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Cultures that are highly dependent on variable climate-ecosystem
relationships tend to observe these relationships closely, so their
skill in forecasting may have increased over time. Many elements of
traditional forecasting methods are in fact explainable by modern
scientific principles (Pepin, 1996); however, there has been little
if any investigation of how much skill these forecasting systems
provide. The persistence of folk theories of climate does not
establish their predictive value: some of them, particularly those
tied closely to religious rituals, may serve mainly to allay
anxiety among people utterly dependent on unpredictable and
variable climatic events (Wilken, 1987).
Whatever their level of skill, the existence of traditional
climate forecasts has implications for the coping strategies people
use and for their acceptance of information from modern climate
forecasts (e.g., Oguntoyinbo and Richards, 1978). On the positive
side, traditional forecasting indicates the receptivity of certain
social groups to the concept of climate forecasting and presumably
also their appreciation of the fact that seasonal forecasts are
imperfect. In addition, the traditional forecasts probably identify
the climatic parameters that are most relevant to their users'
subsistence decisions. On the negative side, adherents of
traditional forecasting systems may resist new systems, even if
they are more skillful, and once modern forecasting systems are
adopted, any value the traditional explanatory systems may have for
purposes other than climate forecasting (e.g., forecasting crop
diseases) may be discredited or lost.
There has been little research in Western societies on beliefs
about seasonal-to-interannual climate variability. However,
research on beliefs about climate change suggests that people tend
to assimilate new information about climate into cognitive
structures or mental models that they use for conceptually related
mattersother environmental problems affecting the atmosphere.
For example, nonspecialists frequently confuse climate change and
stratospheric ozone depletion; there is also a widespread belief
that "air pollution" (which for many people is associated with
phenmena like smog, ozone alerts, and acid rain) is a cause of
climate change (Kempton, 1991; Löfstedt, 1992, 1995).
Weber (1997) found a strong effect of mental models on
perceptions of climate change and variability among cash-crop
farmers in the U.S. Midwest. Their beliefs about climate change had
more effect than length of personal experience on their ability to
detect recent increases in maximum July average temperatures in
their locality and in the variability of those temperatures.
Farmers with longer experience were slightly less likely to notice
the recent warming, but a much more reliable predictor was whether
or not the farmers believed in global warming. The majority of
believers in global warming correctly detected and classified the
temperature increase, which fit their mental models, whereas the