With an eye toward developing more effective climate change education, social scientists have attempted to diagnose the reasons for lingering public skepticism of anthropogenic climate change. But rarely is the question addressed with the benefit of cross-cultural research. Geographer Simon Donner has demonstrated the utility of such an approach: drawing on a vast ethnographic and historical record, it is possible to surmise to what extent anthropogenic climate change skepticism stems from panhuman cognitive habits versus culturally and historically specific circumstances, with deep consequences back at home for climate education and citizen–climatologist dialogue. While building from this method, this article departs from Donner's reading of the ethnographic record as demonstrating a cross-culturally pervasive human intuition that the weather is beyond human influence, arguing instead for the role of culturally specific commitments such as the distinction between nature and society, “just world” belief, faith in progress, and system justification. Various climate change communication strategies based upon these alternate reasons for skepticism are suggested, and ultimately it is argued that the ideologically fraught nature of these beliefs takes the matter beyond the realm of “science education” into the arena of democratic dialogue.
Because climate change skepticism seems to stem from cultural particulars rather than human universals, climate communicators should target specific ideological obstacles to belief rather than panhuman psychological biases or scientific ignorance.
Climate scientists find themselves vexed by lingering public distrust of the scientific consensus on global climate change (Leiserowitz et al. 2012); a November 2012 poll of likely U.S. voters found that almost as many believe that warming trends are natural (38%) as manmade (41%) (Rasmussen Reports 2013). While many researchers have sought to diagnose reasons for climate change apathy, disbelief, and skepticism (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Feygina et al. 2010; Jamieson 2007; Johnson and Levin 2009; Kahan et al. 2007; Norgaard 2006; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Stoll-Kleemann et al. 2001; Sunstein 2007; Weber 2006), rarely is the question considered in a cross-cultural light. The conjecture that climate change skepticism stems from universal features of human psychology is simply assumed a priori to be true (Jamieson 2007; Johnson and Levin 2009), or variations in climate change acceptance are considered only within a single society, usually the United States (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Feygina et al. 2010; Kahan et al. 2007). A notable and commendable exception is the work of geographer Simon Donner (Donner 2007, 2011), who focuses specifically on the public misconception that human beings cannot influence the weather (as opposed to other climate-skeptics' arguments, such as the assertion that the planet is not in fact warming or that warming trends are benign). Donner draws from diverse ethnographic and historical sources to assess to what extent such skepticism is ancient and cross-culturally widespread, as opposed to historically novel and culturally specific. Broadly speaking, such cross-cultural comparison could lead to one of two possible conclusions about a particular misconception that science educators hope to dislodge: 1) the misconception is found in all or nearly all societies and historical epochs, and thus is probably rooted in innate or universal human psychology, or 2) the misconception is historically new or confined to a few societies, and thus probably stems from culturally specific worldviews or experiences.
The distinction I am drawing—beliefs rooted in panhuman intuitions, versus beliefs rooted in cultural specifics—obviously simplifies a complex interplay between the universal and the specific, the innate and the learned, and the biological and the cultural. But a large body of work has demonstrated that, in many realms of research, the distinction remains a viable one. For instance, experimental evidence has shown that “folk physics”—a simple mental model of the mechanics of objects—is cross-culturally universal, develops extremely early in children, and is quickly and effortlessly deployed without formal training—in stark opposition to scientific physics, which is unique to scientifically literate societies, develops late, is deployed slowly and with much effort, and requires formal instruction (McCauley 2011). The question then is whether skepticism of anthropogenic climate change is more like folk physics, automatically commonsensical in any society, or more like scientific physics, requiring considerable cultural scaffolding to support. The implications for the science educator are deep.
In the first case, the educator is warned of the difficulty of her job. Intuitive reasoning, perhaps even innate predispositions, will need to be discarded in favor of a prima facie implausible idea. But the situation is not hopeless. Science, as we know, is radically counter to human intuitions and habits both in its methodology and in its conclusions (McCauley 2011). Yet science can be taught. Many religious belief systems, too, are radically counterintuitive (Barrett 1999), but they can be taught. Where a concept lacks “maturational naturalness” (essentially, an innate intuitiveness to the human mind), “practiced [learned] naturalness” can be built instead (McCauley 2011); indeed this is perhaps the central mission of the educational system (Pinker 2008, p. 439). One strategy is to identify other concepts that are intuitive and cleverly recombine them to communicate counterintuitive truths; Richard Feynman managed to explain, with utmost lucidity, the wave/particle duality of electrons and light (a highly counterintuitive scientific finding if there ever was one) by piggybacking on the more familiar folk physics of waves rippling in water and bullets sprayed from a machine gun (Feynman et al. 2011, chapter 1).
In the second case, in which the misconception is historically novel and cross-culturally rare, panhuman psychology is not the culprit. The work of the educator here appears easier. In some cases she may even have human intuition on her side. Anthropologist Ernest Gellner suggests that many social groups are bound together by the bitter pill of an implausible belief: the painful rite of passage of accepting what at first seems a “great absurdity” is what binds the group together (Gellner 1968, 257–258), and the implausible belief acts as an unmistakable badge of group membership because it is unlikely to be espoused by others. Here the science educator is carving with rather than against the grain of panhuman cognition. But the task is not, in reality, so easy. To say that a belief is specific to a particular society or epoch is not to say that it is brittle or half-heartedly held. When vested interests and cherished group memberships are at stake, belief resilience and confirmation bias (Nickerson 1998) set in. Richard Norgaard shows how true believers in “progress” manage to convince themselves, against mountains of counterevidence, that environmental conditions are stable or improving (Norgaard 2002). But there is still hope. The educator can reinvent himself as cultural agitator, proclaiming rather than disowning his political leanings, gently (or not so gently) challenging the ideologies that lead to scientific error. The educator can also take a less ambitious tack, to reframe the message in such a way that it no longer seems to offend the values and commitments of the target audience.
Thus, the educator should proceed somewhat differently in these two cases. In the case of climate change, the following question therefore becomes crucial: Is skepticism that humans can warm the planet a misconception of the first type, or of the second type? It is at this point that I depart from Simon Donner. He places dismissal of human influence on the climate squarely in the first category. In his earlier article (Donner 2007), Donner is unequivocal: human influence on the climate is “an extremely new concept” and a “major paradigm shift, arguably on the order of the Copernican Revolution” (Donner 2007, p. 233). In his later article (Donner 2011), Donner concedes that the perception is not universal, but nonetheless heavily emphasizes its widespread, long-lasting, and cross-culturally recurrent nature, calling it “the ancient view” and suggesting that it traces back to our hunter–gatherer ancestors (Donner 2011, p. 1298).
My reading of the historical and ethnographic record is different: human influence on the climate is an intuitive, ancient, and widespread idea; it is the notion of a separate meteorological realm, outside of human influence, that is the cultural oddity and historical novelty. Donner correctly notes that many cultures across the globe posit that spirits, gods, God, or other supernatural agents can control the weather. But it is also the case that in most of those cultures, human actions, especially moral and immoral behavior, are seen to influence these beings. The examples are countless and include contemporary and traditional Tibet (Byg and Salick 2009; Huber and Pedersen 1997), India (Gold 1998, p. 174), the Sahel (Togola 2000), Melanesia (Jacka 2009), and Brazil (Taddei 2008). If bad weather is a punishment and good weather a reward, then the climate is under human influence, even if needing the intermediary of a deity. Moreover, many societies eliminate the middleman, so to speak, believing that human virtue and sin can directly drive weather patterns. This view has been documented among Kalahari San (Hitchcock 2009), the Chinese (Hsu 2000), the Inuit (Leduc 2007), indigenous Siberians (Crate 2008), and indigenous groups of Mexico (Smith 2007), to name only a few. In a wide variety of cultures it is believed that human magicians can direct the weather (see, e.g., Jacka 2009; Lipset 2011) or that powerful foreign human groups can do so (Byg and Salick 2009; Crate 2008; Hitchcock 2009, p. 258). Belief in divine regulation of the climate does not preclude human influence: in a variety of African societies, it is believed that both God and man influence the climate, or that God created the original, “correct” climate that has now been spoiled by human interference (BBC World Service Trust 2012, p. 11). People often find human–climate entanglement so plausible that no description of the mechanism of causation is offered or asked for. Tibetan villagers are convinced that recently experienced local climate change is human caused (either by their own religious infractions or by those of encroaching foreigners) even though, when asked, they give conflicting and uncertain answers about how that causation occurs (Byg and Salick 2009, p. 165). Denizens of a variety of African countries attribute recent climatic changes to human environmental mismanagement or to religious sin, despite often having little or no knowledge of atmospheric science (BBC World Service Trust 2012). Thus, blaming people for meteorological perturbations is so plausible that it is assumed even when it cannot be explained or proven—perhaps the very definition of intuitiveness.1
In the Marshall Islands, a Micronesian society where I conduct ethnographic fieldwork on climate change attitudes, the notion of anthropogenic climate change has been plausible since long before locals heard about greenhouse gases and melting ice caps on the radio. Bad weather can be blamed on human infractions. Magicians from a particular clan are credited with the power of having once been able to both stop and start storms. In a strikingly prophetic statement, Marshall Islanders in the nineteenth century feared that human folly might cause the sea to rise and destroy the low-lying archipelago (von Chamisso 1986, p. 278). While Donner may have correctly identified some historical societies that regard the weather as beyond human tampering, the extreme ease of finding numerous counterexamples in the literature casts doubt on his universalistic claims; other scholars have come to the same conclusion about the cross-cultural pervasiveness of weather as a register for human action (Hulme 2009, 13–14; Rayner 2003, p. 278; Strauss and Orlove 2003, 3–4, 7).
Whether Donner is correct to emphasize the commonness, and hence the intuitiveness, of anthropogenic climate change skepticism, or I am correct to emphasize its uncommonness, we need to think carefully about whether a scientific misperception that we wish to challenge is based primarily on panhuman intuitions or on the cultural inculcation of a particular time and place. The ramifications for public education and citizen–scientist dialogue are far reaching.
If I am correct that the roots of climate change skepticism lie in cultural specifics rather than human universals, what might those cultural specifics be? One suspect is the modern Western notion of “nature” as a realm distinct from and opposed to human culture (see, e.g., Ingold 2008). Such a worldview comes in many flavors, not all of which may militate against acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. For instance, the idea that nature is a place of primal authenticity spoiled by contact with humans (Fairhead and Leach 2008) may be compatible with the idea of an Anthropocene (see, e.g., McKibben 2006), the geological era of massive human interference in the climate system. But the conception of human history distinct from natural history (Chakrabarty 2009), the assumption that there exists a class of issues called “environmental” that are different from economic, social, and cultural issues, may encourage many Westerners to dismiss the social– environmental, natural–cultural nexus that is climate change. Mark Twain's famous quip that everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it encapsulates this Western view; the humor derives from the supposed absurdity of implying that humans might do any more than observe and react to the climate. A skeptical Australian tract on manmade warming hinges its argument on the vast gulf between a Lilliputian humanity, producing only 3% of carbon dioxide emissions, and an enormous, unyielding, self-correcting “Nature”: “Human production of CO2 is irrelevant and of no consequence to Nature or Nature's balance” (Roberts 2013, p. 2). If the nature–culture dichotomy is at the heart of anthropogenic climate change skepticism, then climate educators might proceed by encouraging a more holistic view of nature and society, stressing their tangled interconnections. Countless ethnographic studies from around the world [see, e.g., Århem (1996) in the Amazon, Strathern (1980) in Melanesia, and Cruikshank (2005) and Leduc (2007) in native North America] describe societies that draw no clean line (arguably, no line at all) between nature and society, proving that such a worldview is both possible and reasonable. Educators could also employ some of the vast ethnographic and archaeological evidence that apparent “wilderness” often bears the imprint of human habitation, that “natural” landscapes may have been created by people (Fairhead and Leach 2008), and that ecosystems cannot be adequately described without taking into account their human constituents (Rappaport 2008). Nature and society lose their separation and the notion that climate has become a human artifact no longer seems ludicrous.
Another possible culturally specific font of climate change skepticism is the widespread tendency of Western social conservatives—a commonly trottedout example these days is right-wing Americans—to justify the social system in which they live and to dismiss its critics (Feygina et al. 2010). Relatedly, in some communities people believe in a “just world” where suffering comes as a deserved punishment for immorality (Feinberg and Willer 2011). Both attitudes have recently been shown by experimental psychologists to work against climate change belief among Americans (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Feygina et al. 2010): for system justifiers and believers in a just world, climate change uncomfortably illustrates the unsustainability of the status quo and the injustice of a world where the smallest greenhouse gas emitters are the most vulnerable to the greenhouse effect. Many “system justifiers” also subscribe to the notion of progress: a keystone of Enlightenment thought and an enormously influential “metanarrative” up to the present day. While we have no direct evidence of a link between belief in progress and disbelief in climate change, such a link seems plausible (see Rudiak-Gould 2013), and it is has been convincingly argued for in the more general domain of the denial of environmental problems (R. Norgaard 2002). If this constellation of faiths—in the social system, in worldly justice, and in progress—is at the root of anthropogenic climate change skepticism, then it is not climate change per se that these skeptics find implausible, but rather the notion of an unjust, unsustainable, declining world. British journalist Melanie Phillips makes the link obvious in a 2004 piece titled “The global warming fraud”: climate change is an “anti-American, anti-west ideology which goes hand in hand with anti-globalisation and the belief that everything done by the industrialised world is wicked” (Phillips 2013). Conservative American commentator Jonathan S. Tobin similarly writes that “many of the warming polemics have been motivated not so much by ‘science’ as by an ideological predisposition by some to view capitalism and the prosperity-producing economic activity that it has generated as inherently sinful” (Tobin 2011). Climate change becomes merely a proxy war in a larger confrontation between traditionalists and radicals, Polyannas and Chicken Littles.
If this is the true meaning of climate change skepticism, the science communicator could proceed in two ways. The first would be to attempt to convince skeptics that the social system is not actually good, the world not truly just, progress not so assured. This would be an unforgivingly difficult task, considering how steadfastly people hold onto core ideological commitments. Many educators might also find it ethically dubious, not to mention supremely awkward, to preach values and proselytize for an ideology (though many science and technology scholars would argue that they have been doing so all along, unknowingly). Still, this approach is an option, and the science communicator who is comfortable seeing himself not only as a teacher but also as an activist may wish to attempt it—occasionally, perhaps, with some success. The second, less ambitious way to proceed would be to mold climate change to the audience's worldview rather than vice versa; to recast climate change belief as an ideological windfall and victory rather than a concession to “them” and a betrayal of “us.” If the ideological obstacle is system justification, extoll the ability of a capitalist, scientific, industrial society to pioneer a new generation of energy technology; say that the point of solving climate change is not to destroy the system but to save it [see Feygina et al. (2010) on the possibility of “system-sanctioned change”]. If the obstacle is “just world” belief, and the audience is a Christian one, say that the universe is indeed just, but only in the next life, not in this wicked and fallen physical world. If the issue is progress, say that climate change will merely slow the steady improvement of life rather than curtail it. Of course the educator may or may not agree with these statements—and cannot simply will herself to believe them—but they are the sort most likely to bear fruit. The fieldwork that I have conducted in the Marshall Islands shows that this approach—framing the threat as ideologically appealing even if physically dangerous—can succeed even in a situation where people are highly motivated to disbelieve (sea level rise promises to make the entire territory of the Republic of the Marshall Islands uninhabitable) and have locally plausible reasons for disbelief (God's Biblical promise to Noah to never flood the Earth again). By framing climate change as the ultimate confirmation of a preexisting belief in sociocultural decline and the evils of abandoning tradition, the frightening idea is not just widely believed by Marshall Islanders but in a sense embraced (Rudiak-Gould 2012, 2013).
None of this would be easy, or free of ethical dilemmas, for the discussion has now gone far beyond “apolitical” science into the realm of unapologetically ideological debate. But the cultural approach has offered some useful suggestions that would have been overlooked by an approach based on human universals or on “just the facts, ma'am” communication of empirical evidence. The “deficit model” of science education would assume that people reject manmade climate change because they are not sufficiently scientifically literate. A more enlightened perspective, advocated by researchers in Science and Technology Studies (STS), assumes that scientific misconceptions arise not from publics' ignorance but from their knowledge—the cultural frameworks, intuitive concepts, and moral visions with which people take up and interpret scientific issues (see, e.g., Wynne 1992). STS scholars sometimes go further and suggest that what science educators label as “misconceptions” are actually reasonable statements of values, norms, and symbolism. For instance, the cross-culturally widespread notion that human morality dictates the weather is unfounded or unintelligible from a scientific viewpoint, but is a reasonable interpretation of climate change and indeed conducive to belief and action. There is no need for a crippling relativism here, only an appreciation for the ethical and symbolic dimensions of climate change, and a healthy humility in which scientific experts have no privileged position when it comes to recommending policy or evaluating moral tradeoffs. Citizens may actually surpass scientists in assessing the moral dimensions of the problem because, unlike scientists, they have not been trained to shear scientific issues of their normative content (Jasanoff 2010).
This perspective does not eliminate the ethical quandaries faced by an educator tackling the ideological roots of climate change skepticism, but it offers guidance for navigating those quandaries in a more sensitive manner. In this way, the cross-cultural approach not only helps science communicators better educate the public, but indeed can take them beyond the role of “educator” into the role of participant in democratic dialogue—debating progress and decline, justice and injustice, human specialness—an engagement in which all sides may learn and benefit.
Research that contributed to this article was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Dr. Alun Hughes; Oxford University; All Souls College, Oxford; St. Hugh's College, Oxford; Jesus College, Oxford; and the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford.
1There is another possible interpretation of the cross-cultural evidence: the panhuman intuition is that people can influence local but not global weather. Donner mentions this alternate theory in his latter publication (2011, p. 1298). But the main thrust of his argument elides this local/global distinction. Furthermore, testing this theory against the ethnographic and historical record founders on ambiguity because most of societies in question are only concerned with, or aware of, their own geographical region: weather changing locally is for them weather changing everywhere (globally).