Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

Anthropology has documented the severity of the climate crisis in frontline hot spots around the world, drawing important attention to the need for adaptation assistance and just frameworks for mitigation, loss, and damage. But anthropological attention has also moved far beyond cases of localized impact and resilience. Today the climate crisis permeates nearly every aspect of human experience: from how people respond to atmospheric change, reconcile local and scientific knowledge, and fight for systemic transformation—to the power structures and economic forces that shape contemporary climate governance.

This Hot Spots series celebrates and encourages focused anthropological attention on the technocratic processes, uneven power dynamics, and exclusionary modalities of climate governance—particularly in light of the growing urgency for ambitious climate action. Much of the public discussion on climate change frames the problem as a global phenomenon, metonymically reducing it to a 2- or 1.5-degree target, or to a particular parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. But coming closer to the subject of observation through a critical anthropological lens yields a more complex picture of climate governance than what might be perceptible to an interested public from afar.

The essays collected here turn a public anthropological lens on the global apparatus of climate change governance, through ethnographic analysis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Conference of the Parties (COP)—and beyond. Together they help us to understand climate change as a fundamentally political problem rooted in global histories of extraction, colonialism, and oppression that have resulted in contrasting visions of the problem in a rapidly changing and deeply unequal world. These opposing perspectives form durable barriers to addressing the uneven distribution of suffering caused by anthropogenic climate change across diverse spheres, lifeworlds, and assemblages (Ingold 1993; Ong and Collier 2004). What happens when representatives of starkly different lifeways and regimes of capital gather to negotiate such an urgent crisis? Whose needs, desires, interests, and values are included or excluded from the negotiation zone? And what are the political stakes of understanding climate change otherwise?

We draw from Annelise Riles’s call to investigate “global” networks from the inside out and embrace the inherent failures of trying to make holistic sense of them (2001, 19). The glimpses of negotiation and governance that our essays describe are partial and incomplete, but together they provide a strikingly clear image of processes riddled with injustices that tend to compromise global agreements to limit greenhouse gases. Yet, the collection does not intend to suggest there is no hope for transnational dialogue, compromise, or progress (Riles 2017). Rather, we find that ethnographic perspectives on “how climate change comes to matter” (Callison 2014) —for what and for whom—offer vital insights into the tensions, silences and absences that threaten to destabilize international climate agreements needed to mitigate catastrophic climate change.

Several important themes and directions for future research emerge from this collection. In addition to discussions about the durability of colonial power and postcolonial struggles to address loss and damage (Haverkamp; Johansson et al.), the essays also provide insights into the technopolitics of climate forecasting, modeling and emissions accounting (Haines, Wald, and Knox). These discussions about accounting and transparency will certainly be in the spotlight at COP27 in Egypt (November 2022), as delegates conduct their first Global Stocktake of progress toward the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The climate negotiations hinge on consensus-based norms and an overriding spirit of diplomacy, but several contributions examine both the strength and fragility of the process. There are 197 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They are joined by thousands of observers and non-party actors that hope to influence the process—as well as hundreds of members of the UN Secretariat staff and countless security professionals. It is in this context that civil society groups, impassioned activists, dedicated researchers, industry lobbyists, and party nations negotiate possible scenarios of climate pathways, even as the climate emergency has already arrived (Isenhour, O’Reilly, Khan, and Sigurðsson). Yet while discussions of accounting frameworks, adaptation finance, and raising mitigation ambition predictably take center stage at international negotiations, these essays also illuminate parallel climate summits taking place beyond the walls of international governance. Gatherings of social movements and civil society groups shed light on overlooked aspects of climate governance, including Indigenous rights, water protection, and the socio-ecological burdens of green extractivism. Critical anthropological attention to these alternative spaces of climate governance reveals thematic silences that reproduce a sharpening divide between grassroots environmental justice activists and “grasstops” corporate-national alliances (Barnes, Hite, Flores, and Blair and Balcázar).

We invite readers to take a peek into these contested zones of climate governance and to think with us about how critical anthropological perspectives on such crisis negotiations might help us to interrogate ongoing threats to planetary survival so that, together, we may re-imagine and build a more just, equitable and inclusive global future.


Callison, Candis. 2014. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Ingold, Tim. 1993. “Globes and Spheres: The Topology of Environmentalism” in Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology, edited by Kay Milton. London: Routledge.

Ong, Aihwa, and Stephen J. Collier. 2004. Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. London: Wiley.

Riles, Annelise. 2001. The Network Inside Out. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Riles, Annelise. 2017. “Outputs: The Promises and Perils of Ethnographic Engagement After the Loss of Faith in Transnational Dialogue.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23, S1: 182–97.