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Pluralizing climates: from observation and reception to translation and praxis


By bringing fields of observation, reception and translation studies of climate change into close conversation, pluralizing climates offers a way to work through the tension between upholding scientific integrity and being open to other cultural readings of climate change, and to explore their empowering potential as knowledges grounded in lived experience and ways of being in the world.


We cannot just translate climate change literally into our own language, we need to ask what does climate change mean to us, the Maasai. Maasai traditional ruler, Terrat village, northern Tanzania [3]

Over recent years we have been thinking together, and with other colleagues and interlocutors, about what we might consider political ecologies of climate knowledge.[4] Our starting points were questions about how scientific ideas, narratives and discourses of climate change emerge, circulate, interact with other worldviews and knowledges? How do they shift, and with what effects in the worlds they purport to represent and influence? What are the historical conditions of their development, acceptance or contestation, and the assumptions that shape which ideas and framings are legitimized and deployed in different contexts? With the increasing hegemony of a biophysical framing of climate change - a powerful discourse that has traveled to the most ostensibly ‘remote’ places on earth - these questions have encouraged exploration of ways to pluralize climate epistemologies, by examining the worldviews in which they emerge, the power hierarchies implicated in the translation of climate knowledge, and the agentive potential of interpretive communities across the world.

For us, these questions have emerged through our own empirical research, and through engagement with climate change ‘reception studies’, that is, by exploring how weather/climate are discursively mediated, especially via scientific framings, as well as directly observed and sensed (Rudiak-Gould 2011). Taking inspiration from media/cultural studies of audience agency (e.g. Hall 1980) and geographies of reading (Livingstone 2005), reception studies thus depart from ‘observation studies’ that are primarily concerned with how people directly perceive and respond to shifting weather patterns. For example, in his pioneering ethnography of climate change risk perceptions in the Marshall Islands, Peter Rudiak-Gould (2013) demonstrated how a society’s pre-existing moral commitments inform how its members attribute climate change causality. In his study, vernacular Marshallese narratives of cultural decline in the face of external ‘modernizing’ influences form the context in which climate change ideas are received and interpreted, largely in the idiom of in-group blame. Contrary to what one might expect, rather than victimizing, this narrative of in-group blame empowers the Marshallese by opening new avenues for praxis. When applied to a range of cases, such attention to reception holds potential to pluralize climate change ideas: different meanings proliferate as hegemonic framings encounter and are reconfigured in diverse cultural contexts.

Our review of this emerging field (2022) focused on ethnographies that explore the circulation, translation, use, rejection and reframing of scientific climate information and discourse, across and within cultural contexts. We were especially keen to shed light on examples that challenge deficit-model approaches to climate literacy and unidirectional communication, by demonstrating the agency of interpretive communities, and the political-ethical dimensions of knowledge negotiation. Political ecologies of climate knowledge have shifted the normative focus implicated in behavioral approaches, drawing also on journalism studies, STS and Indigenous scholarship to develop in-depth understandings of “how climate change comes to matter” (Callison 2014) for particular groups in particular places through material and discursive worlds. Taking the wisdom and concern of the Maasai elder quoted above to heart, this requires sensitivity to local expertise and worldviews, but also to the worlds these translation practices bring about, or even replace. Who is deemed an expert; who can claim authority to translate climate and with what effects?

Why focus on politics and plurality?

We venture that these questions are crucial, not least because the form and content of environmental knowledge is not only shaped by the worlds it seeks to represent, but can also shape those worlds, constraining some possibilities while opening others (Taddei 2013). This concern with questions of performativity and enactment links discursive topics to material conditions/effects; epistemological concerns to ontological realms.

Opening space for alternatives to techno-optimism, or a newly-emerging declensionist emergency, Indigenous thinkers have long noted that contemporary crisis’ framings risk disavowing the long-term apocalyptic experience of colonial dispossession (Whyte 2018). Provincialising dominant framings of climate change and related tropes through highlighting contestations, alternatives, and transformative encounters, points a way towards a contextual, textured and politically engaged understanding of climate change as a predicament thoroughly embedded in broader causes and conditions of socio-ecological (in)justice.

These approaches offer a lexicon for critiquing epistemic injustices (including disavowal and also extraction/co-optation/instrumentalization/of local and Indigenous ways of knowing); they also highlight generative tensions – documenting meaningful dialogues, and also resistance/refusal. Challenges to dominant framings, e.g. rejections and negotiations of science articulated by Maasai interlocutors, may bring visibility to ongoing legacies of imperialism and their entanglements with exclusionary ‘purifying’ epistemologies (de Wit 2020). Tracing oppositional and negotiated readings (Hall 1980) and multidirectional translations helps complicate assumptions about unilinear journeys of information to passive recipients (Meyer & Sokolíčková 2024). One example is the influence that Pacific Islands leaders and activists have exerted in global policy areas, rejecting their characterisation as vulnerable victims and instituting cultural practices and speech genres as a framework for intergovernmental negotiations (Kirsch 2020). Importantly, political ecologists working in these spaces must also engage in critical self-reflection as “climate translators” (Mathur 2017) – themselves receivers of stories and contributors to knowledge negotiations. Returning to the potential performativity linking discourses to material conditions, this highlights the responsibilities at stake in developing ethical scholarship and praxis in relation to climate and society.

Looking forward

Ongoing reflexivity about the politics of knowledge is necessary to understand and engage with what climate change means and entails now and in times to come. Attention to plurality and contestation can challenge conventional views of science versus denial, focusing instead on what can be generated and learned across difference, acknowledging potential incommensurabilities and attending to the contexts that condition more or less ‘successful’ translations. Building on a politically attuned and multidirectional approach to climate change reception presents an opportunity for such engagement. While our focus to date has been anthropological, we see much potential in further interdisciplinary engagements across and beyond political ecology, geography, STS, environmental humanities, linguistics, translation studies, religion/theology and environmental sciences; keeping an eye on the dynamics of reception and negotiation also occurring within such spaces of collaboration.

This approach to the reception and influence of certain substantial narratives (in this case, climate change), resonates with other scholarship concerned not so much with pinning down category definitions, but exploring how they are mobilized, what they mobilize in turn, and the effects on human and more-than-human worlds. Amelia Moore (2016) suggests such a lens for the Anthropocene idea (we now start to consider where the idea might go following its rejection by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy); while Gabrielle Hecht’s coining of the ‘African Anthropocene’ (2018) is among many critical engagements with the concept that acknowledge its power to bring together natural and social sciences, while seeking to account more fully for its pluralities and uneven responsibilities and experiences. Similar critical attention to reception, translation and praxis could be applied to other macro-scale categories and discourses that wield certain influence in the world, among them ‘Loss and Damage’ (Khan 2023) and ‘Planetary Health’. Scholars in sustainability studies have recently highlighted an urgent need to connect abstract notions of Planetary Justice to the lives of the poor (Kashwan et al 2020). We hope that pluralizing ecologies of knowledge can contribute to such a journey.


[1] Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh
[2] Institute for History, Africa Section at Leiden University/ African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL)
[3] Adopted from de Wit 2020.
[4] This statement summarizes and extends our 2022 article in WIREs:Climate Change


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