Science helps us to understand the facts of climate change, but what can culture do? Science tells us that temperatures are increasing, the sea level is rising and permafrost is melting. Experts tell us that there are already more than 25 million environmental refugees, people who are moving away from drying wells and failed crops. One-sixth of the world’s population gets its water from melting snow and ice, and scientists predict that such sources will not be there in the years to come.

Scientists demonstrate how climate change threatens the existence of the ecosystem and the livelihoods of people who depend on agriculture, and warn that in some countries, climate change is viewed as a potential human security issue, which might transform into a global security issue.

Science offers the facts, but we need more than facts to take action. What we decide to do will depend on what we think is right after considering the facts, including how we think about social justice, the way we understand responsibility, and our personal views on what we value. These are moral and ethical questions. There are also specific ‘cultural questions’ that need to be addressed when considering the challenges of climate change.

Culture relates profoundly to the human dimensions of climate change. The notion of culture in such a context can be defined as ‘the common way in which a community of persons makes sense of the world.’1 Although the different means of cultural expression we use (words, images, sounds) will help communicate ways of making sense or exploring the ideas of things, the ‘cultural questions’ that encircle climate change are wider. Culture has material, social, ideological and artistic dimensions, all of which influence what people think, value, and believe, and how they respond to the call for action.

Culture has always played a role in informing human practices connected with global change. It can be viewed as a cause of climate change, for example, the impact of the culture of consumption, but also as something that can be itself affected by climate change, for example, the demands for changing current patterns of energy consumption. In addition, through its various means of expression, including those by artists, cultural processes can convey and help us understand the nature and impact of climate change on individuals and on the world as a whole, as well as the measures that we might undertake to address the challenges of climate change. More specifically, there are cultural activities at both the individual and community level that can help drive positive environmental change, transform attitudes and promote positive action, in the same way as cultural activities can influence action in other areas of concern – discrimination, gender equality, the rights of children. Exhibitions, films, lectures, festivals and literary fiction and non-fiction can all be powerful influencers of public opinion.

The cultural issues bound up in the climate change debate also draw from the study of anthropology, which focuses on how adaptation to environmental stresses can be influenced by cultural causes. Cultural belief systems affect the public debate that surrounds environmental issues.

Issues such as attitudes to quality of life, levels of public anxiety, public perceptions of environmental sustainability, the mistrust of governmental initiatives, the sense of personal urgency and most behavioral responses to problems are cultural phenomena. Culture is a force within any process of social change that can mobilise collective action by promoting advocacy coalitions, networks and other forms of change-making interactions.

Every society has a culturally unique way of thinking about the world that unites people in their behaviours and attitudes. Cultural values are powerful tools for conserving the environment, and any study of native peoples demonstrates how ‘native wisdom’ from time immemorial has been used to protect the environment. Such commitment to preserve the environment is affected by cultural elements including beliefs, religion and taboos. The cultural dimension of environmental issues has been a strong pillar of the environmental management debate for sustainable development.

When examining climate change through a ‘cultural lens’, rather than through an environmental, economic, social or political lens, a number of specific questions come to mind. Here are a few of them:

1 Gross, J.L> and S. Rayner. Measuring Culture: A Paradigm for the Analysis of Social Organisation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985:2