Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics (Jan 2023)

Brief communication: Climate science as a social process – history, climatic determinism, Mertonian norms and post-normality

  • H. von Storch

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 30
pp. 31 – 36


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For ages, the topic of climate – in the sense of “usual weather” – has in the western tradition attracted attention as a possible explanatory factor for differences in societies and in human behavior. Climate, and its purported impact on society, is an integrated element in western thinking and perception. In this essay, the history of ideas about the climatic impact on humans and society and the emergence of the ideology of climatic determinism are sketched from the viewpoint of a natural scientist. This ideology favored the perception of westerners being superior to the people in the rest of the world, giving legitimacy to colonialism. In modern times, when natural sciences instituted self-critical processes (repeatability, falsification) and norms (such as the Mertonian norms named CUDOS), the traditional host for climate issues, namely, geography, lost its grip, and physics took over. This “scientification” of climate science led to a more systematic, critical and rigorous approach of building and testing hypotheses and concepts. This gain in methodical rigor, however, went along with the loss of understanding that climate is hardly a key explanatory factor for societal differences and developments. Consequently, large segments of the field tacitly and unknowingly began reviving the abandoned concept of climatic determinism. Climate science finds itself in a “post-normal” condition, which leads to a frequent dominance of political utility over methodical rigor.