Climate Culture

NOTE: from 20th November this Post was up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

A frequent topic at Climate Etc. is the ‘consensus.’ An argument is presented here that the climate consensus is as much about culture as it is about climate science.

For about 150 years we’ve been learning how cultures work and evolve. Great progress has been made on a wide range of topics such as the mapping of cultures, cultural coalitions, the categorization of underlying bias mechanisms, gene-culture co-evolution and others, even if much mystery remains, for instance at the fundamental level of what happens inside the mind regarding the social / individual interface, gnawed at from different directions by anthropology, memetics, psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines.

This accumulated knowledge on cultures is directly relevant to understanding the climate movement. So that we don’t have to relearn the 150 years experience again in the climate domain as though this is all something new, it is crucial to acknowledge the cultural nature of the consensus and bring this wealth of acquired knowledge to bear.

Climate culture recognition

I’ve long since lost count of the many parallels drawn between the climate consensus and religion, from both notables and many blog commenters within the climate domain1. While these tend to be instinctive expressions and are mostly from skeptics, there are a few from the consensus side2 and still more from this side describing climate change as a transformative culture. The former sometimes draw the worst possible connotations or even invalid consequences, yet nevertheless correctly discern the underlying truth that the climate consensus is a cultural phenomenon, while the latter fail to appreciate that cultures of this kind do not so much communicate the truth, as manufacture it.

I’ve prepared a 3 step basic social analysis that I hope will be straightforward to follow, conveniently available as a Word file and also posted below, showing the cultural nature of the climate consensus. The 3 steps are first executed for the creationism / evolution domain, and then in exactly the same manner for the climate change domain. The analysis takes the ‘robot from Mars’ view; it is possible to identify a culture with very little knowledge of domain details, and best to do so if possible in order to maximize objectivity. The steps are built on data from public surveys and Dan Kahan’s great data from Cultural Cognition.

Despite the large commentary about cultural characteristics that pervades the climate change domain, there does not appear to be recognition that the Consensus, with its narrative of imminent (decades) calamity, *is* a formal culture. All the disciplines involved in cultural understanding, such as anthropology, psychology, memetics, neuro-science and others, think climate change is merely a matter of science; why would they even attempt apply their knowledge in this domain? Unless perhaps to try and explain ‘deniers’, of course. So what might these disciplines think if they weren’t blinded by the science label?

A thought experiment

A professor in one of bio-cultural evolution who researches and favors the strong Darwinian end of the current range of cultural evolution theories, is returning from a field trip in the Pacific. He runs into trouble of some sort, and ends up stranded for over 30 years, like Robinson Crusoe, on an isolated island. Hence he receives no knowledge of the climate change phenomenon. Then sailors rescue him, and tell him that the whole world is hugely worried about climate change and is spending trillions to try and avert an imminent (decades) calamity. Before any other detail gets discussed, one sailor happens to add that he’d read a recent article showing that the climate change consensus (along with the wider movement it inspires) advocating urgent action to save the planet, was shown to be a formal culture. The professor immediately has strong suspicions that:

Next page (2) for more…

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5 Responses to Climate Culture

  1. Michael 2 says:

    This is a main reason I have been following this topic these past few years; witnessing the birth of a new religion. It is quite exciting to watch it come together and coalesce like rocks grinding themselves into a planet.

    It won’t be exactly what anyone wants and yet it will be at least some of what a great many people want, achieving “critical mass”, a vortex perhaps that will continue to exist long after the intiating force is removed.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Yes, a lot of social inertia has gathered, and seeing its expanding force over the years does have a certain fascination!

  3. Barclay E MacDonald says:

    I read and briefly commented on your post regarding The Denialism Frame at Judith Curry’s on April 21, 2016. Today, May 13, 2016, WUWT has a top post, Breaking: CEI Defeats RICO-20…., which I’m sure you are now aware of.

    It appears there will now be endless, specific data that you may gather in pursuit of your cultural cognition theory as it applies to Climate. The emails released appear to be a virtual treasure trove of examples of culture and its impact on reasoning for even the most intelligent of us homo sapiens. Clearly, objectivity does not track intelligence. In that context this is all very interesting to me.

    I became interested in cognition and how it applies to ideologues, generally, from the neuroscience approach. I have now reviewed your postings at Climate etc. and WUWT and see that I am missing a big piece of the analysis of which I was totally unaware, except on an anecdotal basis.

    I am wondering whether you might be able to recommend a book(s)/reading material on cognitive cognition and how it applies to the world around me, especially as it relates to the creation and actions of ideologues, generally. From Amazon I recently downloaded Culture and Cognition by Walter Brehkus. It is a miserable book to plow through. As an attorney, I have read thousands of mortgages and commercial leases, and even the fine print therein is more lucid and coherent than Mr. Brehkus’ writing. Your recommendations would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    • andywest2012 says:

      Hi Barclay. I’m not sure I can help, this is a huge topic and my own approach has been synthesized from many works over many years, some of which I can scarcely recall individually now. But the direction I came from is cultural evolution and memetics, which in turn needs some understanding of general evolutionary principles. To understand the big picture of how cultural entities or cults or just strong cultural influence operates, this ‘external social mechanisms looking inwards’ approach is the best way to get the big picture, rather than attempting the opposite approach of ‘individual psychological mechanisms looking outwards’ to culture, which gets bogged down in immense detail and can quickly lose the big picture, albeit this stuff must be doggedly filled in one day. So I haven’t spent much time on the latter. Having said that, and looking at the intro for the book you mention, it is indeed a pre-requisite for cultural evolution and memetics that, as it says, ‘thinking is a distinctly social phenomenon’. A very readable work on this same theme is “Who’s in Charge” by neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, and especially chapter 5 ‘the social mind’. Much much better than reading mortgage documents anyhow (and I’ve spent a lot of time processing software licenses, which I’m sure are similarly dull). But even accepting the principle of ‘the social mind’ at first hand, doesn’t tell you how strong cultural influence and cultural entities actually work. For that, you still need the evolutionary principles mentioned above for the big picture (and rafts of other stuff like particular bias mechanisms etc), all of which point not to dishonesty or conspiracy or hoax or whatever, but to emergent behaviors that have been with us from prehistory due to their selective advantages.

      • Barclay E MacDonald says:

        Your response is appreciated! Recommendation looks excellent! I am familiar with the author and look forward to actually reading one of his books! I will continue to follow you with interest. You obviously have me moving in the right direction.

        Thank you,


        Sent from Barclay’s IPad


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