Why Culture Matters in the Climate Debate

A new paper argues that climate educators and communicators are ignoring deeply held beliefs that influence climate skepticism.

It is the great riddle of the day in climate circles: Why is public concern about global warming so shallow, and why do widespread doubts about man-made climate change persist?

Everyone seems to have a pet theory. Al Gore blames the media and President Obama. Some green critics argue that Gore should look in the mirror. Let’s not ignore the recession, scholars remind us. Yes, but the lion’s share of blame must go to those “merchants of doubt”, particularly fossil fuel interests, and climate skeptics, plenty others assert. Err, actually, it’s our brain that’s the biggest problem, social scientists now say.

Another reason, similar to that last one, is that cultural and religious beliefs predispose many to dismiss evidence that humans can greatly influence the climate. In fact, geographer Simon Donner in a paper published this week in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, argues:

“Successful climate change education and outreach programs should be designed to help overcome perceived conflict between climate science and long-held cultural beliefs, drawing upon lessons from communication and education of other potentially divisive subjects like evolution.”

Donner is not the first to try to bridge the gap between science and religion. E.O. Wilson gamely attempted to do so several years ago, with his book, The Creation. In a 2006 interview with NPR, Wilson acknowledged that, “the usual approach of secular science is to marginalize religion” in debates on environmental issues. After the book’s publication, this writer facilitated a lengthy dialogue between Wilson, ecologist Stuart Pimm and leading evangelical Richard Cizik, on areas where science and religion could find common ground. Expanding on that public dialogue has proven difficult. If anything, the polarized political landscape and the continuing climate wars have narrowed the space for science and religion to be reconciled.

Still, those who want to overcome obstacles to climate action should be mindful of culture’s importance, Donner stresses in his paper. He writes that “lingering public uncertainty about anthropogenic climate change may be rooted in an important but largely unrecognized conflict between climate science and some long held beliefs. In many cultures, the weather and climate have historically been viewed as too vast and too grand to be directly influenced by people.”

Donner writes that scholars studying public attitudes on climate change should factor in such cultural worldviews when accounting for climate skepticism. He surmises: “Underlying doubts that human activity can influence the climate may explain some of the malleability of public opinion about the scientific evidence for climate change.”

Donner suggests that climate educators and communicators learn from approaches that have worked in the evolution debate. He informs us:

“Pedagogical research on evolution finds that providing the audience with opportunities to evaluate how their culture or beliefs affect their willingness to accept scientific evidence is more effective than attempting to separate scientific views from religious or cultural views.”

Moreover, Donner argues that “reforming public communication” on climate change “will require humility on the part of scientists and educators.” He concludes:

“Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious and historical reasons that the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response. It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience, not armed with the same analytical tools as scientists, to develop lasting acceptance during a one-hour public seminar of a scientific conclusion that runs counters to thousands of years of human belief. Without addressing the common long-standing belief that human activity cannot directly influence the climate, public acceptance of climate change and public engagement on climate solutions will not persist through the next cold winter or the next economic meltdown.”

The intersection where science and religion meet is all too often home to an ugly collision. Donner advises that such crack-ups can and should be avoided in the climate debate.

Can it be done?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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25 Responses to Why Culture Matters in the Climate Debate

  1. Michael Larkin says:

    Of course, others might see more sense in this: …climate “educators” and “communicators” are ignoring deeply held beliefs that influence climate alarmism.

  2. RickA says:

    I don’t know about Donner’s premise.

    What about rain dances?

    Cloud seeding?

    It seems to me that history is full of examples of people thinking people can influence the weather.

    Speaking only for myself, it is not that I doubt that humans can influence the climate – but that I don’t have a clue as to the magnitude of that influence.

    Which is greater – natural variability or human influence.

    It seems to me that the data do not answer this question – which is why the jury is still out.

    Only many more years of data (and better data) will answer this question.

    • Menth says:

      I agree,

      “In many cultures, the weather and climate have historically been viewed as too vast and too grand to be directly influenced by people.”

      Donner makes much of the distinction between cultures believing society affects the weather via morality and ritual(common) as opposed to people believing society affects the weather directly via physical means(not common).

      Basically he’s saying that people are predisposed to believing that they cannot affect the weather because god controls the weather not humans.

      While I found much interesting in Donner’s paper I disagree with the degree to which he plays up this “distinction”. I submit that the common predisposed view is still that humanity affects the weather by pleasing god via adhering to moral codes and ritual. While this may not be “direct” in the strictest sense it still implies that how we behave morally as societies will affect the weather we get. This is the essence of what morality is: a system of shared beliefs and values that when adhered to will promote the continued flourishing of the society. In this case deviation from morality results in bad weather and vice versa.

      The world is chaotic and fraught with danger, the human brain abhors uncertainty and thus seeks patterns. We prefer a wrong explanation to no explanation at all. The scientific rationalism of the past three centuries has begun offering us better explanations of the world around us but I believe it is difficult to understate the continued effect morality has on coloring our interpretation of the world. Donner limits the exploration of those INCLINED to believe in climate change due to cultural factors to a single paragraph and implies it is relegated to more radical sections of society. I think he downplays this tendency. From anecdotal experience I can tell you that there are plenty of people (intelligent people) who believe in climate change and don’t have a very good understanding of it at all (I think there was a Yale survey that showed this as well). Now you could assert that this is because they rightfully believe in the trustworthiness of scientific institutions but as documented elsewhere often these people hold very contrary views on vaccinations, GMOs, Aspartame etc. Is it possible that these people too are subject to certain cultural predispositions that skew their ability to evenly parse the world at large?

      That said, I agree; culture matters.

    • Mauricio says:

      I am sure you have dillingently sat down, reviewed the data and magnanimously decided that data does not answer the question. Hold on… what are you talking about? A majority of the world’s leading scientists and research institutions have done this for you, and decided that human infleunce IS the greater.

  3. Erl Happ says:

    People are smart. CO2 goes up and temperature stabilizes. Winters get colder.

    Climate science has shown little advance over 150 years when Walker noticed the see-saw swing in atmospheric pressure between Tahiti and Darwin. . We don’t have an explanation for the ENSO or its tendency to move towards the warming or cooling end of the scale over decades. Since 2007 we have La Nina dominance. Between 1980 and 2007 we had El Nino dominance? Why?

    Too little focus on cause and effect, too much mindless application of fancy statistical analysis with little or no appreciation and an almost complete unwillingness to grapple with the detail of cause and effect. Too much maths. Too little analytical thought.

    Why do the clouds come and go?

    What is the role of ozone in the troposphere?

    • Eadler says:

      Tom Sharf,

      You are trying to debunk the argument that was made, by making up a straw man and replying to it instead. On top of that, you accuse the people who made the argument, which you don’t like, of being bad people i.e. “leftists”. This is your stock

      There is no doubt that there are a significant numbers of people in the US who have little appreciation and understanding of how science works. It was not argued that this is the whole story of the opposition to the science behind AGW, just that it is a factor. This sort of cultural factor is definitely at work regarding the scientific theory of evolution, particularly the origin of the human species. The argument is not made that this is loony, quite the opposite. One can’t argue that the scientific consensus doesn’t exist in this case.

      International surveys of the general public show that America is something of an outlier regarding public acceptance of the science on both issues. This supports the cultural argument.

    • Eadler says:

      Earl Happ,

      Your claim that climate science has shown little change in the last 150 years, since Gilbert Walker explained ENSO is nonsense. It has been 100 years not 150 years.

      Your claim that there is too little focus on cause and effect is also quite wrong. There is ample information on the history of climate science and global warming that shows the opposite.


  4. Tom Scharf says:

    Social “scientists”, a profession that is almost 100% left leaning, once again finds that the failure to believe in AGW is some sort of mental deficiency attributable only to those on the right, specifically painting all skeptics with an Evangelical brush.

    Every one of these academic studies starts with the premise that AGW is a given truth, and thus the study immediately invalidates itself. Does anyone on the other side not see that they would immediately reject the terms of the argument given the reverse situation?

    Evolution is always brought up as a shiny example of the failure to absorb reason. This is then combined with a vague appeal to scientific authority that effectively states, “We are right about evolution, therefore we are right on AGW”. Never mind the details.

    Somehow the social scientists never get around to parsing the lack of reason with the green’s objections to nuclear energy, GMO’s, and whether Bush was “in on 9/11″.

    I’m the first to admit that there are loonies on the right, as there are on the left. A fairly recent study showed skeptics to be more scientifically literate on global warming than non-skeptics (although only slightly so). Any visit to a skeptic forum shows anything but a mindless mob failing to accept reason.

    The science is simply not strong enough yet that it is quite valid to have honest disagreements over what the data means, and whether it has reached a threshold from which policy decisions can be made. Why is that so difficult to accept?

    • klem says:

      “Why is that so difficult to accept?”

      They are in denial. It means that they must admit that they backed the wrong horse, and they need to find a way to save face. They deny that the climate alarmist movement has failed badly, they will not accept that the environmental movement itself has been damaged and will require decades to recover, and their dreams of a UN global goverment has been tossed out the window. If I had to face those realities I’d be in denial as well.

      The proof will be revealed in late November at Durban. I’ll bet even Al Gore himself finds an excuse not to attend.


    • Eadler says:

      Tom Sharf,

      You are full of straw man arguments, and refuse to deal with the premise that underlying doubts, about the possibility of human impacts on climate, make people unwilling to accept the science which shows AGW is a possibility. The proponents of this view do not claim it is the only reason for skepticism, only that it is present.

      Looking at web sites frequented by deniers/skeptics, I have seen the argument that CO2 is such a small fraction of the atmosphere that it couldn’t be a factor in shaping the climate. Another argument that I have seen frequently is that natural cycles have previously been responsible for climate change, therefore natural cycles are responsible for today’s warm spell. We are recovering from the little ice age. This is a very attractive argument to people who believe that humans cannot be strong enough to influence climate.

      It is not surprising that skeptics would have more knowledge of climate science than that average person. Skeptics need to feel that they know more than the climate scientists, in order to have confidence, that they are right about going against the consensus of climate scientists, who say AGW is happening and significant. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

      it doesn’t take much knowledge to accept the opinions of experts because of their authority.

  5. Eadler says:

    I am a mentor to a Nepali refugee family newly arrived in the US. They are Pentacostal Christians. The 3rd grader in the family came home with an assignment from the teacher, which was picked out of questions kids put into a jar. The questions was, “How was the earth created”. They were supposed to ask their parents to help them. I found her a web site which described the creation of the solar system from a disk of gas and dust left over from a star which exploded. The planets formed as a result of the attraction of orbiting pieces due to gravity 4.5B years ago.

    I also volunteer as a mentor in the girl’s class, and suggested to the teacher that the question was problematic, and that without guidance, some of the families would look at this as a religious question, rather than a scientific question. She said, that’s OK., everyone’s opinon is equally valuable. She didn’t want to denigrate anyone’s religion. I demurred, and said I thought that the difference between the methodology of religion and science should be explained, and that in questions of science, the results from the scientists should be considered as valid.

    The ironic thing is that my third grader’s paper said that “God created the earth and the creatures on it in 7 days.”

    Culture does matter. The problem begins very early. Educational institutions are not strongly committed to put respect for the effort and methodology that has built the scientific knowledge that has allowed mankind to dominate the earth.
    I think that a population’s beliefs about evolution are an index of how educational institutions are doing in helping people to respect and understand science.

    Among advanced nations, this is very much an American problem, based on what we see from international studies on acceptance of evolution:


  6. EdG says:

    Yes, culture matters in the ‘climate change debate.’ Always has.

    “The Age of Witch-Hunting thus seems pretty congruent with the era of the
    Little Ice Age. The peaks of the persecution coincide with the critical
    points of climatic deterioration. Witches traditionally had been held
    responsible for bad weather which was so dangerous for the precarious
    agriculture of the pre-industrial period. But it was only in the 15th
    century that ecclesiastical and secular authorities accepted the reality of
    that crime. The 1420ies, the 1450ies, and the last two decades of the
    fifteenth century, well known in the history of climate, were decisive years
    in which secular and ecclesiastical authorities increasingly accepted the
    existence of weather-making witches. During the “cumulative sequences of
    coldness” in the years 1560-1574, 1583-1589 and 1623-1630, again 1678-1698
    (Pfister 1988, 150) people demanded the eradication of the witches whom they
    held responsible for climatic aberrations. Obviously it was the impact of
    the Little Ice Age which increased the pressure from below and made parts of
    the intellectual elites believe in the existence of witchcraft. So it is
    possible to say: witchcraft was the unique crime of the Little Ice Age.”


  7. Tom Scharf,

    Why is it so difficult to accept that there is a huge gap in how the public perceives cliamte change vs how climate scientists do?

    You seem to argue that reason is that the doubtful public is right and the (vast majaority of) scientists are wrong. Any reason for that being the case?

    Instead a defensive knee jerk reaction, why not consider what Donner writes? Why not consider the multiple possible reasons for this divide (as articulated by Keith in the beginning of the article). Donner specifically includes the cultural dimension; he’s not singling out religion (let alone the religious right).

    Accepted wisdom -including amongst scientist- has long been that humans are too insignificant to influence something so overpowering as the earth’ climate. Through many decades of research this common wisdom has gradually been overturned. It is to be expected, as Donner writes, that those with “years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system” can overcome that long held cultural belief quicker/easier than the lay public. Re-read the last quoted paragraph in the post.

    You are not being attacked.

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    It seems that several of you are taking this a bit personally, and retorting in a roundabout way that culture is not what influences your own climate skepticism. So let me just say that culture surely is not the primary reason for some. There is no one size fits all explanation.

    Eadler: Fascinating anecdote. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Jon Flatley says:

    Interesting back & forth… However, let’s not lose sight that it becomes a “law of diminishing returns” to put forth more effort in providing evidence for the folks who think global warming is hogwash. There are people who believe that putting the man on the moon was a hoax, that witches exist, that 9-11 was a government conspiracy, etc.

    Why not put more energy into making sure policy makers are well informed and society proceeds forward sensibly with the best information available from science. Speaking of which it is an imperfect one with all the variables involved in causes, effects, superimposed on various atmospherical cycles of varying degrees of magnitude and time scales.

    • klem says:

      “There are people who believe that putting the man on the moon was a hoax, that witches exist, that 9-11 was a government conspiracy, etc.”

      And thank god for those people, though there are not many of them. I put climate alarmists in the same catagory as the man on the moon disbelievers, the witch beleivers and the 9-11 truthers. Unfortunatly there are alot of climate alarmists, enough of them that we considered creating a multi-trillion dollar carbon trading market just to keep them quiet. Thank god that failed.

      • Dill says:

        klem: like many skeptics, you are conflating the scientific evidence with the potential policy responses. They are not the same thing. The accuracy and trend lines of the data exist independently from any and all considerations of politics or potential political or policy responses.

        That you didn’t personally like the previous policy response does not change, devalue, or otherwise debunk one iota of evidence.

  10. Theo Talcott says:

    This article is an excellent. It points to a real cultural blindspot that obscures the rearview of scientists and climate educators.

    We don’t need to convert people to a secular scientific worldview to get them to take Climate Change seriously.

    In the Bible, God said after Noah’s flood “No more floods, it’s the fire next time.” That prophecy/warning/threat will come true if a Wicked human race ignores our Obligation to protect the Creation and the future generations. “It’s the fire next time.”

    Sri Aurobindo, Bengali spiritual teacher and philosopher, tried to synthesize Evolution into a spiritual worldview. “Divinely Guided Evolution” is a useful bridge idea to link the these ideas. The Hindu world view of the Vedas speaks to Creation being God’s body, a vast intelligent being created by information and consciousness. Adding “Evolution” into the mix just restates in current scientific language that ancient understanding.

    Science and Religion don’t need to fight because the new quantum physics has them making out.

    Climate educators should pick their battles, use language that people understand, allow ourselves to savor the ugly old religious words that have gone out of style like Wicked, Abomination, Sin.

    As in: We live in the time of the Climate Apocalypse. Hydrofracking is ruining the ground water supplies of the country (for ten minutes of natural gas) is an ABOMINATION. The Demonic Dementors of Doom driving our species to the Hellfires of Runaway Climate Change are SINNERS in the hands of an Angry God and will face a terrible Judgement when they meet their Maker.

    May the Divine Providence guide the human race to Climate Wisdom and Righteous Stewardship of God’s Green Earth.

    • Menth says:

      “As in: We live in the time of the Climate Apocalypse. Hydrofracking is ruining the ground water supplies of the country (for ten minutes of natural gas) is an ABOMINATION. The Demonic Dementors of Doom driving our species to the Hellfires of Runaway Climate Change are SINNERS in the hands of an Angry God and will face a terrible Judgement when they meet their Maker.

      May the Divine Providence guide the human race to Climate Wisdom and Righteous Stewardship of God’s Green Earth.”

      Well, this is the best thing I’ve read on the internet all day.

    • klem says:

      “Science and Religion don’t need to fight ”

      I’m a Christian and a scientist. I see no reason to fight at all, science and religion are completly compatible. I simply look at science as the method of figuring out how God gets it all done. It’s fun looking at it this way and motivating.

      • Greg says:

        klem: “I put climate alarmists in the same catagory as the man on the moon disbelievers…” “etc.

        klem: “I’m a Christian and a scientist.”

        Call me crazy, but I’ve always had the idea that this was a scientific debate. That means that we take the observational evidence FOR climate change, and compare it with the evidence AGAINST. Does that make sense?

        My reading leads me to believe (and it’s only a belief) that there is lots of good evidence FOR global temperature increases over the last 100 years or so, which can largely be explained by the concomittant increase in CO2 concentration over similar time periods.

        I have yet to find any compelling evidence that would change this belief. Perhaps you could find the motivation to provide some? You’re a scientist, so you should have some idea of what “evidence” means. One well-substatiated argument could do it, so go crazy!

  11. Jim Sweitzer says:

    Good points are made in this post. I am a space scientist and I do Climate Project talks as well as teach a course on energy and climate. I do have an approach that seems to help with the science. I could get on my intense science horse, but I don’t. Instead, I do some hands-on science demonstrations to go with the talk. The audience gets involved and it is a pleasurable experience they have told me. Even the hands-on activities are ones that demonstrate a principle of the climate science. I feel that this approach makes the encounter with a scientist friendly and less likely to head into an area where world views might come into collision.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    Jim Sweitzer,

    Excellent point about the importance of “hands-on science” activities. Educators definitely need to do more of that.

  13. Akindeji Falaki says:

    I am a Pastor and a doctoral candidate in a Top Nigerian University. My PhD thesis is on farmers’ perception and adaptation to climate change in some parts of rural Nigeria. Preliminary results indicate that many farmers are able to correctly perceive changes in the climate system in their communities as their perception agrees with meteorological records; they belief climate change is caused by man’s sin and evil spirits; they belief prayers and spiritual exercises help them adapt to the impact of climate change. Many farmers also believe that human activities like tree cutting for domestic uses and industrialisation has contributed to changs in the climate system.
    It is good to know that beliefs in the supernatural are part of the African societies. The way to address the issues is to create awareness that are rooted in science. At a presentation in the university recently, a faculty member suggested that clergymen and spiritual leaders can use the belief that sin causes climate change to persuade people not to sin. In my opinion, that will be bad use of science. Any thing build on inaccurate information cannot stand the test of time. Evidences from credible documents show that current changes in the climate system is due to human activities as againt natural processes. What we need to then do is educate people what this means and how to address it – behavioural change. And i know the bible teaches that God requires man to take responsibility for tending and caring for his environment, right from the garden of Eden. That still hold for man today, we must care for our environment that supports us. All through the bible, God has given instructions and done miracles that shows that He wants man to care for his environment (like the miracles of Exodus). So, in that sense, science affirms what the bible teaches…If you want to discuss this further or reqest particular information about my research in this area: akindejiayo@yahoo.com.