Mental models and climate change

On Ecotrust’s People and Place, Howard Silverman articulates how climate change demonstrates how the earth has become a social-ecological systems, in which facts and values are entangled, and the future is full of various flavours of uncertainty.  These concepts lurk beneath many climate change discussions.  While none of these mental models are new, he suggests their reality is clarified by climate change in What We Talk about When We Talk about Climate:

Humans exist within social-ecological systems.The climate story is one of processes and connections. Critical planetary systems – climate, nitrogen, biodiversity – are impaired by human activities (see Rockström et al.). Both the power of human influence on natural systems and the vulnerability of human dependence on natural systems inspire awe – and, for some, doubt.

Uncertainties are central to social-ecological experience.
Impairments of planetary systems are historical experiments that are run but once. In linked social-ecological systems, knowledge is probabilistic. A very high confidence characterizes the analysis of human impact on the climate system, according to the typologies of uncertainty and confidence developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see IPCC – pdf). Uncertainty becomes central (see Post-Normal Science). The more the climate is changed, the less confident we can be about how it might further change (see Easterbrook).

Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values.
The very-high-confidence fact of human impact on the climate system is not prescriptive in and of itself. To derive knowledge, to gain a capacity for effective action, depends on competing and complimentary values and perceptions, including: worldviews of nature as benign, tolerant and/or ephemeral (see cultural theory); aspirations of economic growth and/or human development; senses of personal and/or collective identity (see identity tree); and awareness of agency, i.e. that one has free will, that one can be effective, that risks can be recognized and evaluated.

In another post on cultural theory (the Douglas and Thompson version) Silverman expands on climate and cultural theory:

With positions on climate hardening, references to contradictory worldviews are popping up in the mainstream media (See NYT and NPR), but the story itself is hardly new.  “Underlying much of the energy debate is a tacit, implicit divergence on what the energy problem ‘really’ is,” wrote Amory Lovins in 1977’s Soft Energy Paths. “Public discourse suffers because our society has mechanisms only for resolving conflicting interests, not conflicting views of reality, so we seldom notice that these perceptions differ markedly.”

Here is a cultural theory-based interpretation of climate worldviews:

  • The hierarchist’s story (nature perverse/tolerant): International protocols and national commitments are needed to address the tragedy of the atmospheric commons and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The egalitarian’s story (nature ephemeral): The underlying problem is consumption (resource throughput). Precaution, lifestyle simplicity and grass roots action are the most effective responses.
  • The individualist’s story (nature benign): To address climate change, rely on laissez-faire markets to spur competition and innovation. The benefits of climate change may even balance out the costs.
  • The fatalist’s story (nature capricious): Natural forces are beyond human understanding, much less human influence.

A fifth worldview, called “nature resilient” (Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky 1990) or “nature evolving” (Holling, Gunderson & Ludwig 2002) is sometimes pictured at the central intersection of the axes, overlapping each of the others – we might say, in the language of psychologist Ken Wilber, transcending and including each of the others.

One thought on “Mental models and climate change”

  1. Thanks for the links, Garry.

    Part of my thinking on “what we talk about when we talk about climate” is that the climate story drives home the linked nature of SESs in a way that has/had not been broadly understood. I didn’t mean to imply anything about the earth “becoming” a SES in the sense that this word might be understood above.

    On cultural theory, because of the inherent limitations of 2×2 typologies, I like to emphasize this quote by Mary Douglas:
    “In the end, every type of social conflict is about types of organization. … Why do we settle for four types? Because this model is at once parsimonious and it is comprehensive. A hundred, or a million, types of cultural bias may be out there. But for explanatory value three, four or five types of social environment are enough to generate three, four or five distinct cosmologies.”

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