Issue Number Three: Sentinel Devices

Fingerprint, Bellwether, Model Event: Anticipating Climate Change Futures

Climate change is now happening faster than our models and stories can comprehend. Jerome Whitington explores three figures of warning that help make sense of it.

Climate watchers over the past decade have witnessed momentous ecological changes accompanying the current rise 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-world changes in many cases are outpacing the modeled scenarios. These transformations afford the anthropologist climate watcher an opportunity to ask about the expert vernaculars through which expert and political actors apprehend threatening ecological futures. I explore here three terms, the bellwether, the climate fingerprint, and the model event, that enable precise thinking about the implications of climate change.

The climate fingerprint has a limited but crucial application. The fingerprint refers to a class of methodologies to assess whether real world events like droughts or changes in species ecology can be attributed to climate change. Taking climate change as a problem related to small but persistent changes, they look for distinctive data signatures that validate global circulation models while providing specificity to anticipated local changes. As Gramelsberger and Feichter (2011, pg. 9) put it, the “scientific concept of climate [is] a mathematical construct that cannot be experienced directly.” Validation is critical in a context in which global circulation models are unable to capture fine-grained local dynamics, and in which a premium is placed on correlating mathematical pattern with qualitative real world transformations. Learning to trust models implies an ethics of circumspection in how they are used.

Biologists Parmesan and Yohe have provided a methodology for identifying a climate fingerprint, or signature, across large amounts of ecological data that may contain a weak climate warming signal. Their work seeks to isolate whether global warming is changing individual species’ and communities’ location, composition, and timing of species interactions (phenology). “Most local changes,” they write, “are idiosyncratic and consist of noise when scaled up; however, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen nearly uniformly across the globe” (Parmesan and Yohe 2003, pg. 39). Only the global analysis of many different species can confirm the long wave transformation. They draw on studies of 484 species (or groups) for phenological changes and 460 species for range distribution and community composition. Eighty seven percent of the former and 81% of the latter were observed to change as predicted, providing a strong validation of the models.

Reciprocally, fingerprinting diffuses the old language of causality, for it makes little sense to say climate change has ‘caused’ a given weather or ecological event. One example of fingerprinting is to model ‘retro-dictions’ of extremely warm nights. CO2 prevents nighttime cooling, unlike increased solar radiation, which is one preferred climate skeptic argument against the science. Comparing modeled and measured increases in extremely warm nights validates global circulation models, but it also makes clear that publics may expect too much local specificity from a science of global change (e.g. Karl et al. 2008). Whether a given event was ‘caused’ by climate change places undue emphasis on causality for weather systems that are always defined by a great many contingent variables. Climate science provides not detailed predictions with precise causes, but modeled scenarios that allow for deliberate work in the present, oriented toward an anticipated future.

In this context, the bellwether has been offered as an anticipatory device often used interchangeably with the term sentinel. Etymologically, the wether is a sheep and a member of a flock (OED Online 2012); the bellwether is the lead sheep which, with a bell around its neck, allows the shepherd to know the whereabouts of the flock even if it is out of visual range. The metaphor is explicitly pastoral and pattern-orientated rather than tuned to identify the specificity of a martial threat.

With respect to climate change, the bellwether grammar applies to two distinct classes of phenomena, small streams, arctic lakes, water catchments and certain species on the one hand, which are harbingers of ecological change across particularly delicate threshold ecologies; and large scale geophysical ice formations, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, glaciers or, especially, the Arctic polar ice cap. The latter are singular entities in a way the former are not, and they speak more directly to the socio-technical dimensions of nonlinear planetary events in which a small amount of warming might have dramatic consequences.

Nowhere are the emerging effects of climate change more acute than in the Arctic, where temperatures have increased at twice the global average, and predictions of largely ice-free summers recently have been moved forward to as early as 2030 (e.g. Wang and Overland 2009). While the extent of Arctic sea ice has definitively retreated, the events have also posed questions about the density of ice and the climate feedbacks it helps maintain.

“The Arctic Ocean is now opening to the greater global society in ways that were completely unanticipated a decade ago,” write the authors of ‘Climate Change and International Security: The Arctic as Bellwether’ (Huebert et al. 2012, pg. 6). “The ice that has long maintained the Arctic as a uniquely placid international space is receding rapidly.” An ice mass with relational significance, once tacitly stabilizing geopolitics, now makes explicit new potential for military, shipping and resource expansion. Planetary geopolitical ecology has become the subject of deliberate anticipation among the eight circumpolar countries.

If one asks what the Arctic is a bellwether for, the answer provided is that “climate change is a national and international security interest in the traditional strategic sense.” The heightened anxiety/opportunism announced by the climate bellwether may be symbolized by the Russian planting of a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in 2007, or Dmitry Medvedev claiming, “Our first and main priority is to turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base for the 21st century” (Huebert et al. 2012, pg. 1, 31).

The bellwether demonstrates that climate change establishes its presence largely in terms of uncertain futures, where uncertainty is itself especially generative. In this sense, the bellwether does double-duty. Whatever the accuracy of their interpretation, circumpolar nations have no doubt that climate change is a high-stakes play advanced far beyond official United Nations discourse. Their anticipation itself, more than biophysical changes per se, is the most immediate and least predictable dimension of a militarized geopolitical ecology. If the climate is a wild card, what might be expected from these different governments?

Medvedev is speaking not only about mineral resources, but especially about the anticipation of vast undiscovered petroleum reserves still frozen out of energy markets due to the engineering challenges of underwater Arctic drilling. One bellwether event ricocheted through business media in 2011, with Exxon signing a long-term Arctic exploration agreement with the Russian state petroleum firm Rosneft, with an indicative value of some $500 billion. That’s not small change for a future supposedly oriented toward the divestment of fossil energy industries and the radical geologies they practice.

New fossil energy investment is only one of several powerful feedbacks where one can witness the opportunistic/anxious anticipation of global change. The primary atmospheric feedback is that polar ice reflects solar radiation during the endless summer days and, as the ice melts, the dark waters in its place exacerbate the heating effect. Another is the increasingly thawed permafrost, which threatens to vent additional billions of tons of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. There is a fair amount of scary sensationalism on this point, with activist publics signaling somewhat frantically toward an unlikely runaway greenhouse effect.

Notably, the final feedback concerns the Arctic as exploratory domain for fantastic geoengineering proposals. Solar radiation management, which proposes a different sort of radical geology, would inject aerosols into the stratosphere to block sunlight and limit warming. In that case, the immediate effects of warming might be forestalled for a time but, since global CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated, a commitment to planetary engineering seems to only preserve the momentum of financed fossil energy futures foretold in Medvedev’s promise.

In the meantime, the authors note that several of the circumpolar states are investing into Arctic military capacity far beyond what is needed for normal policing activity. Such a race for resources secured by stock militarization implies a commitment to the doxa of conventional geopolitics. No party to the Arctic can safely assume the others will accept docilely a carbon-constrained future orchestrated by a United Nations convention that threatens economic growth no less than the raw terms of geopolitical claims to power. Canada and Russia, both having abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, have clearly staked their game-theoretical futures on expansive fossil energy reserves. Russia’s fossil energy production is already some 20% of its economy, while Canada’s commitment to oil sands makes it an emerging circumpolar petrostate.

The Arctic as bellwether hinges on whether circumpolar geopolitical brokers expect that climate change is real and underway. Through their committed activities, their own anticipation about climate change becomes an integral part of the event. How do assumptions of climate science accelerate feedbacks of human apprehension? To what extent does climate anticipation threaten to spin itself out of control? The bellwether is an anticipatory device that treats the real world as a simulation because it treats other people’s expectations as diagnosing the actuality of climate change. As with all modeling operations, it traces scenarios rather than formulating predictions. It makes urgent a present of potential actions rather than determining a future of definite outcomes. The Arctic as bellwether implies a tricky, non-obvious task of unwinding from a dangerous historical situation of committed militarization and fossil energy dependence.

The bellwether is very close to the idea of a sentinel species, but it has a different range of applications. The sentinel, a martial herald of emerging disease surveillance, helps show that a threat is a kind of risk that cannot be managed within the bounds of social forms such as insurance (Keck 2010; Collier and Lakoff 2008). Certain species do purport to tell the future of climate—most notably penguins (Boersma 2008)—but the expectation placed on the bellwether is different. The pastoral bellwether is neutral and leaves open that some Arctic actors view climate change as a welcome opportunity.

What is asked of a soothsayer can be viewed as a record of one’s horizon of expectation. For the disease sentinel, what remains unknown is the given point and time at which an anticipated pathogen might appear, and its precise nature. The climate bellwether anticipates a shift in pattern, not the discrete threat of a transformed organism such as a virus. The penguin as a sentinel species is clearly responding to environmental transformations, including trends like climate change. But does it announce that climate change has arrived? Does it communicate what is in store for the rest of us? Indeed, they are better understood as marine sentinels, and Boersma, the scientist who has named them as such, uses their predicament to demonstrate the multiple stresses on oceans, including climate change. I view polar bears, in contrast to penguins, as communication devices, not sentinels. Rhetorically they function to convince, not to interrogate or problematize a future. Designating a sentinel or a bellwether implies clarifying one’s assumptions and learning how to ask which questions are important.

A model event is a real world environmental event, such as an extreme flood, hurricane or drought, which makes clear the stakes of long-term weather changes in non-obvious ways. I have developed the term to understand experiences of flooding in central Thailand during Oct-Nov 2011, which demonstrated Bangkok’s unique vulnerabilities even though the flood’s main proximate causes were mismanagement and inadequate urban infrastructure (Whitington n.d.). The model event reveals what climate futures may look like, and forces people to assess their relation to that vulnerability in terms of the specificity of a real event.

Part of the Thai event stemmed from a widespread insurance failure as many of Thailand’s vast industrial parks flooded. Likewise, large numbers of smaller Thai businesses either didn’t have insurance or came to realize it was inadequate. The overarching financial health of international insurers became especially apparent. Local insurance brokers had been selling Thai policies on the cheap for years, without any serious due diligence on event probability. After the flood, many local insurers have stopped offering flooding policies. International insurers have pulled out of the market and foreign investors in Thailand’s burgeoning export economy have made clear that the flooding is a liability they expect the government to take on board (e.g. Wright 2012). The government, in turn, has announced a $1.6 billion insurance pool offered to preclude foreign investors from moving production elsewhere. It is a clear case of climate risk arriving on the back of multiple inadequate infrastructures—urban, informational, capital asset—only to become a new liability of public funds in the context of global capital flows. The specificity of these climate vulnerabilities becomes apparent in the model event.

Model events do not establish a causal linkage to climate change. Rather, they ask how differently situated players are enabled to think about long-term climate vulnerabilities. Far from naturalizing climate change as a generic cause (i.e., separate from institutions, norms of social exclusion, specificities of capital and power through which a disaster arrives), in the Thai case I identify a complex problematization by Thais observing and participating from many different vantage points. For example, the decision-making of hydropower storage reservoir operators and managers of Bangkok’s flood-gates was extensively debated in the press; debates about the politicization of flood control were widespread; and the government response has been to bureaucratize flood management up to the highest level of government, with the Prime Minister presiding over two new water management bodies. In other words, whatever the climate impact, the proximate causes have been assigned as a matter of Thai responsibility over the not-natural, not-cultural contingencies pertaining to the specificity of an event. The model event makes it possible to ask whether situated practitioners are asking the right questions.

Climate vulnerabilities hinge not on a specific ontological conception of threat but on the transformation of pattern, and each of these terms invites a topological relation to planetary information (Blok 2011; Law and Mol 2001). For example, Paul Edwards writes of climate models “shimmering” with uncertainty (Edwards 2011: 337). “The past shimmers,” he asks. “What about the future?” Data shimmering applies equally well to the oscillating presence and absence of summer Arctic ice minimums, with their apprehensive interpretability and the uncertain linkages to nonlinear geopolitical effects, as it does to the pulsating transformations of insect ecologies or the real time apprehension of flooding vulnerability.

One of the earliest modern scientific papers on climate change used a compelling methodology to identify “small but persistent” biospheric changes (Keeling 1960, p. 1). Given the ongoing anxiety about scientific uncertainty, the challenge of how to think about small but persistent changes remains acute. For some, uncertainty means inaction is a legitimate response; for others, it allows imagination to run unchecked toward unnecessarily extreme assessments of impending doom. The fingerprint, bellwether and model event refute the idea that climate change narratives remain bound within the apocalyptic (Swyngedouw 2010). The world is not going to end, but neither will it stay the same due to a stroke of the pen on some international agreement. Rather, this grammar suggests a pragmatics of thinking through multiple possible futures. In different ways, these terms present an emerging vernacular adequate to the novel challenge of climate change, an informational event in which modeled and measured futures increasingly resonate with each other.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Chris Vasantkumar for a compelling discussion.

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