Home > 2021 > Cultural Dimension of Climate Change | Pavittarbir Singh Saggu

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Cultural Dimension of Climate Change | Pavittarbir Singh Saggu

Friday 20 August 2021

Pavittarbir Singh Saggu*


Culture mediates society’s response to global climate change in all of its manifestations. To demonstrate that climate change impacts cultural elements such as material and lived culture, identity, community cohesiveness, or sense of place, this article examines studies from across the social sciences. Moreover, it contends that cultures’ responses and adaptations to climate-related risks have major cultural elements. This article demonstrates how culture mediates changes in the environment and changes in society.
Keywords: Climate Change, Culture, Adaptation, Mitigation, Cultural responses
Cultural Dimension of Climate Change

Climate Change mitigation and adaptation require a thorough understanding of culture, and culture plays a key role in framing climate change as a major concern in society. Production, consumption, lifestyles, and social organization are all impacted by it. As a result, cultural interpretation may be used to understand the repercussions of these emissions, and as a result, risk identification, responsible decisions, and implementation are all mediated by culture.

Culture can be defined as the symbols that reflect the meaning of ideas, rituals, and other practices, resulting in the formation of collective attitudes and behavior, as well as the development of solutions to deal with various challenges.

A variety of approaches can be used to evaluate culture, for instance, by looking at it "when it is tightly related to places" (physical places that are given meaning by people). It follows that climate change will adversely affect their place of residence and damage their attachment to it. Globally, climate change poses a threat, but the repercussions will vary. In contrast to rural areas and coastal communities, cultures in industrialized countries or metropolitan areas will be less adversely affected by climate change. As a result, rural people will lose the cultural elements they value most. They will lose their culture if they move from one place to another because culture can only be developed in a "collective" environment. These individuals, who are attached to their social and emotional support networks, do not wish to relocate. It is also learned that people’s adaptive reactions can also be affected by place attachment. Due to their social and economic ties to their region, people who have a high level of place attachment are more likely to be motivated to prepare for climate change events such as flooding. A simple cause-and-effect link between environmental threats and societal responses was postulated to incorporate adaptation into climate change models This approach, however, has failed to explain why different communities behave differently to the same climatic hazards. In Burkina Faso, for example, different groups of pastoralists have adapted to recurring drought in different ways; the Rimaiibe people have diversified their livelihoods by using labor migration more extensively. Differentiation is also evident in fishing communities in India, where responses are constrained by cultural traditions among different ethnic groups. A person’s response to climate hazards can vary depending on his or her cultural background and outlook. Douglas and Wildavsky suggest in "Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers" that communities with common values and beliefs understand the natural environment and climatic phenomena in their way and respond to climate change accordingly. Aside from the ’logical’ responses promoted by institutions supporting migration and adaptation to climate change, there are also climate change narratives that are commonly used to encourage responses to the climate change problem.

In all cultures, climate change will have varying degrees of impact, from little to severe. As a result, it is ridiculous to believe or question "is it true?" There is enough evidence to prove that its repercussions have already begun. The major impact, however, will not be driven by environmental changes, many of which are already well-known and being investigated. These changes would have significant social and economic implications. As a driver, climate change is enabling civilizations to recognize and actively participate in decisions regarding their future. In other words, the climate change issue provides a concrete framework for increasing cultural awareness and allowing groups to take action against destructive forces including overpopulation, pollution, economic inequity, political oppression, malnutrition, and deforestation which have been ignored by the government and people because of various reasons such as minimal funding and lack of political will. Climate change rhetoric has raised awareness of the interconnected nature of many of the challenges we face, such as the loss of natural or non-renewable resources, providing yet another incentive to explore and implement mitigation methods. As a result of this increased awareness, communities in the United States and worldwide are being encouraged to reexamine their problems, including climate change, and consider new methods to interact, adapt to, and reduce these problems, but not necessarily to ’solve’ them. One such manifestation is the revival of the environmental movement.

Cultural adaptation to climate change is possible, but it is restricted because culture is dynamic and often met with nonlinear changes. For example, Archaeological records suggest that people were able to use a mix of strategies to adapt to drought, however, when droughts got longer and more extreme, the effectiveness of these techniques decreased, which led to hunger and social strife, as well as an increase in migration among people. Many natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, are caused by climate change, and these calamities have numerous negative consequences. Migration is one of them. People migrate to different locations when they move. It implies they have lost touch with their culture, which they had shared for a long time, and people have begun to live in various places, each with a different culture. It has two interpretations. First, they learn a new culture and integrate their cultural practices into the current culture, resulting in cross-cultural dialogue in which individuals of many cultures coexist happily in the same space. Second, they will be regarded as a minority in some regions, and people will refuse to allow them to assimilate into their own culture, resulting in discrimination and a superiority-inferiority complex, and so they will be labeled a minority. In addition, Climate change has an impact on culture. It also has an impact on cultural sites, which are held in high regard by many people. The Taj Mahal, for example, is a cultural and historical landmark of India. However, climatic circumstances like acid rain have put its beauty in jeopardy over time. The culinary culture of many tribes is also affected by climate change. Food habits play an important role in culture as well. Agriculture goods have declined over time. As a result, they have begun to adopt new eating habits. For many years, the majority of the Indian population has relied on agriculture and has grown certain crops. Climate change, on the other hand, has had an impact on agricultural productivity. Some crops have been contaminated with whiteflies, and agricultural damage can occur as a result of heavy rains, or crop loss can occur as a result of insufficient rainfall. Climate change is to blame for everything that has happened. As a result of this shift, GM crops have become popular. People will soon be using genetically modified seeds for every crop, and that day is not far off. Be it religion, caste, or culture, India is a nation where there is a lot of diversity. To preserve the rich heritage of our culture, some individuals study it and work to keep it safe. Some of India’s cultural monuments have played an essential role in the lives of its people for thousands of years, according to archaeologists who have been researching and conserving these sites for years. People’s feelings will be harmed if these cultural sites are lost. People’s daily lives, and the lives of small island states, in particular, are heavily influenced by culture. Many cultural assets are vital to the survival of small island states as they provide a livelihood to the people. Any loss of these assets will harm their livelihood, and we’ve witnessed population reduction in these states over the years, with climate change being a key factor. Niue, for example, is a Polynesian island with a population of about 1,500 people. Climate change threatens the most important components of Niuean culture. Over the years, it has been battered by cyclones. The 2004 Heta storm wreaked havoc on material cultural resources, especially moota (Dysoxylum forsteri) tree stocks, which are used to build unique outrigger canoes. It is regarded as a cultural icon in Niue. Some efforts to preserve Niuean culture have centered on boatbuilding and traditional fishing methods from these canoes. The Niue national museum and the Huanaki cultural center, which served as a key gathering place for traditional dances, singing, and oral history narration, were both devastated by the storm.

Examples of climatic consequences as well as potential cultural and symbolic ramifications

Projected biological and physical impacts Cultural impacts
• An increase in the number of drought-affected regions • Pastoralism is a cultural phenomenon that is in danger of being extinct. As a result of the population’s inability to herd, societal institutions have eroded.
• Damage to fish stocks and coral reefs • When fish populations are depleted, the symbolic significance and cultural traditions associated with specific species are lost. Sharks, rays, and dolphins in Melanesia, for example, have "place spirits." Changes in fish population dynamics could make cultural practices unadaptable.
• As forest cover and fishing decline, hunters and fishers will be compelled to quit hunting. They will also lose traditional hunting expertise that they have passed down through the centuries. Their traditional dwelling and farming methods will also be lost.
• At high altitudes, there is a significant loss of snow cover and glaciers. • Many recreational values of mountains and hilly places, as well as rituals associated with them, will be lost when snow and glaciers melt, as seen in Europe, North America, and Australia.
• With the retreat and loss of ice caps, pastoralists and communities in high latitudes will feel a sense of disconnection from the natural world.
• Ecological disruption and the threat of extinction of diverse flora and fauna species on a local or global scale. • The loss of iconic, religious, and culturally significant ecosystems has been linked to cultural manifestations in the past.
• Changes in phenology and seasons cause dislocation from one site to another, causing rainfall patterns to be disrupted in many regions of the world, similar to the El Nino effect in India.
• In Ireland, there has been a loss of familiar weather patterns such as ‘soft rain.’
• Threats to worldwide symbols such as Kilimanjaro’s snow cover.

To sum it up, the human population has always moved and changed subsistence techniques in response to changing climatic circumstances. Others’ encroachment or constant changes in the subsistence basis have pushed communities to relocate to avoid the ’death of their culture. For example, at the turn of the century, Native North American populations had been decimated by illness, conflict, and poverty, or had been assimilated into the dominant society and experienced strong acculturative pressures. Many tribes perished as a result of diseases and other colonial effects. Those that survived, such as the Navajo or Inuit, were able to adapt and thrive while maintaining their cultural identity. However, this does not imply that adaptation is the ‘best’ approach; it simply necessitates the existence of dynamic human cultures, whether or not they wish to evolve. The combination of intransigence and environmental change can be too much at times; Easter Island and the Mayan collapse are often used to illustrate this point, and the current anthropogenic forcing is happening so quickly and broadly that its effects may not be completely surmountable, especially given the political and economic constraints that limit our ability to respond.

(Author: Pavittarbir Singh Saggu, Research Scholar, Panjab University, Chandigarh)


  • Hess, J. J., Malilay, J. N. & Parkinson, A. J. (2008), ‘Climate change: The importance of place’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35, 468–478.
  • Berkes, F. (2007), ‘Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: Lessons from resilience thinking’, Natural Hazards 41, 283–295.
  • Nielsen, J. & Reenberg, A (2010), ‘Cultural barriers to climate change adaptation: A case study from Northern Burkina Faso’, Global Environmental Change 20, 142–152.
  • Coulthard, S. (2008), ‘Adapting to environmental change in artisanal fisheries: Insights from a South Indian Lagoon’, Global Environmental Change 18, 479–489.
  • DeMenocal, P. B. (2001), ‘Cultural responses to climate change during the late Holocene’, Science 292, 667–673.
  • Mishra, S., Mazumdar, S. & Suar, D. (2010), ‘Place attachment and flood preparedness’, Journal of Environmental Psychology 30, 187–197.
  • Orlove, B. (2009), ‘Glacier retreat: Reviewing the limits of human adaptation to climate change, Environment 51, 24–34.
  • Hulme, M. (2009), Why We Disagree about Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, UK.
Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted