WSU anthropologist edits special journal issue on cultural climate adaptation

Rice paddies from Jatiluwih, Balican can be seen from the air.
Rice paddies in the subak (self-governing water-user's association) of Jatiluwih, Bali (photo by Kiril Dubrov).

Human communities across the globe have a long history of generating effective solutions to climate change, and many of these often-little-known cultural adaptations could prove useful today. 

That’s according to a new special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, edited by Washington State University anthropologist Anne Pisor.

The special issue brings together a diverse team of experts to document an array of cultural practices and solutions people have used throughout time to deal with drought, scarce resources, and other climatic threats. It also takes a quantitative look at whether these adaptations worked or not and why. 

“Humans have long used culture to adapt to climate change,” Pisor said. “What we know about what has worked, and not worked, for people past and present can inform our approach in the 21st century.”

As part of the special issue, the research team also created an online portal for scientists, policymakers, and humanitarian organizations to access data sets and models related to many of the adaptations presented in the special issue’s 13 papers.

One of those adaptations, a rice irrigation method dating back to the 9th century in Indonesia, recently helped farmers in Bali to increase the yields of their rice paddies while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70%. The irrigation method could potentially be used in other parts of Asia to curb methane emissions from rice paddies, which are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Alit Arthawiguna and a team of Balinese agricultural researchers investigate ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice paddies in Subak Bene.
Alit Arthawiguna and a team of Balinese agricultural researchers investigate ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice paddies in Subak Bene, using traditional methods of collective irrigation management (photo by Steve Lansing).

“We can learn with communities, from both successful and unsuccessful innovations, about what works, where, and why — which will be key to scaling up adaptation,” Pisor said. 

Ultimately, the research team’s hope is that the special issue and its data portal will offer valuable new insights into how adaptation strategies developed by local and often Indigenous communities across the globe can be used to help deal with a diverse array of contemporary climatic threats.

“Even if climate change today is happening faster than in the past, we can still learn from what adaptations people have used successfully,” Pisor said. “It will ultimately enable us to help researchers, policymakers, and organizations better support communities.”

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