has already mentioned the Long-Term Vulnerability and Transformation Project in the American Southwest and the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization, but other examples include the Paleoecosystems of Subarctic Seas working group and the Japan-based Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.

In the U.S., the world’s largest professional society for archaeologists, the Society for American Archaeology, has committed to tackling climate change with the formation of a new committee on Climate Change Strategies and Archaeological Resources (CCSAR), chaired by Drs. Tom McGovern at the City University of New York and Dan Sandweiss of the University of Maine. I’m also honored to have been asked to serve as one of the two graduate student members of this group of committed interdisciplinary professionals. The CCSAR committee presented our framework for understanding the relationship between archaeology and climate change to the U.S. Global Change Research Program earlier this year.

  1. Long-term Completed Experiments of the Past

    Archaeology can help produce ‘big-picture’ case studies of human ecodynamics that include human-environmental impacts, climate change impacts, and inter-cultural interactions and do so on the millennial scale. These case studies can identify rare and recurring patterns, assess outcomes of adaptive pathways, and identify short- versus long-term sustainability. What are the ‘lived experiences’ of climate change? And can we explore what it means to live through rapid environmental transitions?

  2. From ‘Black Box’ to Cultural Tool Kit

    A popular flowchart (below) has explored climate change dynamics through physical processes and has relegated humans (and Culture) into a ‘black box’ that does….something. Thankfully, anthropologists, archaeologists, and environmental humanists can explore what’s in that mystery box. We can identify effective common resource management structures, understand community-level responses to threats and opportunities, and explore unanticipated outcomes and the limits of adaptation. Dr. Steve Hartman at Mid Sweden University explains the need for Integrated Environmental Humanities here.bretherton

  3. Distributed Observing Networks of the Past

    Many of these concepts are brought together by conceptualizing archaeological sites as ‘distributed observing networks of the past’ (or, DONOP). Sites with high degrees of organic preservation are increasingly being recognized as vital sources of data for a range of modern resource management and sustainability scenario-building. New applications such as ancient DNA (aDNA), stable isotopes, and trace elements are enriching the contributions of zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, and human bioarchaeology. This research is bringing archaeologists together natural scientists, indigenous communities, communities with learned, traditional knowledge, marine biologists, climatologists, and oceanographers in correcting ‘shifting baselines’ and enabling effective mobilization of these millennial-sale records to address issues of sustainability in marine ecosystems and human communities beyond our current baseline data – much of which is often only one century old. So far, we’ve seen great success in framing what archaeology is, and what archaeology can do, for non-archaeologists using this framework.

  4. Archaeological Environmental Modeling

    Modeling is increasingly becoming an important facet of archaeological research, taking its place alongside fieldwork and laboratory research as a key area of knowledge production with the integration of diverse datasets. New high resolution multi-proxy climate datasets are becoming available and are allowing for breakthroughs in collaborative modeling work between archaeologists, climatologists, and resource managers. New models are providing high-definition retro-dictions of climate impacts on maize and fodder crop production already being used to aid planning for future climate impacts on agriculture and food security. The DataARC project based at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Synthesizing Knowledge of Past Environments project are already making great strides in archaeological ‘massive data’ and cyberinfrastructure.

  5. Engaging the Public in Global Change Science

    Archaeology provides excellent opportunities for public engagement with field sciences, hands-on experiential learning, place-based sustainability education, heritage as empowerment, and direct participation by communities in prioritizing responses to climate change impacts. The flagship program in this area is the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) trust that is headed by Dr. Tom Dawson of the University of St. Andrews. SCAPE provides a set of integrated digital tools to engage public participation and communication of climate change impacts while encouraging citizen scientists to get involved in preserving their local archaeological heritage.

Whither Climate Change Archaeology in American Politics?

            In her preface to this MAPA blog series, Trish Markert noted three foundational points for this Archaeologist’s Guide to Election Season:

  • Archaeology directly relates to present-day political issues
  • Archaeology provides powerful tools and knowledge for facilitating conversations with the public about political issues
  • Archaeological practice is ethically rooted in values oriented towards human rights and social justice

Archaeologists have access to a wealth of tangible, compelling, and unique evidence for climate change and cultural heritage and are thus obligated to educate and engage with diverse communities and publics. We also must continue to work with policy-makers to explore how we mobilize the lessons we’ve learned from the past into our institutional, political, and social fabrics today.

In this blog series, we have left a great many avenues unexamined. For example, archaeology and climate have significant engagement with discussions on the Anthropocene, historical ecology, and the research on cultural heritage as a tool for engagement and empowerment on multiple topics that include climate change. However, much progress is being made by archaeologists who are attempting to grapple with the problem of climate change. Because the topic, which is rooted in such strong scientific evidence, is shrouded with a blanket of political misinformation, these professionals are able to bridge the divide between a skeptical public and the scientific community by providing tangible evidence for environmental transitions in the past that belay our abstract understand of melting sea ice in a far-off North or massive wildfires on the other side of the globe and safely away from our American experience.

Whether we install a President Clinton or a President Trump, the realities of climate change will persist. And despite the threats that climate change brings to our endangered environmental archive ‘in the ground,’ the greatest threat perhaps lies in our inability to learn everything possible for all of our collective human experience with living through such volatile shifts in global systems.


About the Author:

Kevin Gibbons is a fourth-year PhD student in the Zooarchaeology Laboratory at the University of Maryland. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science degree in Environmental Archaeology and Palaeoeconomy from the University of Sheffield, where his research focused on the zooarchaeology of high-status hunting strategies in medieval Yorkshire. He has also worked at the Georgia Museum of Natural History and as a CRM archaeologist in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. With support from the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization, Kevin’s current work is concerned with the complex systems underlying livestock herding strategies and abrupt shifts in land surface stability in Iceland over the last millennium. His interests include historical ecology, dynamical systems theory and critical transitions, and the use of faunal morphometric data to explore coupled human-natural systems.

You can learn more about his work at his personal research site and at the University of Maryland.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Chelsey Geralda, Anna C. Shoemaker, Oliver J. Boles, Alex McAlvay, Nik Petek, Kevin S. Gibbons, Erendira Quintana Morales, Iain McKechnie, Péter Szabó, Eugene N. Anderson, Anneli Ekblom, Sarah Walshaw, Aleksandra Ibraginow, Grzegorz Podruczny, Jana C. Vamosi, Tony Marks-Block, Joyce K. LeCompte, Sākihitowin Awāsis, Carly Nabess, Paul J. Lane, and Carole L. Crumley (in press) Emerging research directions in historical ecology: 50 questions, infinite prospects. PLOS ONE.

Boivin, Nicole L., Melinda A. Zeder, Dorian Q. Fuller, Alison Crowther, Greger Larson, Jon M. Erlandson, Tim Denham, and Michael D. Petraglia. (2016) Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(23): 6388–6396.

Catlin, Kathryn A. (In press) Archaeology for the Anthropocene: Scale, soil, and the settlement of Iceland. Anthropocene.

Caseldine, C. J., and C. Turney. (2010)  The bigger picture: Towards integrating palaeoclimate and environmental data with a history of societal change. Journal of Quaternary Science 25(1): 88–93.

Chambers, F. M. (editor). (1993) Climate Change and Human Impact on the Landscape: Studies in Palaeoeconomy and Environmental Archaeology. Chapman & Hall, London.

Crumley, Carole L. (2016) New Paths into the Anthropocene: Applying Historical Ecologies to the Human Future. In Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology, edited by Christian Isendahl and Daryl Stump. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dugmore, Andrew J., Thomas H. McGovern, Richard Streeter, Christian Koch Madsen, Konrad Smiarowski, and Christian Keller. (2013)  “Clumsy solutions” and “elegant failures:” Lessons on climate change adaptation from the settlement of the North Atlantic islands. In A Changing Environment for Human Security: Transformative Approaches to Research, Policy and Action, edited by Linda Sygna, Karen O’Brien, and Johanna Wolf, pp. 435–451. Routledge, New York.

Hegmon, Michelle, Jette Arneborg, Laura Comeau, Andrew J. Dugmore, George Hambrecht, Scott Ingram, Keith Kintigh, Thomas H. McGovern, Margaret C. Nelson, Matthew A. Peeples, Ian A. Simpson, Katherine Spielmann, Richard Streeter, and Orri Vésteinsson. (2014) The Human Experience of Social Change and Continuity: The Southwest and North Atlantic in “Interesting Times” ca. 1300. In Climates of Change: The Shifting Environments of Archaeology. Proceedings of the 44th Annual Chacmool Conference, edited by Sheila Kulyk, Cara Tremain, and Madeleine Sawyer, pp. 53–68. University of Calgary, Calgary.

Harvey, David C., and Jim Perry (editors). (2015) The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation, and Creativity. Key Issues in Cultural Heritage. Routledge, New York.

Nelson, Margaret C., Scott E. Ingram, Andrew J. Dugmore, Richard Streeter, Matthew A. Peeples, Thomas H. McGovern, Michelle Hegmon, Jette Arneborg, Keith W. Kintigh, Seth Brewington, Katherine A. Spielmann, Ian A. Simpson, Colleen Strawhacker, Laura E. L. Comeau, Andrea Torvinen, Christian K. Madsen, George Hambrecht, and Konrad Smiarowski. (2016) Climate challenges, vulnerabilities, and food security. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(2): 298–303.

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