The separation of earth and sky

Apologies for the sporadic posting and delay on the series of Kiribati posts. Moving always takes longer than I imagine it will (any tips on buying furniture in Vancouver are welcome!)

In this month's Climatic Change, I have what probably appears to be an out-of-character editorial essay on how religious or traditional belief systems can pose an obstacle to climate change communication. The essay was initially developed during my field work in Fiji a couple years back (that explains what has to be the most unusual abstract in Climatic Change history) and supplemented with further research and interviews.

In a nutshell, I argue that the climate science and education community have been missing the base reason that people are reluctant to accept the urgency of human-induced climate change:

The notion that humans can strongly influence or be in control of the climate counters thousands of years of religious philosophy and existing traditional belief systems worldwide.... The conflict between the basic notion of human-induced climate change and a millennia-old belief in a separation between earth and sky may underpin the slow public response to warnings about climate change.

This is not an indictment or endorsement of religion, rather a discussion of the separation of earth (the domain of humans) and sky (the domain of the gods) in different traditions and the need for a long view of human history when communicating climate change. I encourage people to read the essay and provide feedback on how we can use these ideas to improve climate change communication efforts. Here's a bit of the conclusion:

From Galileo to Darwin, science is full of examples where new discoveries challenged traditional beliefs. If history is a guide, it can take decades or centuries for the new science to become the new orthodoxy. The battle over public acceptance of natural selection is still being fought 150 years after the publication of the Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The potential for human-induced climate change may not belong on a list of the most fundamental scientific discoveries of last 500 years. Like those discoveries, however, it does challenge a belief held by virtually all religions and cultures worldwide for thousands of years. This long view of history needs to be reflected in campaigns to educate the public, who do not have the benefit of years of graduate training in atmospheric science, about the science of climate change.

The true communications challenge facing climate scientists, educators and policymakers is time. Aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could need to begin in the next decade to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference” in the climate system, likethe collapse of major ice sheets, shifts in ocean circulation and the widespread degradationof coral reefs (e.g., O’Neill and Oppenheimer 2002). Garnering strong public and political support for any substantial near-term action is requiring society to adapt beliefs held relatively constant for millennia in a matter of years.

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