Page 72

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 matters—other 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 majority of



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement