The latest report of the IPCC states that ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal’ and that most of the warming over the past half-century is ‘very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [greenhouse gas] concentrations’ (IPCC, 2007a, pp. 1, 4). A range of potentially damaging impacts of climate change is anticipated, some of which may be abrupt and irreversible, with potentially severe impacts on human and natural systems (IPCC, 2007b). It is a reasonable proposition that, in light of these conclusions, ethically responsible decision-makers ought to take appropriate action, be it in terms of prevention, mitigation or adaptation (see Jamieson, 2001; Gardiner, 2004).
Though anthropogenic climate change may be new, significant local and regional variations in climate have occurred throughout the historical period, and prehistoric modern humans lived through repeated periods of abrupt and severe climate change that was often global in nature, responding and adapting to environmental change and variation with varying degrees of success and a variety of different outcomes (for example Roberts, 1998; Brooks, 2006).
In this chapter, we propose that culture plays an important role in mediating human responses to environmental change. In particular, we argue that these responses depend heavily on the extent to which societies see themselves as separate from or part of the wider physical or ‘natural’ environment. A detailed discussion of the social construction of nature is beyond the scope of this chapter (but see Heyd, 2007).