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UW’s Strauss Helps Produce Statement on Humanity and Climate Change

February 16, 2015

Professor Sarah Strauss of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Anthropology played a significant role in developing a statement issued recently by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) regarding humanity and climate change.

Strauss was among 11 anthropologists selected to serve on the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force, which issued a report that served as the basis for the Jan. 29 statement.

“Their work and final statement highlight the importance of anthropology, and the social sciences in general, in helping understand the sociocultural effects of climate change and in developing strategies to ameliorate the effects of climate change on human societies,” says Professor Jim Ahern, head of UW’s Department of Anthropology.

The statement highlights eight ways anthropologists attack the problems of climate change from an anthropological perspective. The document recognizes climate change as a present reality and an intensifier of current underlying global problems; the markedly uneven distribution of impacts across and within societies; and the fact that humanity’s decisions, actions and cultural behaviors are the most important causes of the significant environmental changes seen in the last century.

“Anthropologists focus on several aspects of climate change research that other scientists do not fully address -- specifically, the disproportionately adverse impacts on vulnerable populations; the extent to which our current challenges stem from culture and cultural choices on a societal level; and the value of the long record of human development and civilization that can inform our choices for the future,” says Shirley J. Fiske, who chaired the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force.

The statement affirms that the global problem of climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Solutions and social adaptations, therefore, require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities.

While climate change will have a global impact, the impact will fall unevenly; and as climate impacts intensify, public expenditures needed for emergency aid and restoration will escalate.

“It is crucial that we attend to the statement’s message that climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem,” AAA President Monica Heller says. “Anthropologists play a vital role solving this human problem, and the AAA is eager to continue to support the work of our members in this area.”

In 1993, Strauss was the only anthropologist -- among a group of social scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology -- that began considering the problem of climate change from a human perspective. Her interests in weather and climate expanded the next few years and, in 2003, she co-edited "Weather, Climate, Culture," the first book to take an anthropological perspective on these emerging issues.

In 2006, Strauss spent a National Science Foundation-funded sabbatical year working with a group in Fribourg, Switzerland. There, she learned the basics of climate modeling and continued work to integrate sociocultural perspectives into wider climate research projects.

Strauss joined the UW faculty in 1997. She received a bachelor's degree in religion (1984) from Dartmouth College; a master's of public health (1987) from San Jose State University; and a doctorate in cultural anthropology (1997) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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