The Culture of Climate Change
Whether having seen Lower Manhattan inundated during Superstorm Sandy will motivate more Americans to respond more seriously to the threats of climate change may depend on how much we see such storms’ effects culturally as much as physically.
According to Professor Neil Adger of the University of Exeter, cultural factors are key to making climate change real to people. In a study recently published in Nature Climate Change, Adger and fellow researchers argue that “governments have not yet addressed the cultural losses we are all facing as a result of global climate change and this could have catastrophic consequences. If the cultural dimensions of climate change continue to be ignored, it is likely that responses will fail to be effective because they simply do not connect with what matters to individuals and communities. It is vital that the cultural impact of climate change is considered, alongside plans to adapt our physical spaces to the changing environment.”
Making the connections are not that hard: Herders abandon pastoral ways as their grazing lands suffer. Traditional hunting and fishing in the Arctic withers as polar ice melts. Rocky Mountain ski resorts teeter into precarious financial straits as annual snowfall changes. Commuters can't get to their Wall Street offices. “When people experience the impacts of climate change in places that matter to them, the problems become real and they are motivated to make their futures more sustainable,” said Professor Katrina Brown of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. ”This is as true in coastal Cornwall as in Pacific Islands.”
As for New York, Bloomberg Businessweek gave the climate change discussion a solid kick with its recent cover “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” accompanying a photo of a darkened and flooded Manhattan street. (The publications’s editor, Josh Tyrangiel, tweeted: “Our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid.”)
Image of sandbags in Lower Manhattan by iStock/Jay Lazarin.
Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”