What do we mean when we talk about ‘climate change’?
Many meanings of climate change
What do we mean when we talk about ‘climate change’? What do we hear when we hear the words ‘climate change’? The answer: ‘it depends’, seems simplistic. Acknowledging and understanding the myriad cultural associations with the terms ‘climate’ and ‘climate change’ can enable an appreciation of the blocks or defences that some people have in engaging with, and taking action on, climate change. This section will unpack some of the cultural understandings of climate change. It will encourage reflexivity around how the terms ‘climate’ and ‘climate change’ are used and understood culturally, and the meanings that may be attached to these terms.
The scientific consensus on the causes and impacts of climate change is clear (e.g. IPCC, 2018), and it forms a key part of meta-narratives such as the Anthropocene (e.g. Steffen and Crutzen, 2007). However, such elite discourses have the potential to cause overwhelm and disengagement: it can seem too complex, too remote, too big, a hyperobject as some call it.
Others question the usefulness of climate change as a universal concept laden with catastrophic outcomes and urge a broader approach to thinking about how climate change is communicated and used (Moser, 2014; Brace and Geoghegan, 2011; Hulme, 2009). This approach tries to account for different experiences of climate and climate change, which are influenced by and grounded in everyday cultural and physical contexts. For example, Brace and Geoghegan assert that public understanding of climate change needs to consider the ‘‘mingling of place, personal history, daily life, culture and values” (2011, p. 289). Other cultural considerations and influencers of climate change engagement include different perceptions of risk, proximity (for those not experiencing impacts, it is seen to be far away in place and time), personal agency and values.
As a metaphor or mythology
Hulme (2009) questions the unreflective use of the term ‘climate change’, arguing that it is used both as an index to describe the accumulated patterns of weather in places; and as an agent, as explanation for a wide range of likely physical and human outcomes. Taking the concept further, and giving examples of how different myths, or ways of seeing the world, can be attached to the terms, he suggests that ‘climate change’ could be an imaginative idea which circulates and influences every aspect of life. Building on this, Moser (2014) suggests that climate change can be used to think beyond the instrumental nature of action and communication and be used as an opportunity to "mirror who we are on the journey" (2014, p. 10).
Perceptions, influence, responses
Does how we view climate change widen or restrict the range of possible responses? Does taking an orientation towards climate change as an idea or a challenge serve to open up the range of responses? Conversely, does the urgent need to take action, with climate change viewed as a meta-narrative or a problem to be solved, cause overwhelm, which can close down agency, or provoke an insubstantial response? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but what emerges is a need for a critical reflexivity about the many ways climate and climate change are known and understood according to personal history, social context, geography and culture.
Brace, C. and Geoghegan, H. (2011). Human geographies of climate change: landscape, temporality, and lay knowledges. Progress in Human Geography, 35, 284.
Hulme, M. (2009). Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inactions, and opportunity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change / IPCC (2018). Global warming of 1.5 degrees, summary for policy makers [Online]. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2018/07/SR15_SPM_High_Res.pdf
Moser, S. (2014). Whither the heart (-to-heart?). Prospects for a humanistic turn in environmental communication as the world changes darkly. In Hansen, A. and Cox, R. (Eds.). Handbook on environment and communication, 6, 2. London: Routledge.
Steffen, W., Crutzen, P.J. and McNeill, J.R. (2007). The anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?. Ambio, 36, 8, 614-621.