[UPDATE. This is now the whole transcript. I hope it may be interesting and useful to someone.]
This is a transcript of the first half of Andy West’s podcast, which can be heard here, for those like me who prefer reading to listening. (I’ll try and complete it in the next few days.) Chris is a good interlocutor, in that he obliges Andy to begin at the beginning, and keep it simple. But to understand the nitty gritty of Andy’s studies of climate change attitudes versus religion you need to go to his articles at Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. site, beginning here:
Chris Balkaran: One entry [at Climate Etc.] in which I was immediately drawn to, was by Andy West where he described what is known as catastrophic climate change culture, or CCCC. And what he does in this article is talk about climate change as a cultural narrative. Some of Andy’s research shows countries with high religiosity such as India and Pakistan, also have a correlation to a strong belief in climate change as not only human-caused, but that it will lead to catastrophic actions, and this was truly fascinating for me, and I wanted to have Andy on, to talk a little bit more about climate change as a cultural narrative. So here’s our conversation. It was truly fascinating, truly interesting. Let me know what you think in the comments below at my website at the strong-and-free-podcast-dot-com, and let me know what you think of my conversation with Andy.
Andy, thank you so much for joining me. I have been drawn to your articles on Climate Etc. on Judith Curry’s website. But before we get into that, I want you to introduce yourself a little bit, tell me about yourself, your academic background, and what drew you to discussing climate change more broadly?
Andy West: OK Thank you for having me on the podcast first of all. I didn’t come to this domain at all by anything to do with climate. I have a background in physics and electronics technology as it happens; I have a degree in physics and I’ve spent decades in the embedded electronics industry. But throughout that entire time, I’ve had some quite passionate hobbies, of which evolutionary studies was one, and that sort of started with biological evolution, group selection, and from group selection to cultural evolution. And from there into how cultural evolution works, how it fans out into social psychology – that kind of thing. And my special interest, if you want to call it that, is how cultures germinate, how they expand, what are their main mechanics, what behaviours they impose if you like, on populations. They do have a sort of life of their own; they’re not alive, they’re neither sentient not agential, but… they do have a life of their own, and that life is what I wanted to know more about and what I’ve been investigating for a long time.
It so happened, quite a number of years ago, I think it would be about the beginning of 2007, and at that time I had no particular interest in the climate change thing, I simply took the narratives that it had at face value. I didn’t really think about them one way or another. I had no reason to disbelieve them or believe them. It just wasn’t a big thing in my life if you like. But then on somebody’s recommendation I watched Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” and it struck me immediately that this was a cultural narrative, absolutely packed full of the kind of things that cultural narratives typically have, and which I’d been mapping in other cultures for quite some time. And although that was only the beginning, I thought, well, you know, quite a lot of people who are inclined to a bit of showmanship if you like, may over-egg the pudding a lot on those kind of things, and maybe it’s not indicative that the deeper topic had a culture attached to it. But that is what set me off, and I thought: you know, this is so typical of cultural narratives, and its factual content was minimalistic, shall we say, compared to its emotive persuasion. And it didn’t really matter whether the factual content was true or false. What matters is if it’s overwhelmed by existential emotive content, then it is the latter that will gain the leverage.
So that’s what set me off, so I then had to learn a lot about what was going on over the years, and very fortunately, as I started to make some purchase – I kind of had to nibble away at the problem from lots of different angles, and it did eventually become clear to me that in the public domain, whatever is happening in the physical climate and whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and whatever is happening in climate science, which is argued a lot – but there’s an orthodox climate science, there are climate sceptics – whatever they think and they’re arguing about… independently of all that, there is indeed a culture. And although it’s taken me a number of years, by circumstantial evidence, nibbling away at the characteristics, and eventually being able…
I was quite inspired by Dan Kahan, who’s a social psychologist. I took part in his cultural cognition site for quite a while. It’s quite an obscure site, it doesn’t have a lot of visitors but it has some fantastic social psychology on there. I would recommend it except that it ceased operation, I think at the very end of 2018. And what I really liked about it was that he did this social psychology on line and he explained his ideas on line. And he was busy studying cultural trends in America, including climate change, so I really followed up on that. And as it turns out, America is pretty much an exception to everywhere else, because of its huge polarisation between Republicans and Democrats. In every other country, it’s different. But at the time it didn’t really matter, it was just the methods, and I was able to leverage some of his data directly and he gave me the idea to use public surveys in ways that I hadn’t really thought to use them before, and that was actually a kind of a big step up for me. So I’ve no formal qualifications in this, but many years of burrowing away at the thing, and a long interest.
CB: Andy, you make some really interesting points there. The first is that after watching Al Gore’s documentary you noticed that it was a cultural narrative. I wanted to ask you specifically for a definition of what you mean by ‘cultural narrative’. And if there are any examples that you can compare the climate change narrative to, in other countries or other situations around the world, where this resembles or is identically similar to another cultural narrative.
AW: Sure. I guess before we talk about the cultural narrative, I should just have a few words about ‘culture’. So what I mean about culture is not – I once read a document, I can’t remember what it was now, on some academic site, that had 300 definitions of culture. It’s a word we use a lot. So when I talk about it, the particular angle that I’m covering, it might be better to think of it as a ‘cultural entity’. So I’m not talking about a night at the opera or traditional basket-weaving or something you inherit from your traditions or society exactly, although it can include that as well. What I am talking about is best thought of as a ‘bounded entity’ that has a developmental trajectory of its own. That’s what I mean by a culture. And the most familiar example that most people would be able to put their hand on, is a religion. It doesn’t mean that everything on the surface about climate change is the same as everything on the surface about religion. They’re clearly very different. But the pertinent fact is that the mechanisms that drive them are identical. The surface characteristics vary a lot.
So, to give examples of other cultural narratives, then we’re quite familiar with them in religion, and if you pick the Christian variant – I don’t know what your listenership is – but if we pick a Christian variant, then the Day of Judgement will be very familiar to most people, and the potential salvation from that Day of Judgement if you perform the right arcane actions, whatever they may be – an absence of sin – and then you get salvation, you get beamed up to Heaven or whatever. I’m not religious I should say. Whatever is supposed to happen to you to get resurrected or rescued.
Of course, religions around the world have different interpretations of all this, there can be very different religions. But they all work by the same mechanisms. They aren’t different in how they work inside our heads, in how they work inside society. And cultural narratives of that type, and indeed extremist politics – ordinary politics is quite rational – but extremist politics can form a cultural entity as well. But they all have cultural narratives. They typically have an existential element to them. So: “We’re doomed because ofsomething.” And: “We can be saved if we do something else.” And they will be extremely emotional, existential. They don’t speak to people’s rationality. There may be some rational dressing around it, but they emotively convince people.
CB: That’s really fascinating because it strikes people on the emotive level and we know that – even in my science biology class we know that when you activate the amygdala in the brain it will override the neo-frontal cortex, the rational side of the brain. Do you think that cultural narratives are as powerful as they are because of that emotive narrative – the ability to rewire the brain and think about something in an irrational way and make it seem rational?
AW: Absolutely. You’ve hit the nail right on the head there. They do literally bypass rationality. And the reason that they can do that, is that these narratives have co-evolved with the actual development of our brain. So the narratives and our brain architecture fit hand in glove, and they’re there for a purpose. The purpose is to hold the cultural group together, ‘cos the only way – I guess you know from evolution, groups survive better than individuals – and therefore group selection is a thing. There’s a lot of argument about the relative importance of group selection versus gene selection and so on, but it’s there from an evolutionary perspective to hold the group together. And it’s more important that the group holds together than it is to have anything to do with truth. If you have a thousand people and you don’thave culture, you have a thousand opinions. If you have a thousand people and you have a cultural narrative, they’re all literally singing off the same hymn sheet – which phrase actually comes from holding the same brand of culture together. And it does that by bypassing rationality.
And not only that, it has to be false to do it. It’s in the job description. You cannot have anything as one of these cultural narratives that is anywhere near reality. Because if you have something that is too near reality, it can be challenged – through logic, it can be challenged. Someone can look out at the real world and say: “Hey! It’s not true.” There’s a sense in which the further distanced from reality it is, the more it can bypass everything and just say – it’s so no matter what. So you have to – this God thing – the further distanced God is from anything that can happen, the better it is [for the culture]. And in fact religions have always had a weak side when they attempt to use those narratives to explain something, like how the planets orbit each other, or whatever. This goes wrong when someone invents a telescope. But the core narrative, such as “God exists, he’s everywhere, he’s in everything” – it’s unchallengeable. It’s complete nonsense, but it’s unchallengeable.
And so that typically is a feature of cultural narratives. The more untrue they are, the more unchallengeable they are, and that is why in the climate case, the apocalypse and the salvation – it does not agree with mainstream science, let alone anything sceptical. And this is why I call it Catastrophic Climate Change Culture. It’s the “catastrophic” that is used freely in narrative from prime ministers, presidents, high ministers, UN elite, and this term “catastrophe” or equivalents to it, is not only used in the sense of an apocalyptic event, it’s used in the sense of a certain event. But there is no mainstream science that says that if you don’t decarbonise the world tomorrow or in ten, thirty years, whatever it might be, that there will be a certain, global, catastrophe. In fact, the IPCC Working Group – the physical science is not my thing – but just to say, in terms of: ‘Does it contradict the cultural narrative?’ Well certainly. If you look at the IPCC Working Group papers and say: ‘OK, there’s going to be this much temperature or whatever, what is the consequence?’ Well the consequence, as quite a number of people, environmentalists like Bjorn Lomborg or climate scientists like Roger Peilke Jnr say… Well, according to the IPCC the median is like a large recession by 2070. This is not an apocalypse, or anything like it. For instance, the recession we’re likely to get from Covid is probably going to be a lot bigger. So advocating that we can and should sacrifice everything for this apocalypse, is what gives it that cultural flavour. It’s not appealing to rationality, it’s appealing to emotion. And it’s doing that to hold the cultural group together. Because they have a life of their own. It’s irrelevant to the stated purpose of the narrative, the realpurpose of the narrative is only to hold the group together.
And so that feature has emerged in the public regarding climate change, just as it’s emerged for multiple religions and some extremist political brands and so on and so forth. What actually is happening in the climate, is irrelevant. Maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad or whatever, and if it’s bad we need to think about it rationally. The worst thing you can have in charge, is a culture. ‘Cos cultures spend all their time trying to prolong themselves. And to do that they stay as far away from any solution to their stated purpose as it is possible to get.
CB: As you talk about the cultural narrative – you know I just nerd out and geek out at the ancient worlds and think about all the megaliths that were created – and as you talk about cultural narrative I see the parallel, because when a lot of cultures build these massive structures there is this idea that not only is it a testament to their gods and to the afterlife and the spiritual world, but in a way these megaliths are built to sustain the order of society as a whole. And it convinces people to act, and undertake a work that is potentially deadly, is pushing people well beyond their physical limits, but it’s in the name of a bigger cultural narrative. And so I just saw that parallel there, as you were speaking about the purpose of a cultural narrative and how it talks to our emotional brain.
CB: What are some of the defining characteristics of the cultural narrative when it’s presented with science? And in the face of science, what are the similarities across different cultural narratives? Especially with climate change, when we say: “Here’s the science. Help me understand where you see that there’s an apocalypse happening in thirty years.” How does that relate to other cultural narratives?
AW: Well, cultural narratives will do everything they can to avoid rationality and fact. And because they bypass our rationality, and because we’ve evolved with them, and we evolved with them for the particular purpose of holding the group together, in the face of uncertainty (because let’s face it, everything used to be uncertain) to hold the group together in the face of uncertainty, it’s critical that you police the narrative. So there are policing mechanisms, throughout culture. So it’s another way to recognise culture: “Is the narrative being policed?” If people dissent from the narrative, are they reprimanded? Do they face emotional pressure? Are they thrown out of the peer group? Are they downgraded in status if they question the narrative? If they applaud the narrative, are they raised up, are they promoted?
And so the way that the narrative deals with science is that it basically corrupts it. It’s like a war. Science is an anti-cultural device, because it deals in reality. So any time science tries to put a peg in the ground that will pin culture down, culture can come up underneath it and sort of saw the bottom of the peg off. Because it biases people. I don’t get into the scientists and the [physical] science, because we don’t have data on them like we have for the public. We have polls that show us that this culture is intrinsic in public attitudes across nations, and it’s measurable in different amounts in every country, depending on various factors. We can’t necessarily show that in [the enterprise of] science, but we do know that it will produce a lot of bias. And so if you look – it deals in corrupting the science, it deals with hiding the science, and it deals with taking the absolute worst point you could push the science to and then going beyond that.
There’s a guy, I forget his name [it’s Caleb Rossiter], an economist I think, who did a little model of this regarding the IPCC, and it’s quite interesting. So at the bottom there’s science, so the Working Group papers have 80% scientists on them – there’s a lot of people say that the IPCC is into groupthink to start with, but forget all that, say: ‘This is the rock solid bottom, it’s science’. Then above the Working Group papers is the Summary for Policymakers, and it’s a different set of documents that’s theoretically based on the science, but it only has 20% scientists in, and the other 80% are a mixture of, I dunno, some of them are literally come from green NGOs, or some of them are politicians or… Whatever they are they’re not climate scientists, or even scientists in a lot of cases. So they summarise the science into these documents, that are quite far out from where the science started. And above that you have a summary of the summary, or statements or sound bites which get put to things like the higher echelons of the UN and the UN leadership, and it gets diluted even more. And then the UN puts out these statements, and then the statements get repeated in the press. But the press are part of the public, who already either culturally believe, or are culturally primed at least to believe, that there’s a certain catastrophe coming to us, and then they exaggerate more, and then of course it goes on. Proselytisers in green groups take what they’ve already altered, and they alter it again.
And the thing is, none of this – I’m not saying that anybody in these chains is doing anything deliberately wrong. These people are not lying, they’re believing. And there are millions of them, so you can’t point to – I mean certain actors maybe have a little more influence or whatever – but it’s a process with very many people in it, and it’s a process…
And the same thing happened with eugenics. So when science meets or is hijacked, that’s a good term, science is hijacked by a culture, then there is still somewhere, probably, some real science. But out in the public domain, it never makes it out there. And as I said, people like Bjorn Lomborg and others, he puts out regular tweets and stuff, saying, when people give cultural statements he says: “No, this is what the science says.”
And a couple of decades ago it used to be that people were called ‘deniers’ if somebody quoted IPCC science, and then a sceptic had popped up and said: “No, I think that’s wrong because…”, then that person would be called a ‘denier’. But now, the people who quote IPCC science are called deniers for quoting mainstream science, by people who are so soaked in the cultural narrative they can’t believe that it [i.e. the science] is true. And Bjorn Lomborg is just one of many whom that occurs to. Roger Pielke Jnr is another.
And so smearing and denialism, and – what’s the word I’m looking for? –demonisation, is another thing that cultures can regulate. If you’re in-group, in the group, and you’ve got the right cultural narrative, you’re waving a flag saying “I’m part of the group,” you’re accepted. If you do anything that’s against the waving of that flag, you’re out-group. [So] you have to be demonised, you have to be thrown out. The whole point of culture, its only point, is to keep the group together. But when you define a group, the consequence is that you define an outgroup. You might not have meant to, but you can only have an in-group if you’ve got an out-group. You can only be in one or the other.
CB:Yeah? That’s right. It’s like High School, right? That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the strong and free podcast because… [Chris gives the example of similar cultural narratives / polarization in the abortion domain in Canada, and other conflicted topics]. I’ve been drawn to your research and your articles, because… the way in which you present the information is very fascinating on cultural narratives, as it relates to climate change… because I’m so interested in how these cultural narratives emerge. And in many of your articles you talk about how a small group can sway public policy, and that’s actually something I want to explore with you. Because when it comes to climate change, there’s some tenets of the topic I’ve seen just dramatically change in the limited time I’ve been around, which is, it’s gone from this sort of: “Yes, governments should do…” to “Governments mustdo…” And whether you’re liberal or conservative, no matter where you are in the spectrum, every party now has an entire chapter in their policy platforms on what they’re going to do to combat climate change. And others are criticising saying that they’re not going far enough. And as well, a lot of what’s being asked of governments calls for swift action, and almost looks like flipping a light switch on, [regarding] so many different aspects of how we’ve been able to generate electricity, transportation, which we’ll get into in a moment. But I want to learn more from you about how these cultural narratives emerge from these small groups of people who can really sway public policy.
AW: Ok, yes, it’s a biggish question. I think, before we talk about the people, we should talk a little bit more about how the narrative emerges. Because the two are tangled up. So how the narrative emerges, it’s basically… it’s literally natural selection. Through the evolutionary process that holds these groups together, the narratives got more and more sophisticated, in conjunction with our brain architecture developing. So in memetics, as once was – people use a different terminology to ‘memetics’ now – but it was called ‘gene-meme co-evolution’. So these narratives literally trigger a whole set of things in us. But what is critically characteristic of them if you like, is that the more emotive they are, the more people will retransmit them, so they will spread. So, if there’s competition between three narratives and one’s 50% emotive and one’s 70% emotive and one’s 85% emotive, given enough time, and throughout the population, the 85% one is gonna win. It’s gonna dominate the others. And given there are thousands… in English or anybody’s language, has a vast [amount] of these narrative combinations, it’s like a big turmoil of soup; a bit like viral emotions if you like. And they’re constantly recombining and finding new ways, and the ones that are the most successful will spread. So given a set of narratives, the next variant that comes along, it’s kind of like…
The process is a blind process, it’s not alive. But if you can think of it as alive for a minute, in the same way at least that viruses are alive… it’s like exploring the next weak point that it can go forward. And there’s so many variants, and everything that people write and combine previous narratives to make a new context, that finds a way to push forward again, which is why these narratives evolve, as you say, to be more and more extreme. Because that is literally how they get selected.
Now if you now then think about the people, these narratives typically… they have to start somewhere. And so they have to start with a set of believers, and they’re typically small. I mean, the climate-change narrative leaked out of science originally. It captured people who were very concerned about the environment, and people who were maybe already in Greenpeace or whatever, for completely different reasons, like anti-nuclear protesters or whatever… and a lot of academia, who are quite vulnerable to such narratives. And it expands from there. But once it’s got a certain weight, it can actually spread through society along functional lines, and also it’s a way for élites… So élites are a particular cog in the machine. They’re not in top-down control in this. It’s an emergent narrative, so it’s not them ordering it. But it gives them a particular advantage. So if you have, like in the West, a fading religion in society, which it has been doing for decades in the West, then the narrative you might have used to gain easy – ‘cos élites relyon influence to make their word known and to implement policy; it has to be popular policy in the end. And therefore if you have a free leg up… and rational things are so hard to explain, right? Rational things are messy, complicated. If it’s just, like, we’re doing this for the sake of God. “In the name of God we must do this,” that’s what they used to say. “In the name of God we have to have this war. God is on our side. In the name of God we have to build this cathedral.” And if you can’t use the name of God anymore because he’s sort of faded out of existence, then this has given the opportunity for the growth of a number of secular religions, of which effectively, climate-change is the biggest one. Climate change narrative is the biggest narrative. And so it spreads into influential positions because it’s so easyfor the élite to just say: “Hey!” I don’t need to say we need this policy in the name of God. “We need it in the name of the planet”. If we don’t do this or that or the other, the whole planet is going to die. And many politicians literally do use that. They say – Macron: “There’s no Planet B.” Various other presidents and prime ministers have said: “All life will go if we don’t do this.” It’s just so tempting, so easy.
So cultural narratives can spread through élites like wildfire, because it’s giving them a free leg up. And I’m not saying that the vast majority – there’ll be a few bad apples – but the vast majority aren’t doing this deliberately. It’s just because it creeps into their brain. It’s so easy. And it gives them a raft of influence that previously religion would have given them. And academia is another case in point, because they often need a certain influence as well. There used to be in the 1850s a test in Cambridge and Oxford and Durham, that everybody had to pass a religious test or you couldn’t go. If you were a Catholic, because Catholics were the wrong brand at the time, then you couldn’t get in. And many of our institutions have like a climate test. If you’re a climate denier, you’re not working here. You’re not offered a job, or whatever. In the US obviously, it’s 50: 50 depending on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. But in nearly every other country, including for instance the UK, every single party that has [parliamentary] seats, is full-on for the whole climate narrative. The conservatives indeed, introduced the Net-Zero plan for 2050 and have recently brought forward parts of it, for instance no petrol cars from 2030. This is the conservative government. And Labour are even stronger on it. So that’s how it’s so easy for them, and how it spreads, ‘cos it gives them a free ride, a free emotive ride.
CB:I want to ask you, because again I see so many parallels that this has, the narrative of climate-change, in so many – it transcends every culture, it transcends every inch of the globe – where we see, again, megalithic structures, people doing things that seem physically impossible, but if there’s a strong cultural narrative I can see that, and matching that with a strong leader and enough people believing the one thing, I could see people being compelled to do that. But I want to ask you: What makes a cultural narrative successful? Because, to me, the way I’ve looked at the climate-change debate, especially in most recent years compared to the last twenty, it was much more of a fringe political public policy. You know, it was derogatory to call somebody a tree-hugger. Greenpeace occupied the fringes of our political spectrum, and the Green Party, despite being as old – I think it was formed in the seventies – it was very much, just a few people were really involved, seemingly so. But yet it moves, and it becomes the dominantcultural narrative. So, what are some aspects that make these narratives successful?
AW: Yes, OK. I have to think a bit. I think the first thing to note, is that many of them aren’tsuccessful. The world is full of narratives that are trying to hit the big time, hit the jackpot if you like. And many of them are bonkers, quite frankly. They don’t seem to me to have much chance in the world. But quite a few bonkers narratives are making progress these days, so I might have to change that opinion. But there are literally thousands and thousands of them. But if you had to back this horse in the early 1970s say, then it would be quite hard to know from the narratives available at that time, whether it would have been one of the successes. But some of them have to succeed. In a vacuum, where the biggest one that was around has been basically falling apart since the end of the second world war, another one must succeed. Because we aren’t… humanity isn’t grown up enough yet to work without culture. Imagine trying to work without team spirit, or without politicians who can ‘pronounce’. So they’re both good and they’re bad. They can be good in certain ways; we need them still to hold people together. But they take over, and that’s what happens with some of the bad ones. But I’d actually say it does have a lot going for it, having said that, which might have made you think it could succeed.
The interesting thing is that when it set off, and as you say, the tree huggers and so on… for instance in the early 1970s the biggest climate worry was global cooling. And it never became the big thing that global warming became, but it was sufficient to hit some magazines and newspapers and the front-cover of Time. It’s kind of an embarrassing little historical episode that some advocates now don’t like to talk about, and it certainly wasn’t a huge thing. But what it tells you is that – some of the actual people – Steven Schneider was one, I don’t know whether you know him. He was quite well-known for a while; he was actually promoting global cooling, and smoothly switched to global warming when it looked like that was the better bet, if you like. And I’m not saying he was doing anything dishonest. He just thought that one set of science had been replaced by another. But really, the better way of expressing that, is that once you… the cultural narrative doesn’t care whether it’s hot or cold. It’s just got a key formula that the whole planet is doomed, and so really that’s probably the best formula that anyone’s come up with since God. Because, OK, so God is like the Universe, but “the whole planet” is not bad. In the end, as I say, it’s so distanced from the science that you can pretty much say anything you like about it, and it’s still in this rubric of “the whole planet is under threat.” And quite a lot of politicians and influencers use phrases like: “the whole of humanity,” “the whole of civilisation,” “all life on the planet,” these things are used in literal terms. You could say it’s a metaphor, but the point is it’s not a metaphor in the sense that it speaks to these emotive drives, and they present it as though it’s real. But it’s just a fairy story. It’s no more real than belief in God. But I’d say that that formula, whereby they can equate the whole planet, is the next best thing to pointing to the whole existential universe, which is what God represents.
Whereas a lot of other narratives… and there are many cultural narratives floating around chancing their arm right now, Critical Race Theory is another one, but it’s pretty small scale. Yes, it’s an existential narrative to a particular section of the population, who happen to have a particular skin colour. And I think it’s a particularly pernicious narrative, and it’s certainly an ideology, it runs on cultural rules. But it’s never going to get into the game of the whole planet. It’s just not on the same scale. It can bend institutions, it can work its way… it can undermine some of our rationality about how we talk about things. But it’s going to have a real job to compete with climate-change, which can basically say; “the whole of civilisation, the whole of every life on the planet is doomed if you don’t do what we say.” That’s a pretty good emotive key.
CB: Yeah. It explains so much, and it explains the irrationality of ‘rational’ action, or why people do irrational things if the emotional narrative is that strong. And I can’t think of a better way to emphasise this than through renewables. It’s strange but I like reading up on cars and I have this somewhat strange connection to Tesla. I just have this idea that one day I’d like to drive a Tesla. I’ve never sat in one, I’ve never touched one, and yet there’s this emotive narrative that I have inside of me that says: Chris, someday you’re gonna get to drive a Tesla. And so, like, this explains so much what you describe as a cultural narrative. And you talk a lot about this in your research. You talk about the further penetration of electric vehicles for example: “..is motivated both by cultural and economic issues”, in that there has to be the want of the people to make this switch. Earlier you talked about England making the switch to all-electric vehicles by 2030, which is only ten years away.
AW: Yes, you wouldn’t be able to buy a new petrol vehicle in 2030. You’d be able to keep one running for longer. But yes, sure, that’s still going to be a massive change.
CB: And so this push for renewables is definitely culturally determined for myself, because it’s inexplicable. Tesla appeals to me not just from a vehicular perspective, but on a cultural and on a deeper spiritual level for some reason, and I can’t explain whyI need to drive a Tesla. It’s unlike any other car company. GM can put out an electric vehicle and I won’t feel the same. So the cultural narrative which you describe is exactly my own folly when it comes to Tesla, and I can only imagine so many others are in the same position. So I want to talk to you a little bit about renewables, and how this cultural narrative is being advanced with renewables as well.
AW: OK. Yes, this is exactly the same thing that I’ve been wandering around for a long time. And because a lot of my work is about attitudes, and although you can measure these attitudes, and I can put forward some cultural attitude charts and say: “It is here… all these nations… to this degree…” You can measure this stuff. But it’s not got the same weight as actually measuring the infrastructure – the trillions spent on solar power and wind turbines for instance. And I got to thinking: Well, if these are due to culture, we should be able to measure it, not just on the attitudes of people that reply to in surveys across the world, but we should be able to measure it in this infrastructure. And so I started the trail around a year ago to figure out how to do that. And it turns out you can do it, and it’s actually not that hard. The thing is, if nobody tries to look for these things, you won’t find them. But some of them are actually quite easy to find.
So at this point, I have to say that one of the things that I’ve been doing is using religiosityin nations as a lens to see climate culture. And the reason I’m doing that is that, as I’ve said, the climate-change narrative is a big cheese in the cultural world. It’s global, as you’ve said, so it’s spanning the planet, it’s deep, it’s affecting governments and infrastructure. It’s getting its threads into pretty much every aspect of our life. But there is still this older stuff that we have around – religion, which was doing all those things say a hundred years ago, fifty years ago even, and indeed, in most countries in the world it’s still the biggest cheese, it’s still doing all those things. Whereas in the West it’s still prevalent but it’s shrunk down, in most countries. Notably notin the US, which is quite a religious nation, but in all other developed [Western] nations it’s shrunk down. Now, what it turns out is that if you bottle up in the same space two big existential narratives looking to grow their adherence and looking to take over everything, then they’re going to react. And they do react, in a very, very predictable way. So climate-change and religion have a stable relationship across nations, and not only that… it’s a complicated relationship in the sense that two cultures can either compete, or they can co-operate, or they can do both at the same time. And it just so happens that in most nations, in fact every nation pretty much except the US, climate-change and religion are both competing and co-operating. So, at the surface level they are co-operating. So if you see statements from the Pope – you know “climate change is a big thing now, we’ve got to do stuff about this” – and various other religious leaders – the Anglican leader of the English church and so on and so forth, have public statements that are co-operativeto climate change. But underneath that, their flocks do not co-operate. They really don’t want to buy into it, they feel that it’s an impingement on them, *if* there’s any reality clash.
So the interesting thing is, if you have any reality-constrained questions, which basically put climate-change into competition with another policy, whatever it is, and therefore is bound to put climate-change into competition with policies that have a religious flavour in countries where religion is a big deal, then religion wins out more. But if you have an unconstrained question which just says: “How do you feel about climate change?” Or: “Do you think that climate change is going to impact you?” Which you can answer without any reference to any other view of your society or any other policies, then the more religious the country is, then the more people will respond to that question. Because the surface alliance says: “Hey, these narratives are OK”, because the Pope’s blessed them and the Anglican guy’s blessed them and the Hindu guy’s blessed them. So in fact for unconstrained questions, the more support for climate-change will climb with religiosity. So in somewhere like Sweden only about 10 or 15% of people will say they think they’re going to be personally impacted by climate-change, and in Thailand or somewhere, it’s 85%. But when it actually comes down to a reality-constraint, then you won’t get double figures from any country if you have a really heavy constraint like: “Would you support climate-change over any other policy?” Then in Sweden or Denmark or wherever it’s going to be like 7, 8 or 9% and in Thailand or Pakistan or India or whatever, it’ll probably be about a third of that.
When it comes to renewables, they ought to follow the line for the reality-constraint. Everybody has a budget, renewables have to come out of that budget, and therefore they should follow the same attitude; the cultural attitude for a reality-constrained trend. And you know these things are cultural, because there’s no way you should get such a huge difference in those two things, one correlating and one anti-correlating with religion, just by changing the question.
If you measure the deployment of solar and wind across 59 nations I have, no 35, sorry – the top 35 nations that have the common biggest deployment of solar and wind, then that deployment is entirely in line with the cultural attitude, with an R correlation of about 0.73. And because of that it also anti-correlates with religion with an R of about 0.65, which is like huge for most social surveys. And this isn’t about GDP or the relative advancement of the country, because one normalises. There are few things you have to do to make them comparative, but one thing you do is you normalise with respect to GDP. So it’s not just that a rich country can buy twice as much as a country that has half the GDP. You normalise that out. So the deployment of renewables, normalised to GDP and per capita, is highly correlated with the cultural trend, and anti-correlates with religious faith in nations, to an R of 0.65. And it doesn’t matter what faith it is. It can be Catholicism, it can be Protestantism, it can be Hindu. It even works in Japan, whatever they think is their thing. And Islam. It makes no difference.
CB:Your research and your articles are truly fascinating. I’ve never seen it laid out this way when we think about climate- change as a cultural narrative. I’m going to link them in the description to this podcast because it’s very fascinating and very powerful. And if more are aware of it, I’m curious to see how the narrative might change. But my last question to you Andy is, how do you see this playing out? In your studies of other countries and other societies where cultural narratives where dominant in certain policy options and policy decisions, what were some of the outcomes and how can we as a society help prevent some of the negative attributes associated with the cultural narrative dominating? So, when I think negative, I think: government overspending on climate-change initiatives, when we still don’t know whether or not it reduces our greenhouse gas emissions; quick adoption of newer technologies that have a whole host of flaws, and that are not at all means tested to determine whether or not they’re effective, or how effective they are. And how do we make sure that our politicians are able to be aware of the narrative that’s emerging, and put forward a policy that’s at least trying to embrace some science in it?
AW:You may have asked the only question I’m not sure that I can answer. I mean, cultures play out very differently. Some disastrously, and some fizzle out. I mean, clearly, the culture that I mentioned at the beginning, in Germany, that tangled up anti-Semitism and eugenics and popular politics, ended in the worst possible way that one can imagine. And I hope nothing like that is going to occur with climate-change, but my mission has been to try and understand rather than to transmit, so far. But how to get across to people…? You know, I think there are millions of people who actually know, but they don’t know because like me they’ve been measuring and studying it. They know instinctively, and the interesting thing is that culture does provide a mechanism for knowing that cultures have gone too far as well. And that’s why I speak about innatescepticism. It’s not anything to do with rationalscepticism about the topic. They feel it’s a culture because they know the narrative is too powerful. They know that it not being argued against isn’t right, and they can seethe demonisation. And it’s kind of a balance instinct. So, evolution has granted us cultures to keep us together, but it’s granted us a mechanism to stop it going too far. And that is what bulk scepticism in the public comes from; it does not come from… the public know nothing about climate change and they know nothing about renewables. And yet there’s massive bulk scepticism in most countries. And that scepticism comes from instinct. So, I guess we have to appeal to that instinct. I don’t know how the culture could play out. I think, surely, I keep thinking, when you have Greta as a latter-day saint, and you have XR in their red robes, surely, even governments might be able to twig there’s a religious aspect of this? But no. In the UK XR had a campaign about Net Zero. They had a specific campaign for about a year. The government invited them to a meeting. A few months later: “Yeah we’re going to support it.” It went through parliament. Not even voted. And there wasn’t even a cost, never mind a cost-benefit. Things are coming out even from the government side now, which you’d expect to be as cheery as possible, things that are eye-watering. As for the more critical [reports]… you’re talking about the biggest expenditure that Britain would ever have undertaken – ever – including the second world war and goodness knows what.
So, in short, I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I do know that one has to awaken the instinctive force against it. I don’t think you can rely on a billion people listening to the podcast. And I know you have a fantastic audience, a great and big audience, and I hope that will help in some little way. But I think one has to appeal to instinctive knowledge in populations, that this is a religion that’s gone too far. And the thing is, even those people who are genuinely concerned about climate change, the last thing you want in charge is a cultural narrative. Cultural narratives make sure that they never do anything to solve the problem that they posed. The problem is a) not real, but b) if it ever did get solved, then they’d be out of a job. And that’s the last thing that a culture wants; it’s busy creating its job. So it makes things ridiculously worse, to the point of being unreal, and it makes sure they never get solved. I think that’s an aspect of renewables. They are actually something that could never solve the problem. They could just never do it. I’m not into the technical comparisons, but some people pointed out that they don’t even provide enough energy to make renewables; so that’s not a great start. But I think it’s such a good solution for the narrative, because it’s never going to solve the problem. Therefore the narrative is in money and infrastructure, and temples, forever.
CB:Wow, that is such an epic way… man there are like four podcast episodes that we should do, in the future because I see… I want to learn more from you about that last point there. About how renewables never solve the problem, but they’re the good temple. That’s such a powerful way of buttoning the conversation.