by Andy West
My book ‘The Grip of Culture’, subtitled ‘The social psychology of climate change catastrophism’, is now published.
“Climate change catastrophism is a cultural disease haunting Western society. Andy West’s excellent study of this problem explains the different drivers of this disease. It is an important contribution to a debate where reason must prevail.” – Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent
The rear-cover synopsis reads:
“Attempts to explain attitudes to climate change, and the refusal of large parts of society to accept the idea of an imminent catastrophe, have largely foundered. This ground breaking book overturns the existing literature, developing a powerful new model of public attitudes based on the interaction of traditional religion and a new culture – a new faith – of climate catastrophism, which is instinctively accepted or rejected. At its centre is a series of measurements of public opinion, culled from major international polls, which make a strong case that society is now in the grip of a major new religion. That case is made still more powerful because the model is able to predict real-world outcomes, such as the deployment of renewables and the prevalence of climate protest groups in different countries.
The book ends with a warning. Cultures can bind societies together and cause great civilisations to grow and prosper. But they can also lead them to disaster. If society is truly in the grip of a new cultural entity, we should be very concerned.”
My book overlaps with some social aspects explored in Judith’s book, including the catastrophe narrative, the social nature of consensuses, and the highly tangled territory where group biases interact with, and damage, the enterprise of science. However, regarding the social aspects generally I see my book as exposing the ultimate root cause of the biases and the deep social need for arbitrary consensus. It does not explore much detail about what specific institutions and efforts are undermined by which biased advocate individuals or organisations, and indeed it does not delve into climate science or the IPCC procedures at all (see the note at the end of this post). The main presence of climate catastrophism is outside of science, and its culture can be characterised and measured from its footprint in global publics (inclusive of public authorities). However, climate catastrophism works to undermine all institutions that provide ‘rationality at social scale’, including democracy, the law (chapter 14), and science (which is considered generically).
A short description of each chapter follows:
The opening paragraph states:
“This book is about the social psychology associated with climate change, which can be characterized and measured across national publics without reference to the physical climate system, its future state, or how it responds to human emissions of greenhouse gases. This is the case because the social psychology has emergent characteristics of its own, which are unaffected by mainstream views on the science of the ocean-atmosphere system… …or indeed the arguments of the small minority of sceptical scientists.”
A potent new cultural entity in our society
The observed social behaviours associated with the issue of climate change (a couple of dozen are listed), circumstantially point to a ‘cultural entity’ – shorthand: ‘a culture’ – dominating the public domain with respect to this issue. Cultural entities include religions and secular ideologies – an appropriate label for this one is ‘climate catastrophism’. The chapter points out that we should be able to apply 150 years of accumulated knowledge on how cultures work, to better understand this new one. However, this obvious angle has not been pursued, apparently because the relevant social science disciplines wrongly deem that certain global catastrophe (absent dramatic action) to be incontrovertible hard science. This chapter is based on the first half of my 2015 Climate Etc post ‘Climate culture’.
Cultural entities: deep roots and key features
This chapter covers the origin of cultural entities in the evolutionary process of cultural group selection, and describes their features, including: emotive commitment to cultures and emotive hot-buttons, the cultural use and abuse of children, (irrational) cultural consensuses, cultural narrative (which is always false, and features a population of variants), cultural policing, demonisation and the pressure of fear, cultural rejection (innate scepticism), and more. The chapter also covers features of cultures that are more than the sum of their parts, and which imbue them with an agenda of their own.
Child prophets and proselytisers
This chapter examines the cultural role of children as prophets and mass proselytisers. The approach is based on distinguishing these roles from reality-based (i.e. not cultural) scenarios. A detailed comparison is drawn between the pitches to authority of two girl prophets – Greta Thunberg and Nonqawuse – as well as a reality-based pitch from Malala Yousafza. A similar comparison is drawn between two child movements – the Alabama children’s crusade of 1963, and the current School Strikes for Climate campaign.
The vulnerability of children to aggressively promoted cultural ‘templates’, and climate catastrophism’s psychological abuse of children, are also covered. The chapter essentially consists of my 2019 Climate Etc post ‘Child prophets and proselytisers’.
The Catastrophe Narrative
The ‘carrier’ of a cultural entity, its DNA so to speak, is an emotive cultural narrative that consists of a main ‘umbrella’ theme, under which sits a population of narrative variants linked to the theme. This chapter examines the specific cultural narrative of ‘imminent global climate catastrophe’, as propagated by a wide array of authority sources from presidents and prime ministers on downwards, and including examples of its most common memetic variants along with the details of how these work. The chapter is based on my 2018 Climate Etc post ‘The catastrophe narrative’.
The catastrophe narrative is ubiquitous in the public domain and propagated by virtually all authority sources; a companion file lists a couple of hundred examples of authority figures pushing the catastrophe narrative, categorized by variant type and with a clickable index of quotees.
Demonisation and denialism
This chapter examines the mis-framed concept of ‘denialism’, which allows modern secular cultures (especially climate catastrophism) to demonise dissenters en-masse, yet without this being perceived as demonisation. The widespread use of the emotive and pejorative concept of denialism is in part due to its legitimisation by a scientific paper, which has given the concept a veneer of respectability. In this chapter I use that paper as a vehicle to expose the flawed framing of the term denialism. The chapter is based on my 2016 Climate Etc post ‘The Denialism Frame’, with significant additions.
This chapter examines the critical mechanism of ‘innate scepticism’, an instinctive reaction against cultural invasion (or local cultural overreach). This is not rational scepticism (!) and may be apt or inapt. The bulk attitudes to climate change of publics across the globe cannot be adequately explained without taking this mechanism into account. Innate scepticism can be thought of as ‘cultural disbelief’, but is not merely the mirror image or opposite of cultural belief; it is semi-independent and possesses its own characteristics. The chapter is based on my 2017 Climate Etc post ‘Innate Skepticism’, with significant additions.
Measuring climate catastrophism
This chapter moves from characterising cultural entities generally and climate catastrophism in particular, to measuring the presence of the latter as revealed by the attitudes to climate change of publics across the globe (from the polling of 64 nations). Leveraging the fact that cultures interact allows international attitudes that are otherwise incomprehensible to be easily understood. Plotting them against a scale of national religiosity confirms the straightforward categorical patterns that are expected from cultural causation. The patterns consist of a particular set of linear series (no complex models or even multi-variate analysis are required); these are generated from a range of independent sources yet they all fit into the same single framework. All the original charts, data and sources are available in a companion Excel file (the ‘Excel-Ref’).
The cultural measurements explained
This chapter explains in detail why we expect the categorical patterns found in chapter 8, which confirm that a cultural entity dominates the climate change domain. At the top level, this is because the attitudes of international (non-US) publics reflect their cultural identity. In turn, only two identity components really matter here: the level of commitment to climate catastrophism, and the level of commitment to religious faith (of whatever brand). However, cultural rejection is also evident, which is not simply the opposite of belief; hence it is critical to take into account the characteristics of this ‘innate scepticism’.
Additionally, the validity of the Chapter 8 measurement is provided through a parallel example, which probes a different domain in the same manner, yet one that is inarguably cultural: the domain of religion. As expected, this produces the same type of patterns.
The full model, a dismal failure, and ‘what if?’
The measurements above are sufficient to develop a basic cultural framework, but this chapter extends that framework by considering more response types and to a much wider set of survey questions than Chapter 8 employs. Although some classes of public response to questions about climate change are non-linear with national religiosity, even these remain predictable in the sense that they always occupy an ‘envelope’ between two linear trends. Hence in principle, and for measurements at the national level, the responses to all international (non-US) survey questions can be predicted via this fuller framework,* from knowing national religiosity alone, and with the linear series having predictor values that surpass by far the existing literature. (Latterly, the literature tends to evaluate groups of social predictors rather than single ones, in an attempt to increase predictive power). All data/sources are in the Excel-Ref.
This chapter also examines the reasons why the large and long-standing social predictor literature for attitudes to climate change, has completely failed to find the above outstanding predictor, and outlines the severely myopic way in which the literature perceives the nature of the domain it is attempting to measure, while presenting some results from representative papers.
* From 2015 onwards, and notwithstanding a modest reduction in average predictor values when Covid appears.
The USA: same rules, unique factors
The situation is more complex in the US than in all other nations, because there are four cultures that matter. In addition to climate catastrophism and religion, the huge public polarization between Dem/Libs and Rep/Cons – on a whole raft of issues and inclusive of climate change – means that these two political tribes behave as additional cultures. This chapter demonstrates that nevertheless the same cultural rules apply, and maps the Rest-of-World (RoW) framework to the US scenario, which gives further insight on the latter. In agreement with the findings of social psychologist Dan Kahan, attitudes to climate change in the US are still about cultural identity, but not as he suggests owed only tribal political identity, instead as owed to all four cultures, two of which (climate catastrophism and religion) dominate the RoW picture. All data/sources are in the Excel-Ref.
Climate catastrophism and policy: renewables
Having verified and indeed measured the presence of climate catastrophism, we can use the framework developed in chapters 8 – 10 to predict real-world outcomes, such as policy implementation related to climate change and Net-Zero. This chapter demonstrates that the commitment to renewables (wind-turbines and solar) across nations, is not owed to the climate or climate exposure of nations, or to science or technology or even to rationality, but to cultural motivation. The analysis of renewables commitment is executed step by step and supported by charts at each step; briefly, the end step is shown to be approximately same for the commitment to electric vehicles across nations. All data/sources are in the Excel-Ref. This chapter is based on my 2020 Climate Etc post ‘Cultural motivations for wind and solar deployment’.
Climate catastrophism and society: activism
In addition to the policy prediction above, this chapter shows how the cultural framework can accurately predict the level of climate activism across nations. This is demonstrated both for Extinction Rebellion groups and the Childrens’ Strikes for Climate movement. It is further demonstrated that publics who are reacting culturally to the issue of climate change, cannot be educated with further information in order to rectify this undesirable situation. This is because publics also view all information on climate change as cultural in itself, and so will accept it or reject it on that basis, no matter what the content actually is.
The characteristics revisited
This chapter further examines the list of social behaviours first introduced in Chapter 2, in light of all that has been learned from the rest of the book. It then focuses on how a burgeoning new cultural entity will undermine (prior) law, and even the moral foundations that the law and much else within society are built upon. A generic list of ways in which this occurs is assembled, and real-world examples are shown from the climate change domain that fulfil all of this list. This chapter is an expansion of a section in my 2015 Climate Etc post ‘Climate culture’.
Historical comparisons and social impacts
This chapter describes some particulars of various historic cultural entities, especially with respect to their adverse impacts upon society. While strong caveats regarding historic comparisons with climate catastrophism (or other modern cultures) are emphasised, we can nevertheless learn from these, and for obvious reasons negative impacts are the issue that we most need to be alert to. The chapter also covers some thoughts about how much further the grip of climate catastrophism might extend and tighten, additionally and briefly how, if possible, the culture might be tamed.
Apart from examining, in Chapter 5, some catastrophe narrative variants that are propagated by a small minority of scientists, this book does not delve into the disputes and positions of scientists about climate change, whether mainstream, sceptical, or luke-warmer. All the attitudes directly measured are public ones, as captured by mainstream pollsters and bodies such as the EU and the UN. Public authorities are characterised by their very many catastrophe narrative quotes (Chapter 5), and are effectively measured by proxy through the impact of their policies across nations (Chapter 12). Yet this likewise does not imply anything particular about the attitudes of climate scientists. Having said this, the gold-standard for a secondary confirmation that the catastrophe narrative is cultural, which we can see is the case from both textual analysis and public attitude measurements, is that it also contradicts mainstream climate science (as well as sceptical science).
Readers will be relieved to note that my first-rate and diligent editor, Andrew Montford, has enormously improved the readability of my text, including those chapters that are based on prior guest posts here. However, note that this is necessarily still an academic work, rather than having a popular science format.
Twitter: follow Andy at @WeAreNarrative