Center Home Science Policy Photos University of Colorado spacer
Location: > Prometheus: Climate Determinism Lives On Archives

January 07, 2007

Climate Determinism Lives On

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change

Andy Revkin of the New York Times has an article in today’s paper which suggests that the different political outcomes on on climate change in the United States and Europe might be explained to some degree by their different climates – positing that Europe has one climate and the United States has many. Somewhat bizarrely on this sociological and political question Andy quotes a number of physical scientists, and the results are about what one would expect. For instance, Penn State’s Michael Mann opines:

[Mann] has another theory about why Washington, particularly, has lagged even as some states and cities have moved ahead to limit such emissions. "The East Coast of the United States, and particularly the mid-Atlantic region, did not warm nearly as much as rest of globe over the 20th century," Dr. Mann said. "And that’s where the decision-making is going on."

Perhaps someone at Penn State’s political science department might share with Professor Mann the fact that our elected representatives actually come from all over the United States. More generally, had Andy Revkin spoke to relevant experts like Bill Travis, Nico Stehr, or Mickey Glantz he might have learned that climate determinism – the idea that regional climate differences can explain social and political outcomes -- has been completely discredited for decades in the social sciences. Some even called the idea racist. He might have simply queried Wikipedia:

The fundamental argument of the environmental determinists was that aspects of physical geography, particularly that of climate, influenced the psychological mind-set of individuals, which in turn defined the behaviour and culture of the society that those individuals formed. For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes and promiscuity, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes led to more determined and driven work ethics. Because these environmental influences operate slowly on human biology, it was important to trace the migrations of groups to see what environmental conditions they had evolved under.

Between 1920 and 1940, environmental determinism came under repeated attacks as its claims were found to be severely faulted at best, and often dangerously wrong. Geographers reacted to this by first developing the softer notion of "environmental possibilism," and later by abandoning the search for theory and causal explanation for many decades. Later critics charged that determinism served to justify racism and imperialism. The experience of environmental determinism has left a scar on geography, with many geographers reacting negatively to any suggestion of environmental influences on human society.

The climate community, and those that cover it, have a blind spot when it comes to social science.

Posted on January 7, 2007 01:58 AM


Apples and oranges, Roger. The general notion of climate determinism, or rather lack thereof, is not at all applicable to political perspectives on specifically environmental issues. Surely you are not surprised when people who live in a drought striken area (eg Melbourne, AU) are much more concerned about water management politics than people who don't (eg Vancouver, Canada). I don't care too much about tornado warning systems here either, unlike denizens of Tornado Alley. Expecting such a distribution of opinion is hardly some kind of weather racism.

Do you have any studies of climate change attitudes/climate relationships?

That said, I think the Mann quote, as presented, is a bit silly, both for the reason you state and the fact that this issue has been much more actively politicized in the US. The propoganda factor alone would overwhelm any possible first-hand impression of climate change, IMO. Especially since the change thus far is still subtle in most places.

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 6, 2007 11:26 PM

Hi Coby-

Thanks for your comment. You are confusing "climate matters" from "climate determines". Revkin is suggesting something much more deterministic than what you posit -- that political outcomes on climate change are determined by continental climate.

On this subject, see for example this paper by Stehr and Von Storch:

Revkin/Mann/MacCracken are suggesting that climate determines specific political outcomes. This is enough to get a wide range of scholars worked up. More generally, there is a large literature on climate determinism, see , e.g.:


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 6, 2007 11:36 PM

Sorry, Roger, but, as a 'European', I have to disagree with you on this matter and I'll give one main example to explain my point of view.

Since Katrina, there has been a substantial amount of research and comment on the issue of hurricanes and GW. Almost all of this is based in the USA. For American climate scientists and politicians, this is a big issue. From outside, the amount of material and the violence of the disagreements on this subject looks like regionally-oriented, narrow-focussed evidence of 'climate determinism'.

Whilst this has been going on in the USA, debate in the UK and other European countries has focussed more in the past year on CO2 emissions and economic arguments. In the UK, there has been a lot of interest in the thermo-haline circulation, for the obvious, 'climate-deterministic' reasons. Continental Europe shows a different focus; drought and pollution. (and note, Mr. Revkin, Europe has more than one climate...).

This is not the same kind of 'environmental determinism' as that which you cite from the Wikipedia article, in that there is no attempt to establish social or ethnic stereotypes based on latitude or climate. Instead, it is a natural reflection of the entirely human tendency to be influenced by personal experience when considering issues on a scale which is hard, otherwise, to comprehend.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the tragic 'Katrina' experience, surely it is that action to deal with risks must be proactive; otherwise, we remain condemned to an endless cycle of responding to tragedy rather than averting it. It is for this reason that climate policies such as 'wait and see', or 'no regrets' must now be consigned to the past.


Posted by: Fergus Brown at January 7, 2007 04:35 AM

Fergus- Thanks for your comments. We may have to disagree on this one! Katrina has received plenty of attention by European scientists and politicians, and correspondingly, the THC has as well in the US.

Revkin is indeed suggesting a "social stereotype" -- that different climates in the US and Europe help to explain different social attitudes and hence political outcomes. If you think that Europe has more than one climate (as you say and which it does) then Revkin's piece becomes nonsense anyway.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2007 07:22 AM

Katrina again. This would make for an interesting study, as a microcosm of the whole GW alarmism problem.

How many times will people bring up the issue of Katrina in the context of GW? Katrina was a 3 that happened to hit the bullseye, and there were a half dozen locations where the walls failed. The failures were attributed to engineering and construction inadequacies. To say Katrina and GW in the same paragraph is ludicrous and alarmist. People that do it either have an alternate agenda (e.g. carbon trading or basic original sin) or are dupes of those that do.

Posted by: Tim Clear [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2007 08:00 AM

Response emailed from Andy Revkin:

Sheesh, Beware trampling on social scientists' deeply researched theses. This piece was entirely about *one* offbeat element that might limit Americans' ability to generate any sense of common urgency about climate.

To the person on the street, as opposed to academics with PhDs in political science (or climatology), I'm sure there's some merit in this notion. The EU-US conceit was just to illustrate the contrasting geographic scales of the two places. Six countries faced one common weather-climate extreme. In the US, there is no such thing.

And the story contained a huge nod to the more likely factors:

"This is not a testable hypothesis, and the experts note that many other factors contribute to varied attitudes on the issue, ranging from contrasting cultural and political biases to different levels of dependence on oil and coal or the industries that profit from them. But they do see the climate issue compounded here by how normal it is to have abnormal ­ and very different ­ conditions around the country."

Believe me, when I was canvassing for comment a lot of climate scientists said precisely what you did -- that politics and culture trumps all in this climate-energy discourse. And they're right.

Michael Mann's tongue sure seemed planted well in cheek in his Washington comment. Maybe my inartful writing style didn't convey cheekiness sufficiently.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2007 08:08 AM

I have a slightly different explanation for the different perception of the risk due to global warming among Europeans and US Americans (for the latest survey, see: Warming concerns Europe more than U.S. )

Europe is a rapidly aging, demographically waning continent facing economic stagnation and political decline. After its orgy of genocidal extremism and self-destruction during much of the 20th century, Europe has all but lost its sense of self-confidence and given up on its secular credo of social and technological progress.

As a result of this trauma Europe is going through a period of deep cultural pessimism which is permeating throughout the media and society. This doom and gloom mentality is not only affecting the perception of climate change as harbringer of global catastrophe, but has negatively influenced many other aspects of science and technology (e.g. European techno-phobia on biotechnologies,12981,928170,00.html )

Anyway, if climate determinism is really the driving force behind climate policy, what about this paradox?

"Ironically, those countries most committed to combating climate change, such as the UK and Sweden, would gain, with warmer temperatures bringing bigger crop yields and fewer deaths from cold.... Crop yields would rise by up to 70 per cent in northern Europe but fall by up to a fifth in the south, depending on the temperature increase."

Posted by: Benny Peiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2007 08:12 AM


Thanks for your response, and as always your participation here. I have just a few replies ...

1. A lot of persons-on-the-street also think that Iraq was involved in 9/11, however I don't think we want the NYT reinforcing that incorrect perspective. The same follows here.

2. The following would have been a better hook, especially since it appears that it was what you were told: "when I was canvassing for comment a lot of climate scientists said precisely what you did -- that politics and culture trumps all in this climate-energy discourse. And they're right."

3. Michael Mann was just kidding around? In that case, my mistake, as I thought it was indeed a serious comment.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at January 7, 2007 08:20 AM

So far I was considering Andy Revkin as a very good journalist, better than most journalists I meet in Europe. More careful in his analysis; more time for the research. But now this - Andy Revkin: "To the person on the street, as opposed to academics with PhDs in political science (or climatology), I'm sure there's some merit in this notion." Thus, Revkin wants to take up, to deal with, a pre-scientific concept which enjoys popularity on the street. That is laudable - but then he should speak to experts who know something about the formation and dynamics of public perception, about social and cultural construction of knowledge claims. He should confront the lay-persons' views with what scholars have thought about, have analysed in many year. But that is, indeed, one of the key problems with the contemporary "science communication" of many naive climate scientists, who believe in the linear model, and who draw from their ability to deal with quasigeostrophic dynamics the qualification for recommending the fundamentals of climate policy and economy.

Posted by: Hans von Storch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2007 08:53 AM

Roger -

Don't you think invoking the dark spectre of environmental determinism here is a bit rhetorically excessive? Revkin and those he quotes are making a much more modest claim than the discredited Ellsworth Huntington et al., and invoking them seems something of a straw man. I'm not saying that Andy and those he quotes here are right, just that dismissing them with the "environmental determinism" label is inappropriate. Stehr and von Storch, who you quote here, clearly agree that "society has in the past and continues to respond to climate extremes that become imprinted into social action." Climate may not determine, but climate does matter. The thing to discuss is whether that has happened in this case - not to dismiss the argument out of hand by inappropriately labeling it "environmental determinism."

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 8, 2007 09:31 AM

Thanks John for your comments-

I do see Revkin's article exactly in line with climate determinism. I do think it irresponsible of a reporter to go speculating about such things and then assert as Revkin does, "This is not a testable hypothesis . . .". Well, yes it is, and it has. It is not a big thing but in the article Revkin made a couple of scientists look a bit foolish by including quotes that were apparently (and nonobviously) "tongue-in-cheek" and illustrated his lack of knowledge of relevant social science. One reason why "climate determinism" evokes such strong reactions from geographers and others is that this debate has been well plowed ground for a long time.

Worse than Revkin's looking to climate scientists to explain social/political outcomes, is that his reaction to my post demonstrated some real disdain for social science, as HVS explained. That probably bothers me more than the original article . . . Imagine if Revkin instead did an article on the stark contrast of warm temperatures in NYC and recent blizzards in Denver and as experts quoted a few sociologists who had never heard of El Nino, but speculated that it was, say, solar flares that explained the climate outcomes. I'm sure a few climate scientists would object;-)

The reason for the US taking the action that it has on climate change is as Revkin explains in his response, "politics and culture trumps all in this climate-energy discourse." This would have been a far better hook for a Week in Review piece than suggesting that "the climate made us do it"!

As far as rhetorical excess, I'll leave that to the eyes/ears of the reader. I did receive one email from someone saying I was far too measured in my comment. I am sure that our rhetoric here on this blog sometimes accurately reflects the importance of the issue being discussed, and sometimes not ;-)

We do appreciate your feedback!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at January 8, 2007 10:09 AM

John, Roger

Here is another angle to look at the issue. There can be little doubt about the rival and rise to dominance of climate determinism in the field of cultural evolution. Today, there is hardly *any* big societal advance or cultural change in the area of pre-historic theorising that is not explained as a dircet result of "climate change."

Megafauna extinction? Must be the result of climate change!
Agriculture? Due to climate change.
Neolithic Revolution? Climate change.
The rise of complex societies? Climate change.
The fall of complex societies? dito.
And so on and so forth....

I posted a very illuminating paper on the rise of environmental derterminism on CCNet some time ago; see

Posted by: Benny Peiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 8, 2007 01:45 PM

Some years after boosting Regency CO2 levels by burning down the White House,the Court of St. James's tried sending dipomats to the nation's capital instead. So torrid was its clime from a European perspective that those dispatched drew Tropical Hardship pay like those in Calcutta, Singapore or Fenando Po

Posted by: Russell Seitz at January 8, 2007 05:38 PM

I imagine that Revkin, if he ever saw Monty Python, must be wondering how he managed to invoke the Spanishi Inquisition. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill ....

Despite his lack of serious research, Revkin may have a point. Roger does not take issue with these comments:
"In the United States, which spans a continent, there is almost never a shared sense of meteorological misery."
"[Climate scientists] do see the climate issue compounded here by how normal it is to have abnormal — and very different — conditions around the country."
"Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, said the varied influences on the North American climate not only inhibited a common appreciation for current climate extremes but also made it harder to project how conditions in a particular region would change should heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases continue to build in the atmosphere."

I think that these points merit more serious investigation (as opposed to anecdotal comments about what climate scientists think) and that simple dismisal as "climate determinism" is hasty and unwarranted.

It is clear that people do discuss their local weather and treat it as more important than weather events elsewhere. Japan is a smaller nation that has been hammered by typhoons and heavy rains over the past few years, and has seen a steady moderation of winterweather and a shift of seasons. While there is a strong perception here that the climate is changing, it may also be true that having a large variety of weather events and climate zones in the US may affect our ability as a nation to come to a conclusion that the climate is changing - as opposed to simply sometimes being very different in different parts of the country.

It does seem to me that climatic diversity in the US, along with our wide expanse, helps make it easier for many to dismiss the very real signs of climate change - whoever heard of the Arctic climate impact assessment, by the way?

As a related matter, of course a nation's climate - and climate change prospects - may affect how it plays the international climate change politics game. Surely it is not objectionable to wonder whether nations which in balance are not expected to be severely affected by climate change might be less concerned about climate change than nations which are more likely to suffer?

Posted by: TokyoTom [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2007 01:21 AM

Roger -

I feel like I'm stepping into a minefield on this "climate/environmental determinism" topic, made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that I've had my metaphorical feet blown off here in the past. So I spent some time with the excellent Stehr/von Storch piece you suggested above. I remain lost about your reasoning in lumping what Revkin has done in with the rather more extreme form of environmental/climate determinism that Stehr and von Storch describe. In its discredited form, as SvS describe it, such determinism involves such observations as "people from warm climes are promiscuous and lazy", or "people from the cold north are industrious and prosperous", etc. Perhaps you could elaborate the definition you're using, so I could better see how it connects to Sunday's story?

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2007 02:07 PM

Hi John-

Thanks; I am glad to give it a shot ...

You accurately describe Huntington's version of climate determinism. It wasn't just this particular formulation of climate determinism that has been discredited, but the idea as a whole. In Revkin's article he is suggesting that:

People who share a climate (maybe we'd call it "continentally less variable") are more likely to take environmentally responsible action

People who don't share a climate (i.e., "continentally more variable") are less likely to take environmentally responsible action.

The cause-effect construct of Revkin's argument is identical to what Huntington postulated (i.e., environmental conditions determine social or political outcomes).

A hypothetical analogy might be if a newspaper reporter speculated in a Week in Review piece that, say, the head size of people with Asian ancestry is somewhat larger than that of people with other ancestries, and maybe this difference explains why there are more Asians enrolled at Berkeley (and then asked a few hat makers to comment). I am sure that there would be a negative response to such a story (I'm a bit wary even making it up!). Maybe also relevant is the experience of Larry Summers at Harvard discussing women and math.

Does this make sense?


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2007 03:13 PM

Roger -

Thanks, yes, that helps. I think there's an ambiguity to the original piece that you and I have interpreted in two different ways. Unfortunately, Andy never explicitly states the hypothesis, so there's no way to resolve whose interpretation is correct.

Posted by: jfleck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2007 04:49 PM

Sitemap | Contact | Find us | Email webmaster