Culture Contributes to Perceptions of Climate Change: A Comparison between the United States and Germany Reveals Insights about Why Journalists in Each Country Report about This Issue in Different Ways

By von Storch, Hans; Krauss, Werner | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Culture Contributes to Perceptions of Climate Change: A Comparison between the United States and Germany Reveals Insights about Why Journalists in Each Country Report about This Issue in Different Ways


von Storch, Hans, Krauss, Werner, Nieman Reports


When we talk about the weather, we also establish our social relations and construct the world we live in. Today such discussions are commonplace, especially when we have many extreme weather events and climate change to talk about. A cultural dimension is inherent in these conversations, and this is evidenced in how people perceive and connect these phenomena differently in the United States and in Germany.

With the Kyoto treaty, differing responses became evident. Now, as the role of climate change is being hotly debated in the aftermath of the recent catastrophic hurricanes in the United States, differences in perception are surfacing again. These moments teach those of us who study public responses to the issue of climate change that cultural history and me dia representations are often neglected factors and that a firm understanding of aspects of culture is indispensable in sorting through these differences in national perspectives and in adequately planning for management for a catastrophe.

Many Americans have come to view the last few hurricane seasons as particularly extreme. This year the devastation was especially severe when New Orleans was almost directly hit by Hurricane Katrina. In comparing the 2005 hurricane season to previous ones, the greatest surprise was not so much the severity and frequency of the storms that made landfall but the degree to which civil defense was obviously overwhelmed at a site historically known for its extreme vulnerability.

The basic events of the Katrina disaster unfolded in much the same way as did disastrous European storm surges in 1953 in the Netherlands and 1962 in northern Germany. These storms came as surprises after a long lull; underestimating the danger, thousands of people in the Netherlands and hundreds in Hamburg drowned.

The difference among these situations is evident, however, in the societal response. In Hamburg, then-unknown state minister Helmut Schmidt took the initiative. In spite of uncertain legality for the orders he issued, he called for the military, which turned out to be a key factor in managing the catastrophe. It was the mythical beginning of Schmidt's political career, who later became chancellor of Germany. Shortly after the event, a new large-scale coastal defense program was instituted. When, 14 years later, a much more severe storm surge formed, Hamburg's coastal defense proved sufficient, and no serious damage occurred. The Netherlands became famous for its coastal defense politics in the aftermath of the disastrous 1953 flooding, an event that has become part of the country's national identity.

What happened in New Orleans? As in Hamburg in 1962, people underrated the known vulnerability of the place and its potential damage. But then in New Orleans, little aid on the ground and insufficient catastrophe management led to four days of agony with close TV coverage of the human devastation in the wake of the storm. It becomes clear that specific social conditions made this meteorological extreme event a social catastrophe: The link between race, poverty and vulnerability was suddenly rendered transparent. Rumors of massive looting and crime spread before the armed forces arrived. President Bush took the initiative too late, only after widespread protests were heard in the news media and the emergence of social unrest could be witnessed on TV.

There is another crucial difference to be considered: During the last 50 years, the perception and interpretation of such extreme weather events have changed dramatically. "Global warming" and "Klimakatastrophe" (the English translation is climate catastrophe) are concepts that have captured public attention at the same time that extreme weather events are more likely--in some parts of the world--to be interpreted as man-made rather than natural. Moreover, even though there are significant differences in the public understanding of climate change in the United States and Germany, the media in both societies use a similar framework of vulnerability, even if it is constructed in culturally different ways. …

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