The Social Psychology of Climate Change Catastrophism By Brian Simpson
A. West in The Grip of Culture: The Social Psychology of Climate Change Catastrophism (2023), has developed in detail an argument that has later been made by Elon Musk, that climate change catastrophism is really a death cult. The death part is easy to establish, since that narrative is by definition, concerned with the doom of human civilisation unless radical measures are taken such as the replacement of fossil fuels and meat eating. But the cult or religious part requires more conceptual and empirical work, which is supplied by West in his book, summarised below. He goes into detail about survey data indicating direct links between climate alarmism and religious cults. But, there is a simpler approach.
My approach is more qualitative. I would maintain that the core elements of cults are blind devotion to the central tenants of the cult, the beliefs that define it, even to the point of committing acts of violence. This we see with climate change alarmism. But as well, as with any cult worth its poison Kool Aid, there is a doomsday belief, that the world is heading to disaster unless people start believing in the cult. Climate change alarmism fits this paradigm perfectly, and in this regard, Elon Musk was dead on the money.
“I’ve long since lost count of all the insightful commentators who now take the view that fears about climate change have become ideological, religious, even cultish. Brendan O’ Neill is perhaps the most frequent exponent, and Elon Musk the most famous, labelling modern environmentalism a “death cult” in his recent appearance on Joe Rogan. This view has been very late coming in the mainstream media, but is at long last a welcome counter to the endless litanies of climate doom from practically all authoritative sources in Western society and beyond.
However, despite the obviously cultish antics of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, this insight is easily dismissed by the climate faithful as mere opinion – flawed opinion. But just imagine what a difference it would make if we were not relying upon opinion only. If instead we could point to some data and charts which formally prove that there is indeed a ‘secular religion’ of climate catastrophism. And better still, if we could also point to robust measurements of its dominance in public opinion and climate policy alike. This would be much harder to dismiss, especially if the proof did not stem from complex models or sophisticated stats, but from straightforward and publicly available data that any first-year university student could grab and type into Excel.
Happily, we no longer need to imagine this. I have set out these data in my new book The Grip of Culture, and they conform exactly to the above characteristics. The proof is enabled by the fact that the underlying behavioural drivers of all cultural entities (religions, ideologies) are the same.
The data I use come from about 20 surveys conducted by a range of independent sources, including mainstream pollsters, academia, the UN and the EU, which all fit into a single pattern clearly identifying a new cultural entity: the ‘secular religion’ of climate catastrophism. They are social data encompassing 40 series of national attitudes to climate change across 64 nations.
The key to understanding the inherently cultural nature of such attitudes is their very strong relationship with national religiosity, itself a purely cultural phenomenon. This relationship occurs because cultural entities tend to interact if they occupy the same social space for long enough. This has happened for religion and climate catastrophism. Hence national religiosity forms a kind of lens through which we can see the culture of catastrophism across nations; this lens is revealed by plotting the climate survey data series against national religiosity.
Such plots show that national religiosity is a superb ‘social predictor’ for international attitudes to climate change; a multi-modal predictor, in the jargon. Incredibly, this fact has remained undiscovered in the extensive social predictor literature. Researchers don’t seem to have considered the possibility that public attitudes to climate change might be inherently cultural, so have missed the obvious; they offer a plethora of predictors that are poor or very poor compared to national religiosity. I can only assume that this is due to serious bias in the social sciences – bias towards climate catastrophism.
Beyond this revelation, the data show a very clear signature of cultural causation; in other words that public attitudes to climate change are indeed motivated by climate catastrophism. But in addition to the intuition that responses so tied to religiosity are likely cultural, what does such a signature look like?
Firstly, it consists of fundamentally different responses to unconstrained and reality-constrained questions. The former are open-ended, an example is: “How serious do you think climate change is?” Out of several response options, the climate-change most-endorsing one might be, say: “extremely serious”. As its name implies, a reality-constrained question introduces a constraint into the minds of survey participants, such as a relative cost or other priorities. An example is asking participants which are their three top priorities from a list of 12. Climate change or a related policy is an item on the list; the climate-change most-endorsing response would be one where this item is indeed selected. Secondly, unconstrained responses have a gradient that depends on their strength of emotive alignment to the main cultural narrative (in this case, climate catastrophe) and they pivot about a common point (top chart below). Lastly, the reality-constrained responses reduce proportionately to the strength of the constraint; a one of 10 pick from a list is stronger than a three of 12 pick, which is stronger than a six of 17 pick, say. …
Additionally, we see that national religiosity correlates with unconstrained responses (top chart, the slope goes up) but anti-correlates with reality-constrained responses (bottom chart, the slope goes down) (hence two modes of the social predictor of national religiosity; there are others). As The Grip of Culture fully explains, this is an expectation where a shallow cultural alliance is in play. This is the case between the cultural entities of religion and climate catastrophism; in more religious societies, religious leaderships have formal statements backing catastrophic climate change, so their flocks align to unconstrained narratives. However, when reality bites they aren’t buying. Instead, they revert to older priorities set by the religious culture in their societies and actively resist climate change priorities.
We can think of the unconstrained responses as ‘pure’ virtue-signalling. They’re aligned to the emotion in cultural narratives. As emotive content evoked by different survey questions increases (the grey arrow in the top chart above), the gradient of the trendlines for climate-change most-endorsing responses gets steeper. This is because a more emotive pitch causes even more instinctive acceptance than rejection at the right-hand side of the chart, where there’s already a majority who are aligned, and oppositely at the left-hand side, where there’s already a big majority of rejectors. In other words, unconstrained questions are emotively polarising; this also means that responses to them must share a pivot point.
Reality-constrained questions prevent pure virtual-signalling, but this is not to say that responses to them aren’t largely still cultural. They reflect a compromise between belief and reality, a compromise forced more and more towards reality as the constraint increases … Cultural entities would never have become a huge evolutionary success if they couldn’t compromise with reality. However, they only make the absolute minimum concessions they have to for any particular reality scenario. Except possibly due to noise where values are very low, reality constrained responses don’t cross over each other; unlike unconstrained responses they aren’t effectively arbitrary, and across all nations they reflect that each reality scenario is different.
These and the other characteristics of a cultural signature are hardly intuitive or obvious. While The Grip of Culture explains the theory behind all of them in detail, as I intimated above there is a way for anyone to easily grasp that the pattern expressed in the above plots of climate survey data does indeed reveal a cultural entity (or ‘culture’, for short).
This is by direct comparison. Any cultural entity should leave such a signature, so if we see the same pattern in survey data harvested from something that is inarguably a cultural entity like a religion, this makes it much more obvious that the climate survey data must come from the same kind of phenomenon. Religion is purely cultural, and survey data on purely religious (unconstrained and reality-constrained) questions produces the same kind of signature pattern that we see for attitudes to climate change. Figure 7 from my book illustrates this. The only (expected) difference is that, given there is only one culture involved, and so no alliance, all data must slope the same way. But the two response groups, the unconstrained pivot-point (where the lines cross) and the sinking of the reality-constrained responses with strength, are all fully in line with expectations. (Note: The questions are very basic, so all faiths react to them in the same manner. In both figures the country codes are examples, there isn’t space to fit them all in and different series represent different sub-groups of countries too).
As noted above, signatures of this type will in theory be left by all cultural entities. This includes all religions, all strong political ideologies from communism to fascism to extreme nationalism and modern ‘tribal’ politics such as in the USA, and all other cults and belief systems, including climate catastrophism plus those very new and unruly cultures based upon Extreme Trans Rights (ETR) and Critical Race Theory (CRT). This is because, as the The Grip of Culture explains, the underlying behaviours that enable all such entities are a legacy of our evolution, a system for making large groups of humans act as one, at the (then lesser) cost of rejecting out-groupers.
However, it’s a luxury to be able to plot enough social data to actually see the signatures. For ETR and CRT based cultures, I doubt there are anywhere near enough objective social data accumulated to date to do this, nor could nations across the globe be used as convenient data buckets; these cultures manifest only in a subset of Western nations. For historic cultures such as communism and fascism, their rise and glory days were in a time when far less objective social data was available, while an immense amount of historical baggage and bias also obscures that which researchers need to assess. While religion is old too, far older in fact, it’s sheer size and longevity means it has survived in a major way into an age where enough useful social data has been collected to see the cultural signature in Figure 7 (above). A majority of the world still believes in one faith or another. The situation for climate catastrophism is better still; it has lived out almost its entire life-cycle so far on the internet, it is global in scope so we can use nations as convenient data-buckets, and it is one of the most intensely polled subjects of the 21st century to date. Regarding tribal U.S. politics, although in a somewhat different manner to me, social psychologist Dan Kahan does find cultural signatures.
This data rich situation for climate catastrophism means that, although our view is more limited, we can see its history too. It’s an expectation that before climate catastrophism gained sufficient cultural influence, and also before its current relationship with religion had fully developed (so prior to 2009), international polls of attitudes to climate change should not reveal a cultural signature. As Section 9.5. of my book shows, this is the case. The evolving nature of attitudes as climate catastrophism established itself may be another reason why academia failed to spot the increasingly important role of national religiosity.
Knowing that the issue of climate change is dominated by a cultural entity allows us to apply 150 years of accumulated knowledge about how such entities work, explaining much that otherwise seems bizarre – for instance from Figure 5 (above), the fact that many (very religious) nations are hugely concerned about climate change yet report a very low motivation to do anything about it, while others (very secular) are more motivated to act but express far less concern.
The Grip of Culture explores standard cultural characteristics within climate catastrophism, such as: an evolving population of highly emotive and necessarily false narrative variants, strong narrative policing, the demonisation of anyone who doesn’t culturally conform, aggressive morphing of the legal and moral landscape to the culture’s benefit, its use of children as prophets and proselytisers (along with the resultant psychological damage), and much more. The behaviours underlying this list are not new or somehow enabled only by the internet era, nor unique to the issue of climate change. As the book also explains, they’re a legacy of our evolution – a feature not a bug. We are by nature susceptible to cultural entities because for a very long time they were a large net advantage in our deep past. For instance, religion brought the benefits of mass bonding, including the benefit that civilisation would not have got started without it; mature cultures can still confer a net advantage today.
However, in modern times there is a constant war between ‘rationality at scale’ (democracy, the law, science) and cultural entities, in which raw new cultures that rapidly rise to prominence are particularly dangerous to society. Climate catastrophism manifests such a danger, especially in its blind fervour to implement a crash Net Zero programme – the ‘salvation’ half of the false narrative of catastrophe. This not only harms society in a major way but will likely cause net harm to the environment too.
Regarding policy, the data in The Grip of Culture are again crucial to understanding. For instance, the commitment to renewables across nations clearly follows a cultural pattern. This pattern is thus not related to climate science, the climate or climate exposure of nations, renewables technology factors, or indeed anything rational.
This does not bode well given the direction that the world, and particularly the West, is heading on climate and energy issues. No one should want a culture determining attitudes to these, since its adherents will instinctively devote all possible effort into not solving the issues that they so emotively tout, as doing so would kill the culture. Like viruses, cultural entities relentlessly pursue their own vital agenda – survival.”