Cultural and Consensus Models of Climate Change Adaptation for the Chesapeake Bay

Introduction:  Research Problem

Worldwide, communities of all types and their governments are struggling with climate change.   For some communities, such as in the Arctic, the impacts of climate change are already visible and real, affecting livelihoods.  For other communities, climate change impacts of sea level rise may submerge islands in the not-too-distant future, forcing massive population relocation.  Still, for other communities, century-year projections of atmospheric temperature rise, increased storms, more drought, and changes in biotic communities sound distantly catastrophic yet require action today in terms of mitigation and adaptation. 

 There is, however, a common denominator across these diverse global communities with their particular struggles with climate change:  they all must make decisions about climate change adaptation based on information that is scientifically complex, rapidly changing, at times contradictory, and characterized by high uncertainty.  Given information of this type, an important research question becomes how do individuals understand and interpret, “make sense” of it, and reach some conclusions about its truth and relevance for their lives.  What knowledge, values, beliefs are used by individuals to interpret and evaluate information on climate change and climate change impacts, whether that be from the scientific community, government agencies or respected peers?  What normative knowledge and value structures emerge, how are they distributed, and what accounts for their variability?  These research questions gain even more importance as recent polls and surveys find that significant numbers of Americans do not believe in climate change, contrary to increasing scientific consensus on its existence.

Unquestionably then, research on climate change needs to consider the role that culture plays in shaping individual and community understanding and adaptation.  Anthropology is already responding to this research need (cf. Crate and Nuttall 2009; Kempton et al. 1995; Roncoli et al. 2009; Strauss and Orlove 2003).  However, within this anthropological engagement with climate change research there has not been sufficient utilization of the full range of theories and methods anthropologists use to study culture.  Specifically, we argue that anthropological research on culture, community and climate change is strengthened by the inclusion of cognitive approaches that anthropologists have applied to other environmental problems (cf. Blount and Kitner 2007; Paolisso 2002; 2007; Paolisso and Dery 2010; Ross 2004).  In particular, cognitive approaches of cultural models and cultural consensus are well suited to study how cultural knowledge and values are used to interpret and understand climate change information (cf. Kempton et al. 1995 for one of the few examples).  As described more below, we propose to use cultural models and cultural consensus analysis specifically because these conceptual approaches and their accompanying methodologies elicit tacit, implicit cognitive information of the type useful to interpret complex, dynamic, uncertain situations.  Moreover, such cognitive and implicit knowledge can be powerful motivators of behavior (e.g., whether to participate in adaptation programs or support climate change policies). 

 The goal of the proposed research is to determine the effect of cultural model knowledge on individual and community understanding of and support for local climate change adaptation polices and programs.  Specifically, we propose the following research objectives:

1) To collect much-needed information on community-level cultural understanding of climate change impacts and adaptation for the Chesapeake Bay region.  The Chesapeake Bay will be dramatically affected by climate change.  Yet there is almost no information on how communities perceive climate change, react to, comply with, or oppose federal, state, and local regulations and policies dealing with projected impacts, such as flooding, erosion, rise in sea level, loss of property, flooding of roads, closures of fisheries, and other changes that will affect livelihoods, personal assets, and recreational pursuits of coastal residents.

2)  To collect ethnographic data from three communities on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay focused on knowledge and values about climate change and adaptation, particularly for sea level rise, flooding, erosion and storms.  These data will be used to build cultural models of climate change and identify cognitive schemas framing information on adapting to sea level rise, flooding, erosion, wetland inundation and saltwater intrusion.  The three communities will represent a range of socioeconomic and coastal environmental conditions. 

3)  To collect information on climate change adaptation policies and programs for the Chesapeake Bay, and its Eastern Shore in particular. 

4) To use cultural consensus theory and methods to identify the distribution and variability in cultural model and schema knowledge about climate change and adapting to sea level rise within and between the three study communities.

5)  To complete multivariate analyses to identify significant cultural model and schema differences within and between communities, and to determine the effect of shared, cognitive knowledge on the likelihood of individuals believing climate change information, participating in sea level rise adaptation programs, and supporting policies to address climate change or adaptation to sea level rise impacts. 

6) To disseminate the findings widely to anthropologists, climate change researchers, policymakers and program managers, study community members, and the general public.

We believe the successful implementation of the proposed research will a) produce valid qualitative and quantitative findings on the usefulness of cultural models for research on climate change, b) advance research in environmental anthropology on climate change through the development of an integrated cultural model and cultural consensus methodology, c) contribute to climate change research focused on adaptation for U.S. based communities where impacts are still forthcoming (with time to adapt) and d) provide policy and program guidance for government and non-government efforts in the Chesapeake Bay region to develop adaptation strategies for sea level rise, flooding and increased storms.

The implementation of the project’s data collection and analysis will occur in six stages

Stage 1: Identify and Complete Baseline Ethnography in Study Communities

Stage 2: Analyze Characteristics of Policies and Programs for Adapting to Sea Level Rise

Stage 3:  Identify Cultural Models of Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Adaptation Schemas

Stage 4:  Determine Distribution of Schemas for Sea Level Rise Impacts and Demographic/Socioeconomic Variables

Stage 5:  Multivariate Analysis of Adaptation Schemas and Program Participation

Stage 6:  Dissemination of Results and Future Research


Broader Impacts

This project will have broader impacts first and foremost because it represents a novel approach through the collection, systematic analysis, and creation of cognitive models of data associated with local understandings of and adaption to climate change in three diverse and at-risk communities on Maryland’s eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Secondly, this project will inform the greater research community through its high priority to bring research findings into the policy realm—to bridge the research-to-policy divide. Similarly, this project will benefit society by being one of the early community-based research projects focusing on the cultural implications of climate change on the East Coast.

This project will also advance discovery while promoting teaching, training and learning through the active participation of senior personnel, graduate students, and the targeted communities themselves.

Project findings and results will be disseminated widely by being made available on the community, regional and statewide level while the project is underway and after its completion.

The results of the research will also prove relevant to the larger and evolving field of the human dimension of climate change for similarly at-risk communities across the United States.

On a broader level this project will inform the general understanding of cultural adaptation to unprecedented climate change by defining processes of rural economic adaptation that are generalizable beyond their original cases and by making gestures toward understanding rural adaptation strategies acros