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Perspectives on the greenhouse effect and global warming By S.M. Enzler MSc

How do we respond to global warming?

People may develop various perspectives throughout their lives. It turns out these perspectives are an important determinant for a person's perception of the greenhouse effect and global warming. The theory of perspectives was developed by Professor John Adams at University College London.

We must note that these perspectives are part of a model described in social science. Alternatives to this view of interactions between humans and nature exist and it can therefore not be viewed as absolute.

There are four types of perceptions of nature, which were called 'myths of nature' by John Adams. These myths of nature are explained here. Each myth can be represented graphically by a sphere rolling in a landscape.

The first myth is called 'nature benign'. This means that nature is very robust and responds well to man-made disturbances; always returning to its natural state.
The second myth is called 'nature ephemeral'. This means that nature is fragile and does not respond well to man-made disturbances; when disturbance is caused, nature will not automatically return to its natural state.
The third myth is called 'nature perverse/tolerant'. This basically means that nature can tolerate disturbances up to a certain degree. If disturbances are small, nature will return to equilibrium. Larger disturbances pose a threat to nature functioning.
The fourth myth is called 'nature capricious'. This basically means that nature is random and unpredictable and we will never know exactly how it will respond to disturbances.

The myths of nature can be applied on a person's perception of the greenhouse effect and global warming. This would mean that a person with a nature benign perception would not want us to act upon global warming, believing that nature itself will restore its natural balance. Contrarily, a person with a nature ephemeral perception would speak of global warming as a so-called 'doom-scenario' upon which we must act, otherwise nature will be seriously disturbed beyond repair. A person with a nature perverse perception would want some action to be taken, but is not as extreme as an ephemeral type, nor as commonsensible as a benign type.

These four myths of nature divide people up in four distinct types by perception:

  • Nature benign types are commonly known as individualists. These are self-seeking people relatively free from control by others, who want to control the environment around them and the people in it. Being mostly economists, the individualists emphasize wealth as an important determinant of their happiness. The USA is a typical example of a country that is governed individualistically.

  • Nature ephemeral types are commonly known as egalitarians. These people have strong group loyalties and act solely upon the rules imposed to them by nature. Democracy is a very important political term for egalitarians. They often join environmental pressure groups in order to influence politics. Some Greenpeace activists may be typical egalitarians.

  • Nature perverse/tolerant types are commonly known as hierarchists. These are characterized by compromising, binding prescriptions and clear social relations. It is typical for a hierarchist to try to solve an environmental problem by introducing boundaries for emissions of pollutants and other environmental threats. The Netherlands is a typical example of a country that is governed hierarchistically.

  • Nature capricious types are commonly known as fatalists. They do not participate in political discussions on the environment because they simply believe no one knows exactly what will happen in the future. They have minimal control over their own lives and often see no point in trying to change their fate. People in developing countries may be fatalists because they have no control over the quality of their own lives.

The view of nature and the perception types mentioned above determine a person's world view. This basically means his or her perception of reality, consisting of a view on the structure of reality and a vision of the relationship between people and the environment. The relationship between people and the environment can be perceived in three different ways; as anthropocentric, as ecocentric and as partnership. These three perceptions cause different attitudes towards risk.

  • Anthropocentrism considers nature merely as something providing resources which are there to be exploited. Everything in nature is valued in terms of benefits to humans. No limits to growth exist and people have unlimited faith in technological possibilities. The fundamental attitude towards nature is supremacy. This view is usually adopted by individualists, which are risk-seeking.

  • Ecocentrism considers nature to have its own aims. If humans are not involved these aims will continue to exist. Nature is defined as a complex whole which organizes itself. Humans are seen as being part of nature. The fundamental attitude towards nature is participation. This view is usually adopted by egalitarians, which are risk aversive.

  • Partnership is a less extreme attitude towards the relationship between people and nature. The earth is viewed as a totality, where human and nature have equal value. Mutual dependency between people and nature is stressed. The fundamental attitude towards nature is cooperation, or balance. This view is usually adopted by hierarchists, which are risk accepting.

Whether a person is an individualist, an egalitarian or a hierarchist has a major impact on his or her perception of the issue of climate change, as is shown in table 1.

Table 1: perspectives applied to the issue of climate change

Individualist Egalitarian Hierarchist
Perception of the problem Environment will adapt to change Catastrophic threat Probable serious threat
Interpretation crucial uncertainties Important dampening mechanism Not influencing climate system Moderate effect
Soil moisture changes Not occurring Not occurring Amplifying effect
Ecosystem migration Not occurring Not occurring Amplifying effect
Temperature feedback on vegetation respiration Minor effect Significant amplifying effect Moderate effect
Temperature feedback on primary production Global warming will not decrease primary production Only a very small temperature change will increase primary production Increase primary production within particular domain
Role of sulphate aerosols Substantial dampening effect Undesired effect (acidification) Moderate influence on radiative forcing
Role of water vapor Minor amplifying feedback Significant amplifying effect Amplifying effect
Role of clouds Dampening effect Amplifying effect Not occurring
Policy measures No climate policy Drastic social, cultural and institutional changes No-regret options and end-of-pipe technology

Every world view holds its own distinctive management style, which basically means an approach towards response strategy including typical policy instruments:

  • Individualists are characterized by a adaptive management style. They do not believe that nature is fragile and that the disturbances they create have serious consequences for their surroundings. They only act upon problems when these actually present themselves. Typical policy instruments are communicational and educational programs and research and development programs for appropriate technology.

  • Egalitarians prefer a preventive management style. They believe any disturbance to nature has serious consequences and therefore, they are 'better safe than sorry'. Typical policy instruments are financial incentives, research and development and demonstration programs.

  • Hierarchists are characterized by a control management style. The government and other institutions introduce environmental standards that are met by means of environmental recovery measures. Typical policy instruments are regulation and financial incentives.

  • Fatalists do not adopt a management style, because they are typically excluded from the political process.

The management style that is carried out in a country is not always typical for a world view. A country may have a matching world view and management style, which is called a utopia. In a dystopia, contrarily, the world view and management style do not match for some reason. The combination of a world view and a management style affects the way in which a country deals with global warming and other environmental problems.

Now, try to think of an environmental problem. In which manner would your country respond? Do you agree with this or do you perhaps perceive the issue from a different perspective?


Asselt, M.B.A. van, Rotmans, J., Uncertainty in Perspective. Global Env. Change 1996, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 121-157

Janssen, M.A. and Carpenter, S.R., Managing the Resilience of Lakes: a Multi-agent Modeling Approach. Conservation Ecology, 1999 volume 2
Located on: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol3/iss2/art15/main.html (22/7/2005)

Maslin, M., Global Warming, a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2004

Related pages

Climate change glossary

Fossil fuels: characteristics and effects

The greenhouse effect mechanism

Emissions and infrared absorption by greenhouse gases

Explanation of the IPCC SRES scenarios

The IPCC SRES scenarios: causes of climate change

The IPCC SRES scenarios: consequences of climate change

Overview of emission reductions for each country according to Kyoto

Possible policy measures to achieve Kyoto targets

Trading emission permits to achieve Kyoto targets

Discussions of the greenhouse effect

History of global warming

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