GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Human-Environment Geography perspectives on Climate Change and the Anthropocene


The geographer Richard Aspinall calls climate change “one of the inescapable themes of current times” (Aspinall, 2010). He believes that geographers are well placed to make significant contributions to the study of climate change with their multi and inter-disciplinary approaches. “The diverse scope of the discipline and ability of geographers to communicate with other disciplines provide a platform for a successful contribution to integrative and interdisciplinary research focused on climate change” (p. 716).

Indeed, geographers have studied climate and its various interlinkages for a long time. Climatologists along with physical geographers have long studied changes in the climate; geographers have also contributed to simulation models of the Earth’s climate; geospatial technologies (GIS, remote sensing) have emerged as powerful tools for studying changes to the earth’s surface. As per Julie Winkler, “geographers have been extremely active in assessments of climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation. In addition to contributing directly to the extensive scientific literature, geographers have played leading roles in surveying, integrating, and synthesizing science, within and between scientific disciplines and across sectors and regions, as part of international, national, regional, and local climate change assessments” (Winkler 2016, p. 1419).

However, some have argued for a more critical engagement of geography with climate change, its politics and policies (Bailey, 2008). Further, Sultana (2014) argues for a greater engagement with the gendered implications of climate change as well as with the potential of adaptation strategies to change gender relations. “Although climate change is often framed as a global problem for all of humanity, the heterogeneity of its manifestations, impacts, and responses has to be carefully considered” (Sultana 2014, p. 373).

See the AAG resources guide on Geography and Climate Change here.

And the Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change here.

Climate determinism and climate reductionism:

Geographer Mike Hulme argues that while the popularity of climate determinism – the idea that “aspects of climate exerted a powerful shaping influence on the physiology and psychology of individuals and races, which in turn shaped decisively the culture, organization, and behavior of the society formed by those individuals and races” (Hulme, 2011, p. 250)– waned from the middle of the 20th century, it also resulted in a rift between physical and human geography as it shied from theorizing on climate-society relations. The current worldwide importance of climate change has put the focus back on how relations between climate and society are conceived. 

What has emerged is, what he terms, “climate reductionism”, which involves “isolating climate as the (primary) determinant of past, present, and future system behavior and response. If crop yield, economic performance, or violent conflict can be related to some combination of climate variables, then knowing the future behavior of these variables offers a way of knowing how future crop yield, economic performance, or violent conflict will unfold. Other factors that influence these future environmental, economic, or social variables—factors that may be more important than climate or perhaps just less predictable—are ignored or marginalized in the analysis” (Hulme, 2011, p. 253).

He argues that this reductionism resulted from three movements: the withdrawal of the social sciences, particularly geography, from theorizing about climate and society, the rise of computer based global climate and earth system models and the asymmetric incorporation of climate and social change into models to predict the future. He makes a case for “putting society back into the future”, i.e., a re-examination of the phenomenon of climate change, the starting point of which is not the natural sciences but the social sciences and humanities “married to a critical reading of the natural sciences, and informed by a spatially contingent view of knowledge” (Hulme, 2008, p. 5). Geographers, he believes, are well-placed to perform this task.

Further, he provides a list of questions that should guide this new thinking on climate change: “What does climate mean to different people and to diverse cultures? Which of these meanings are threatened by climate change and which can co-evolve with a changing climate? How robust is our putative knowledge of future climate? What language is used to portray climatic risks? Is climate change really a collective action problem? Who gains from driving forward ideas of global climate governance? And, in the end, what is our vision of the global future? Who speaks for the twenty-second century?” (Hulme, 2008, p. 5).

The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene has emerged as a popular and important concept in the environmental and social sciences, and it has resulted in a large number of publications. By mid-2017, there were more than 40,000 sources with the term Anthropocene on Google Scholar (Ellis, 2017). 

What is the Anthropocene? It is a proposed geological time period, “it describes human-induced changes to the earth’s biophysical and chemical environment of such scope, scale, and magnitude as to mark the end of the Holocene (i.e., the roughly 11,700 years prior to the 21st century). The Anthropocene is thus an epochal term” (Castree, 2017). The idea of the Anthropocene has proved quite controversial in the field of geology. Then, there is the less controversial “anthropocene”, which is an informal term representing “Earth’s transition to a time of profound human influence on its functioning as a system” (Ellis, 2017, p. 527). Geographer Noel Castree argues that, quite apart from the scientific question of if, when and how to mark the Anthropocene, the literature has the normative agenda of stressing the need for fundamental changes to human activities to ensure the continuation of a hospitable planet. 

Geographers have also written of the possibilities offered by the popularity and importance of the Anthropocene, especially its potential for more integration between physical and human geographies. Geographers, Erle Ellis and Noel Castree, see the Anthropocene as offering an opportunity to geographers to bridge the internal disciplinary divide as well as contribute to issues of importance to the wider public (Castree, 2015). For Ellis, the need for integration stems from the realization that the natural sciences are not enough to understand the dynamics of the environment, i.e., “in the Anthropocene, geophysics, geochemistry, and biogeography are simply not enough” (Ellis, 2017, p. 525). However, Castree believes that study of global environmental change is dominated by geoscientists and will not engage with critical social sciences and humanities, and thus, such integration and the research will result in a narrowing of possibilities for the Earth and humanity’s future rather than an expansion.


Aspinall, R. (2010). Geographical Perspectives on Climate Change. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4), 715–718.

Bailey, I. (2008). Geographical Work at the Boundaries of Climate Policy : A Commentary and Complement to Mike Hulme. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 33(3), 420–423. 

Castree, N. (2015). Geography and Global Change Science: Relationships Necessary, Absent, and Possible. Geographical Research, 53(1), 1–15. 

Ellis, E. C. (2017). Physical geography in the Anthropocene. Progress in Physical Geography, 41(5), 525–532. 

Hulme, M. (2008). Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 33, 5–11.

Hulme, M. (2011). Reducing the Future to Climate: A Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism. Osiris, Klima, 26(1), 245–266.

Sultana, F. (2014). Gendering Climate Change: Geographical Insights. The Professional Geographer, 66(3), 372–381. 

Winkler, J. A. (2016). Embracing Complexity and Uncertainty. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(6), 1418–1433.