Culture's role in hazard and climate change risk: worldviews, belief systems and 'alternative facts'

Evidence from around the world indicates that culture can influence people’s vulnerability to climate variability and natural hazards, because expressions of culture include behaviour that results in exposure and sensitivity to hazards. Most studies have characterised this as a barrier to risk reduction, and few (none) have offered any suggestions for how to move beyond it, because of the ethical dilemma posed by influencing others’ beliefs for the purpose of reducing risk. At the same time, studies have documented people overcoming cultural taboos in the face of climate variability and natural hazards, including abandoning strict social structures, and conforming to parallel and occasionally contradictory belief systems as a way to overcome culturally imposed restrictions on behaviour. This lecture presents examples from around the world, and focuses on the question: What conditions would facilitate a shift in worldview to incorporate a risk reduction? Who’s understanding of risk is ‘correct’? And if perceptions of what reality are culturally-defined, does this mean that there is such a thing as ‘alternative facts’?

Dr Lisa Schipper is a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute. Her research specialty is adaptation and socio-cultural vulnerability to climate change and natural hazards. The context for nearly all of her work has been smallholder or subsistence agriculture in poor communities in Southeast and South Asia, Central and South America, and East Africa.