Thursday, October 20, 2011

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.


EliRabett said...

Eli, even before he was, understood this (readers can look it up on USENET sci.environment) and there is a simple answer to anyone claiming that humans are too puny to affect the climate. Get thee to an airplane, take off and look down. Anywhere on earth today, the landscape is dominated by human constructs, roads, farms, cities.

That there are not very many people in a place, does not mean that people have not "determined" the landscape, farmland being a good example. Even in the wastes, you can see roads, mines and many
other evidences of man's influence. That animals have adopted to our presence is also not surprising, the choice over most of the continental US, Europe, etc. for them was to adapt to humans or vanish.

Well, maybe not northern Canada, but is that on earth?

Anonymous said...

Hello Simon,

I posted the comment below on another blog discussing your work, and then thought it might be polite to add it here.

The Donner arguments are interesting, but I tend to think he’s wrong. Inherent conservatism on this issue is probably a very small factor alongside the huge confusion bought and paid for by the fossil fuel lobby. In some cautious policy and scientific circles, there seems to be immense denial over or ignorance of the nature and extent of the climate change denial propaganda industry, an industry bought and paid for by big oil and coal, which is incredibly well-documented for those who care to acknowledge it.

Also, as recent research has shown, climate denial is to quite a substantial degree, a phenomenon only in English-speaking countries where the propaganda wars have been most intense. But if Donner’s hypothesis is correct, then there would be no such skewing. What’s more, there wouldn’t be the see-sawing of public opinion on the issue clearly visible in US polls.

Quite the contrary, in fact: in many religious traditions, disturbances “in the heavens” are indeed related to the misdeeds of human beings. In my own Buddhist tradition, it is believed that it is the pursuit of misleading beliefs that cause disturbances in the natural realm. In other words, weird weather is completely within the realm of human responsibility. In the modern context, these misleading beliefs have nothing do with one’s choice of superstitions, as the religious sceptic may imagine: misleading beliefs include the notion that you can add unlimited amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere without there being any effect on climatic stability!

A colleague tells a heart-breaking story of pygmies in central Africa who for years have been conducting rituals to try to appease “the spirits that seem to be so unhappy with them”, which is how they have explained climate disturbances. When they heard that human beings are causing climate change (and that they were not directly responsible themselves), and the mechanisms were explained to them, they had no difficult accepting this.

Generally in Africa, it’s only urban elites, cut off from the rhythms of natural life – white South Africans, in my experience – who deny climate change. But most people who are close to the land accept that it’s happening and have no problem with the scientific explanations.

It’s also my experience that secular technocrats, perhaps recently influenced by the sophistry and parodies of religion circulated by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, have an exaggerated sense of the “irrationality” of people of faith. (Of course, many of their specific criticisms are legitimate – but they come to all the wrong conclusions: asking people to throw out religion wholesale shows about as much understanding of human nature as would asking them to stop having sex.)

Yes, there are many science deniers in the realm of faith – but a great many other people of faith have no difficulty reconciling that faith with scientific truth – or with recognising that the fossil fuel industry is now waging war against humanity and Mother Earth: genocide and ecocide. These companies should be indicted in international courts for crimes against humanity.

All that said, Donner’s suggestion that scientists should make their arguments with humility is helpful. Problems that have been created by a rampant technocratic culture will not be solved unless that culture itself changes dramatically.