Can we make the climate a part of the human world?

A new paper of mine, about to be published in the October issue of BAMS (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society), looks at how the common, ancient human belief that the weather and climate are out of human control affects education and outreach about human-caused climate change. I outlined these ideas and my outreach message at a talk earlier this year. An early online version of the paper is available.

The article could really be a book, and, in fact, it may become one in a year or two. It grew out of several years of interdisciplinary research, involving everything from reading history and religious texts, to interviewing religious leaders, to participating in outreach programs, to donning a sulu and attending church in Fiji.

Here’s the core argument:

Skepticism about anthropogenic climate change may therefore be reasonable when viewed through the lens of religion or the lens of history. In order to create a lasting public understanding of anthropogenic climate change, scientists and educators need to appreciate that the very notion that humans can directly change the climate may conflict with beliefs that underpin the culture of the audience.

I briefly trace the history behind this argument, and provide some modern evidence for the influence of belief on acceptance of the evidence for climate change. Despite what William Briggs, a critic of the early online release, my argument is not purely about religion, rather it is about the sense that the climate is to large to be affected by humans. This idea that we are small compared to the grand forces of nature and the atmosphere may be encoded in a structured belief system, or it may drive people’s desire to climb mountains and stare at the view from the top.

Even in secular communities, a broad sense that forces beyond humans control the climate may partly explain the persistence of the argument that natural forcings like solar activity are the primary cause of observed 20th century climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

I conclude with two broad suggestions for reforming climate change education and outreach:

Climate change outreach efforts need to address the perceived conflict between the scientific evidence and deeply ingrained cultural perceptions of climate. First, the development of human beliefs about climate should be added to educational materials and lesson plans. Existing education and outreach efforts rarely acknowledge any thinking about climate or climate change prior to the Svante Arrhenius’ 1896 study on atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature….

Second, educators and scientists should take lessons from approaches used in teaching of evolution, another subject where science can appear to conflict with pre-existing beliefs. 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.

The paper concludes with a message that I am regularly repeating at scientific forums, and will continue to write about at Maribo:

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.

Image: Stained Glass by Steve Parker (C) (CC-BY 2.0)


[UPDATE: On a related note, the Yale Climate Media Forum has a story up by Keith Kloor about whether culture matters in discussing climate change, based on Simon’s upcoming publication on belief and climate change.

Comments:

  1. Hello, problem with the byline, on the planet3.org posting it has the byline "Michael Tobis", instead of Simon Donner.

    > Second, educators and scientists should take lessons from approaches used in teaching of evolution, another subject where science can appear to conflict with pre-existing beliefs. 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.

    I would tend to agree. There are two actively engaged audiences, but only one speaks - the other evaluates all the speakers on both sides of the argument. It makes sense to give the silent active audience the tools to make a judgement of what kind of evidence it would require for a participant to change their mind and make a judgement if participants are beyond the reach of any evidence.

  2. True Moe. My article is about the cultural and historical roots for skepticism about climate change. These are important with the loud skeptical minority, whose notions are more fixed and unlikely to be changed, but also the silent disengaged majority you describe. I'm recommended that educators and outreach people consider these roots when dealing with either the silent majority, who we ignore far too much, or the loud minority. We need to realize that, in a broad cultural or historical sense, there are perfectly legitimate reasons that people may be sketpical of climate change.

  3. There's also the question of people following logical links to unexpected conclusions. The one I love best is Darwin linking higher populations of little old ladies in villages to better beef production in surrounding farms.

    Several steps - little old ladies, cats, mice, bees, clover, beef - and the links don't all work in the same way. But people can understand and accept such environmental linkages with only brief descriptions.

    I'm pretty sure that most people understand the steps in climate effects of ghg releases. Even though the story is incomplete - it would be better if the geological speed and role of CO2 absorption were included as a matter of routine - it's still accepted by the majority of people despite what some people say.

    Most people would also understand the graphics in this item ...http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/lewandowskyPluralIgno.html. It would be reassuring to many who feel uncomfortable in their non/anti-scientific family or workplace about accepting the scientific evidence if they were also aware of this analysis from a non-climate basis.

  4. Very interesting paper and post, Simon.

    The message is also relevant for the Galileo-complex: People who argue that accepted wisdom can be overturned.

    Indeed it can. Accepted wisdom was that humans are too insignificant to influence something so overpowering as the earth' climate. That proved wrong.

    Just as the common wisdom of the earth being the centre of the universe was not so much based on science but rather on a cultural (and religious) worldview, the latter common wisom of us tiny humans was as well.

  5. Pingback: Op-ed in Trouw: Optimisme geen reden om natuurwetenschap terzijde te schuiven | Klimaatverandering

  6. Pingback: Simon Donner - An Appreciation, An Award, An Albatross | Planet3.0


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