Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
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Global Environmental Change
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/gloenvcha
Global Environmental Change
Knowing climate as a social-ecological-atmospheric construct
Katherine R. Clifford 3,15 ’*, William R. Travis 3,b
a Western Water Assessment, University of Colorado, Campus Box 216, Boulder, CO, USA
b Department of Geography, University of Colorado, Campus Box 260, Boulder, CO, USA
Climate perception, broadly construed, can include interpretations of experienced climate, beliefs about how
climate works or changes, attitudes about climate issues such as the human role in climate change, and even
climate preferences. The recent literature has stressed three main themes: attitudes and beliefs about anthro¬
pogenic climate change, climate literacy, and experienced knowledge of climate change. This study focuses on
how people come to “know” climate, not just climate change, in a more fundamental way. To discern the
structure of these knowledges we conducted semi-structured interviews of residents of a basin in the U.S. Rocky
Mountains whose livelihoods and avocations bring them in routine contact with weather, climate, and land¬
scape. Analysis of their climate knowledge in three categories, features, processes, and benchmarks, and placed
in perspective of previous research on climate knowledges, yielded three findings. 1) People often focus on
climate-related proxies that might be disregarded as tangential within narrow definitions of climate. 2) People
use rubrics to structure climate knowledge, they understand climate as relational and connected. 3) Climate
knowledge does not isolate individual climate elements, but accentuates the complex way that many processes
together constitute climate. These findings reveal that, for our interviewees, climate is a social-ecological-at-
mospheric construct. This has both theoretical and methodological implications for future research on climate
perception and illuminates the challenge of linking perception to effective mitigation and adaptation.
The Pew Research Center reported that in 2016 only 48% of
Americans believed that global warming was occurring due to human
activity (Funk and Kennedy, 2016). This was only one example of a
number of surveys meant to assess Americans’ perceptions of climate
change (Borick et al., 2010; Pugliese and Ray, 2011; Kohut et al., 2011;
Leiserowitz et al., 2017). The notion that roughly half of Americans do
not accept the scientific consensus on global warming circulates
through communities of scholars, activists, and practitioners and is
discussed in research, policy, and the media (Leiserowitz, 2006; Harris,
2011; Kahan et al., 2012).
The reported disparity between scientists and the public has moti¬
vated a range of studies. Several large-scale surveys have probed vari¬
ables that might influence public perception, and specifically climate
change skepticism, and have found a number of different correlations
ranging from livelihood (Arbuckle et al., 2013), to political affiliation
(Dunlap and McCright, 2008), to gender (Sundhlad et al., 2007; Israel
and Sachs, 2013), to political attitudes about solutions (Leiserowitz,
2006), to distrust of science (Kahan et al., 2012). Others scholars have
interpreted global warming skepticism as a lack of knowledge about
climate processes and climate change. However, the inference from
beliefs about climate change to climate illiteracy over-simplifies the
idea of climate knowledges, and may distort our understanding of how
people perceive climate differently and why.
Less attention is given to questions that push beyond beliefs about
climate change or scientifically-accurate knowledge of climate pro¬
cesses to focus on how people understand their climate in its multi¬
farious nature. Yet, climate knowledge is at the foundation of social
dimensions of climate and permeates other studies of attitudes and
actions. A person’s understanding of climate—how it works, what ele¬
ments are important, what counts as climate—will undoubtedly shape
how they understand and respond to climate change (Hulme, 2009,
2017). Understanding climate knowledge is important for under¬
standing climate change knowledge and may not be captured in climate
change belief or literacy surveys, that can fail to capture how climate
and climate change are known.
The purpose of this study is to examine climate knowledges in depth
to understand their content and structure. People interact with weather
and climate on a daily basis (Hulme, 2017), and researchers using
qualitative methods and critical theories can ask how individuals un¬
derstand and know climate change as a product of their experiences
* Corresponding author at: Department of Geography, UCB 260, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0260, USA.
E-mail address: Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org (K.R. Clifford).
https://doi. org/10.1016/j. gloenvcha.2017.12.007
Received 28 April 2017; Received in revised form 10 November 2017; Accepted 28 December 2017
Available online 30 January 2018
0959-3780/ © 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
with place (Brace and Geoghegan, 2011; Rice et al., 2015). Inasmuch as
our inquiry is concerned with climate change, it is about how people
understand climate change rather than if they believe in it. We ap¬
proach this by interviewing people with climate knowledge produced
through rich experiences with local weather, climate, and their mani¬
festations through the behavior and quality of natural resources to
which their livelihoods and avocations connect.
This research can help expand the way we understand local
knowledge and perceptions of climate and may challenge, or at least
problematize, previous claims about climate skepticism. Better under¬
standing the character of climate knowledge can improve conclusions
about why people hold particular beliefs about climate. This analysis
may provide further insight into previous interpretations of public
perceptions of climate and highlight how local climate knowledge may
fail to meet climate literacy tests, but still reflect a robust and intricate
understanding of local climate. In this paper, we first describe the
scholarship of different approaches to climate perception. Then we
highlight three key findings from our fieldwork in Colorado’s Gunnison
Basin on how people know climate through everyday experience.
Lastly, we explore how these findings provide alternative interpreta¬
tions of the claims produced through literacy and belief surveys.
2. Climate perceptions: attitudes, literacy and knowledges
Climate perception, broadly construed, can include interpretations
of experienced weather and climate (and, indeed, the distinction be¬
tween weather and climate), beliefs about how climate works or
changes, attitudes about climate issues such as the human role in cli¬
mate change, and even climate preferences. We divide the study of
climate perception is broadly into three approaches. First, large, re¬
gional or national-scale surveys provide longitudinal data on changing
beliefs and attitudes about climate change, and examine possible in¬
fluences of those beliefs on mitigation and adaptation policy. Second, in
response to what many interpret as a misinformed or scientifically-il-
literate public, attention is given to measuring the public’s climate lit¬
eracy and to devising better science communication. A third approach
explores local experience and knowledge of climate at the community
and individual scale. The first and third approaches have tended re¬
cently to focus on anthropogenic climate change, while the second is
more agnostic and explores both climate and climate change, and in
some cases the perceived connections between weather and climate. All
three areas of research are important to understanding the social di¬
mensions of climate, but each frames the problem in a different way.
2.1. Climate change attitudes and beliefs
The major thread of climate perception scholarship in recent re¬
search focuses on beliefs and attitudes about anthropogenic climate
change, largely in an attempt to assess whether lay communities are
skeptical of global warming and its proposed solutions (Capstick and
Pidgeon, 2014). Large-scale surveys correlate climate change belief and
skepticism with demographics (Poortinga et al., 2011), political af¬
filiation (Saleh et al., 2012), personal experience of climate (Brody
et al., 2008; Whitmarsh, 2008; Spence et al., 2011; Kaufmann et al.,
2017), accuracy of educated populations’ knowledge of climate change
science and trends (Reynolds et al., 2010), and differences among
countries (Lorenzoni et al., 2006). While such studies differ in how they
explain skepticism (Whitmarsh, 2008; Capstick and Pidgeon, 2014),
complicating comparison of results, they broadly find that a large
portion of the general public is skeptical of anthropogenic global
Many of these studies point to political affiliation as among the most
important factors in determining attitudes and beliefs about anthro¬
pogenic climate change. Thus even long-term (Leiserowitz et al., 2017)
studies providing longitudinal data about changes in beliefs and atti¬
tudes may reflect the political connotations of the term climate change.
These studies report that Republicans (people with conservative
ideology) in the United States are more skeptical of climate change than
Democrats (people with liberal ideology) or Independents, at least
partly because they are skeptical of the solutions posed (e.g., renewable
energy systems) and the policies imposed to fix the problem. This would
suggest levels of skepticism would be higher in a conservative state like
Arizona, yet a study at the University of Arizona that posed a broader
set of climate questions (http://www.environment.arizona.edu/
climate-survey) found that a majority (74%) of the state’s residents
believe that world temperatures are increasing, with 78% of those re¬
spondents attributing that trend at least partially to human activity.
This case shows how new dimensions emerge that move beyond clear
categories of skeptic and believer when different elements of climate
are incorporated, and perhaps indicate the limitation of attitude surveys
to reveal climate knowledge.
2.2. Climate literacy
This thread of research is in part propelled by the findings of atti¬
tude and belief surveys and focuses on how well laypeople understand
processes and features of climate as defined by climate science. Climate
literacy is a growing theme in earth science and science education; it
was the subject of a special issue of Physical Geography (Dupigny-
Giroux, 2008). The field is still taking shape and even the definition of
climate literacy has not been uniformly established with some papers
describing it as knowledge of climate science (Niepold et al., 2007), and
others more broadly as “understanding your influence on climate and
climate’s influence on you and society” (“Climate Literacy”, 2009, p. 4).
While there are overlaps between climate literacy and attitudes and
beliefs, key differences make literacy a distinct research and applica¬
tions area. First, climate literacy studies are more often conducted by
climate scientists themselves. This means that the work is less anchored
in behavioral, cognitive, and social framings. Second, climate literacy is
focused on processes of climate and climate change, rather than atti¬
tudes about climate change. Third, this line of research takes a nor¬
mative stance. It approaches the issue of climate knowledge with the
stated goal of testing and then increasing climate literacy, and argues
that climate literacy is a “critical skill” (Dupigny-Giroux, 2010, p.
1203), and “is needed for planetary citizens” (Harrington, 2008, p.
575), with scientists describing the work as a “quest to achieve literacy”
(p. 483) motivated by “fervent hope” (p. 485) that a climate-literate
citizenry will better respond to the threat of global warming (Dupigny-
Climate literacy also departs from the study of climate knowledges,
even though the two bodies of literature occasionally use similar lan¬
guage. The study of climate literacy tests public knowledge against a
“correct” scientific answer and thus casts, implicitly or explicitly,
knowledge departing from science as “wrong.” For example, Dupigny-
Giroux (2008) differentiated somewhat confusingly between “actual
knowledge” and “perceived knowledge” (p. 485), the former defined as
knowledge that comported with scientific understanding of climate. In
many ways, this body of scholarship looks more for an absence of
knowledge than a presence of it, and embraces a hierarchical under¬
standing of knowledge rooted in the scientific method; it is less con¬
cerned with cognition than understanding science and effective com¬
munication. While the “climate knowledge deficit” interpretation has
been largely debunked by social scientists (Rudiak-Gould, 2012), it has
remained current among climate scientists and science educators and
continues to spur calls for better climate communication to increase
“climate literacy,” or scientifically accurate understanding of climate.
2.3. Climate knowledges
Climate knowledges scholarship seeks to understand not only if
people understand climate as a scientific element and/or believe in
climate change, but how they understand this subtle and pervasive
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
element of nature and environment. This thread of inquiry is especially
interested in local or experienced-based knowledges (Brace and
Geoghegan, 2011; Geoghegan and Leyson, 2012; Rudiak-Gould, 2012;
Solli and Ryghaug, 2014; Mahony and Hulme, 2016; Kohl and Knox,
2016; Popke, 2016; Hulme, 2017), and is often, at least partially, based
on qualitative methods with open-ended questions in interviews or
focus groups, though a few studies have paired these with quantitative
surveys as well (Connor and Higginbotham, 2013; Capstick and
Climate knowledges scholarship treats climate as not just a bio¬
physical phenomenon but also a social and cultural one (Hulme, 2009,
2017), and seeks to learn not only “what is known about climate but
how it is known, remembered, experienced, embodied, and practiced”
(Geoghegan and Leyson, 2012, p. 57). Climate knowledge is place-
based, culturally contingent, and built through everyday activities that
engage weather and climate (Hulme, 2017, such as gardening Brace
and Geoghegan, 2011), farming (Geoghegan and Leyson, 2012) or other
outdoor activities. Place and culture also influence how climate change
knowledge is received, circulated, and applied (Endfield and Morris,
2012). Marin and Berkes (2013) referred to this as “the detailed local
anchoring of the knowledge often held by people who rely on natural
resources for their livelihoods” (p. 1).
These approaches do not privilege non-scientific knowledges over
scientific, but instead recognize many ways of knowing climate, and
that climate may be different for different actors within cultures (Lejano
et al., 2013; Israel and Sachs, 2013; Leyshon, 2014; Goldman et al.,
2016) Explicitly feminist approaches have argued for engaging anti-
hierarchical ways of knowing that challenge the hegemony of dominant
scientific knowledge (Rice et al., 2015). This work investigates “climate
(and weather) as a function of memory, experience and intergenera-
tional transfer of ‘climate knowledge”' (Hulme, 2009: 330). Finally, the
study of climate knowledge is sometimes used to extract new in¬
formation on climate and climate change. Studies have attempted to
plumb climate change through ethnoscience, or what is variously la¬
beled local knowledge or indigenous knowledge (Solli and Ryghaug,
2014), taking an instrumentalist approach to extracting data from
narratives, for example, using stories of past ice-free waters or the
changing reliability of springs and other water sources to document the
impacts of climate change.
A theme in climate knowledge scholarship is the relationship be¬
tween and difference of climate and weather with a debate about
whether an abstract phenomenon like climate can be observed by an
individual (Rudiak-Gould, 2013). Traditionally, climate is the average
of weather, and thus is a statistical concept that cannot be directly
experienced. Yet, as Hulme argues “experiences of weather evolve into
knowledge about climate” (2017, p. 32), and people use that knowledge
every day and make plans and investments based on it, especially
people like farmers (Geoghegan and Leyson, 2012) and others who
negotiate both weather events and seasonal swings in natural resources.
Climate becomes a cultural artifact that “introduces a sense of stability
and normality into what would otherwise be too chaotic and disturbing
an experience of unruly and unpredictable weather” (Hulme, 2017, p.
4). Thus the abstract is made concrete and becomes imbricated with
culture in a place. “All knowledge of climate should therefore be re¬
garded as cultural: it cannot exist separately from the cultures in which
it is made or through which it is expressed.” (Hulme, 2017, p. 27).
The simplest hypothesis is that people “assemble” their climate from
their weather. Solli and Ryghaug (2014) apply this approach to
highway snow clearers in Norway who, over time, develop local
knowledge of the conditions under which avalanches occur, and can
apply that knowledge both to short-term road-closing decisions and to
long-term climate adaptations like where to place a permanent ava¬
lanche protection berm. But the translation from weather to climate
knowledge is certainly a more complicated cultural and mental process
than this hypothetical “assembling” process. Lejano et al. (2013) show
that climate narratives inculcate many ways of knowing climate, some
derived from climate as opposed to weather artifacts, like vegetation
zones and wildlife migration patterns. In this way, climate knowledge is
built on both weather and climate cues, a process we look for in our
Two recent studies come closer to our approach of understanding
experienced climate knowledges. Rice et al. (2015) examine local
knowledge of climate change in rural Appalachia and engage with
multiple types of knowledge claims produced by a range of experience
and expertise. They implore climate scholars to “take seriously the
experiential, embodied, and even contradictory ways that people un¬
derstand the world” (Rice et al., 2015, p. 256) and to examine which
knowledges are accepted and which ignored. They explore how climate
change manifests in different local contexts, including family histories
of changing weather and climate-driven migration. Rice et al. (2015)
employ a duality of formal and informal climate expertise, obscuring
the many ways that informal knowledge is also imbued by scientific
knowledge and technical climate and weather information. The study
conflates informal experts with lay people, and we argue that there are
important differences. Participants included people who had just
moved to the area and second homeowners who were never full-time
residents, neither of which could be considered informal experts on the
local climate. In contrast, Geoghegan and Leyson (2012) interview
long-term residents in Cornwall to examine memory, place and inter-
generational knowledge as an approach to understand how those re¬
sidents experience climate change.
Connor and Higginbotham (2013) bridge the gap between climate
knowledges and attitudes toward climate change by combining surveys
with interviews to examine how people understand both. They find two
narratives of climate change affecting people’s cognized climate: the
“scientific narrative” explains climate change as anthropogenic, with
knowledge based on models and climate research, while the “natural
cycles” explanation suggests variation around an underlying balance,
built more on personal experiences and observation, and notions of how
nature works. Key to their findings is that many lay people perceive
climate as a cyclical process showing resiliency, with the climate
swinging back and forth around some central tendency, in contrast to
fragility or mutability. Connor and Higginbotham argue that this of¬
fered an alternative to claims that skepticism and politics dominate and
shape the climate change discourse, and that attitudes research could
be misinterpreting belief in “natural cycles” as skepticism. Their re¬
search begins to reconcile climate knowledge and climate change atti¬
tudes; further research is needed to tease apart perceptions of climate
and climate change.
3. Seeking climate knowledge
Like Geoghegan and Leyson (2012) we seek to contribute to climate
perception scholarship by focusing on experienced climate knowledge
developed by individuals with expertise of climate, rather than a
sample of the general public that might be less attuned to climate.
Unlike Rice et al. (2015), we study the knowledge built by local people
with a long, intimate relationship with their environment (Solli and
Ryghaug, 2014), rather than a sample with different residence times.
We examine this experienced knowledge through in-depth, semi-
structured interviews that interrogate how people understand their
climate and its processes. We recognize that knowledges are not pro¬
duced in isolation from each other and that both local and scientific
knowledges blur and are themselves multifarious. We also build on
Connor and Higginbotham (2013) by expanding the analysis of how
people understand climate change differently, to how they understand
climate differently. Furthermore, we direct attention to the structure of
climate knowledge rather than to the worldviews that influence it, a
common aspect of anthropological approaches (Lejano et al., 2013).
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
3.1. Study area
The Gunnison Basin in the Rocky Mountains of south-central
Colorado (Fig. 1) is representative of many communities in the rural
West: public land dominates the landscape; the economy is largely
dependent on natural resources, especially livestock ranching, mining,
and recreational uses of the landscape; and recent amenity migration
(Gosnell and Abrams, 2009) is changing the socio-economic com¬
plexion of the region. The range of climate and vegetation zones, and
complex socio-demographics in the community, made the Basin an
opportune case study to investigate local climate knowledge. The Basin
had 8108 permanent residents in 2010 and by virtue of rural and re¬
creational livelihoods many of them reflect a strong connection to, and
sense of, place. The case study area may be somewhat unusual because
of an on-going climate change planning effort sponsored by The Nature
Conservancy and including collaboration by federal, state and county
government as well as a range of individuals in the region (Neely et al.,
2011). Indeed, the Gunnison Climate Working Group provided the basis
for this study and offered access to approximately one-third of inter¬
viewees; two-thirds were recruited outside of the group. This is what
drew our attention to the area, and our study was coordinated with the
Working Group, and thus had ready access to residents with an interest
in climate. Very few rural, western communities are engaged in plan¬
ning for climate adaptation because of low budgets, the political nature
of climate change, and barriers to planning (Crabbe and Robin, 2006).
This makes the Gunnison Basin at the forefront of such efforts and an
important case from which to learn about the role of climate knowledge
We relied on in-depth interviews as well as direct observations, and
field notes over a two-year period interacting at meetings of the
Gunnison Climate Working Group. The senior author conducted 28
semi-structured interviews of long-term residents of the Gunnison Basin
in four groups (ranchers, recreationalists, public land managers, and
scientists). The senior author also lived at the Rocky Mountain
Biological Laboratory (RMBL) for two months. While this research was
not intentionally designed as ethnography, observations during this
period were recorded in field notes and employed to place the inter¬
views in better context.
Following the exposition common in the reporting interview or
focus-group based qualitative analysis (for example, Jurt et al., 2015;
Capstick and Pidgeon, 2014; Rice et al., 2015), we present findings
supported by selected quotations in the text, and provide richer sets of
quotations organized by the findings in the Supplementary material.
This paper analyzes qualitative, interview-based data, which has
strengths - of depth and richness—and limitations—of generalizability.
We do not attempt to answer what the community as a whole knows
about climate, but instead how local climate knowledge is produced,
which asks us to examine knowledge in depth and in context.
3.3. Sampling local knowledge
We are specifically interested in experienced climate knowledge
that people construct through daily practices and engagement with
their landscape. Climate decisions are complex and embedded in the
daily life of rural communities that rely on climate-driven natural re¬
sources for livelihoods. But, experienced climate knowledges are not all
equally robust. Not all daily routines and experiences build the same
depth of climate knowledge. Sharper climate knowledge is built by
rural communities that regularly engage with their climate, have live¬
lihoods dependent on climate, and make high stakes decisions based on
climate. They have expertise. Experts not only have a greater “dataset”
of experiences with climate, but climate knowledge also plays a much
more central role in their lives. So, participants were chosen based on
livelihoods connected to natural resources, which makes them “ex¬
perts” of climate based on deep experience. Four groups were selected
for the interviews:
1) Recreationalists: defined as people who generated their income from
a recreation-based business such as guiding or outfitting (n = 6)
2) Public land managers: this included state and federal agency em¬
ployees that managed a specific publicly-owned landscape, but
some, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service, were
federal employees with broad natural resource responsibilities
without a focal landscape (n = 6)
3) Ranchers: defined as individuals who are part of the ranching com¬
munity with most operating a ranching outfit. It was the primary
income for all except for one interviewee who had a second job and
another who was a ranching consultant and worked for and with
ranchers, but did not own a ranch (n = 7)
4) Scientists: defined as scientists and employees of the Rocky Mountain
Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, Colorado (n = 7)
Previous research and the community adaptation planning process
(Knapp, 2013, 2011; Neely et al., 2011) identified recreationalists,
public land managers, and ranchers, to represent the main cultural
groups in the Basin, so we selected those same groups to allow com¬
parison of research findings. We added field-based scientists at RMBL to
explore a wide variety of different knowledges built through experi¬
ence—as field ecologists too build climate knowledge broader than just
their research focus—and to not ignore an important source of climate
and ecological knowledge in the Basin.
Criteria were established to identify, and exclude, candidates for the
study, and to respond to critiques of the transparency of sampling
procedures in qualitative methods (Nielsen and D’haen, 2014). First,
interviewees have a minimum residency in the area of five years, and
over 10 years when possible 1 so that interviewees would have sufficient
experience of the basin’s weather to develop a sense of its climate. The
second criterion was that interviewees live in the Basin year-round, or,
because this is a community with “off seasons” allowing for seasonal
travel, that they spend the majority of their time in the Basin. The ex¬
ception to this criterion was that RMBL scientists 2 primarily only come
to the Basin during the summer, so this group has developed knowledge
mostly about summer climate. The third and most important criterion,
which was supported through the selection of community groups, was a
strong connection to the landscape through daily activities. Here we
accept as an initial hypothesis, common though often implicit in the
literature cited earlier, that climate knowing is processed partially from
the repeated experience of weather across seasonal and annual cycles.
But we also expected that experience with landscape resources and
features (like the obvious altitudinal zonation of vegetation in the
Basin) that themselves reflect climate more than weather, could add a
more direct climate knowing on top of weather-derived climate notions.
Interviews were transcribed verbatim to maintain the rich quality of
each. Transcribed interviews were qualitatively coded using NVivo
software (Bazeley and Jackson, 2013) with both a priori codes based on
a set of propositions and themes distilled from previous work as well as
emerging codes identified during the analysis.
One of the challenges of analyzing climate knowledges—in a way
that departs from attitude surveys or climate literacy testing—is
1 Five years was set as an absolute minimum to ensure that participants had a longer
internal dataset, and most (all but two) had lived in the basin for 10 years or more. The
shortest residency of the year-round interviewees was 8 years in the basin with the
longest being over 70 years.
2 A few in the scientist group were year-round staff and thus they met the second
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
Fig. 1 . The study area in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin is a
broad valley at the headwaters of the Gunnison River and its
tributaries in the southern Rocky Mountains with a rural and
small-town economy based on ranching, forestry, mining,
recreation, education and water resources. Interviews were
conducted in three Basin communities: Gunnison, Crested
Butte, and Gothic (where the Rocky Mountain Biological
Laboratory is located).
determining how to bound the inquiry. We did not want to narrowly
define climate so that the coding only yielded scientific answers about
climate (precipitation, solar radiation, atmospheric gases etc.), which
would of course miss the broader ways that people know climate. At the
same time, we wanted a parsimonious coding structure. We used a priori
codes focused on three dimensions: features, processes, and benchmarks:
1) Features capture the different weather and climate elements that
people use to construct climate knowledge. This is the most basic
structure, the building blocks and that feed into processes and
benchmarks. Features are central to the cognized climate, revealing
the parts of climate that are important to people and what they
understand as climate as opposed to other aspects of the natural
world. Features provide a common grounding for the cognized cli¬
mate and can act as markers to track the circulation of knowledge in
the community. The interviews provided a range of features, such
as: snowpack, drought, storms, and streamflow.
2) Processes reflect “how climate works” and the mechanisms driving
climate. They are dynamic and engage with multiple features and
were often tied to benchmarks in the mental models revealed in the
interviews. Processes explain how features are created and
relationships among features, like snowpack and runoff. These dy¬
namic operations drive the impacts felt by interviewees and are an
important part of how they make sense of an abstract, dynamic
climate, and how they adjust their behavior to it. Interviews cap¬
tured a number of processes including: snowmelt and runoff, human
impacts, and spring green-up/plant growth.
3) Benchmarks are the anchors, both human and natural, with which
people bind their climate knowledge. People use benchmarks as
temporal structures to help order the messy climate around them,
and to help them read the climate for achieving specific goals.
Benchmarks are also a key way that people mediate the complicated
relationship between weather and climate. Benchmarks may be
imbued with instrumental and affective meaning and can inculcate
processes, especially when they demark the timing of particular
seasonal conditions. Benchmarks tended to be very specific to the
interviewee’s livelihood and included for example: condition of the
road to Gothic, reference years and events like the drought of 2012,
and sensory cues of seasonal changes.
Coding was open to other dimensions of climate knowledges that
transcended this three-part structure by searching the transcribed
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
interview for emergent topics that complemented our a priori codes.
This was done following an approach that has become standard in
qualitative analysis (Bazeley and Jackson, 2013; Stemler, 2001). Codes
were assigned for concrete and specific topics such as environmental
features (e.g. snow, rain), processes (e.g snowmelt), and reference
events (e.g. storms, drought years), but also for abstractions such as
attitude (e.g. positive, negative), knowledge (e.g. certainty, tensions
between knowledges), normality (e.g. normal, abnormal), and system
attributes (e.g. balance, change). Both concrete and abstract codes re¬
veal themes that correlated with the initial three climate knowledge
dimensions. As the coding process continued, new codes emerged in an
iterative process of coding and recoding transcripts with new codes.
Once broad codes were assigned to all transcripts, they were reviewed
again and sub-coded for nuanced and subtle arguments or different
clustering within a topic. Since we were committed to examining cli¬
mate knowledge that manifested differently, this structure gave us an
approach that was not so open-ended that we moved away from climate
(to the many other local issues on people’s minds), but that did not tend
to exclude data about climate, described in unconventional terms.
4. Finding 1: climate is known and discussed through climate-
related proxies rather than climate itself
In discussing climate, participants often described climate-related
proxies rather than climate as it would be defined by climate science
(e.g., via station data, climate summaries, or model output). When
asked a range of questions about climate, many of the interviewees
made reference to atmospheric states and processes, but simultaneously
entrained ecological and social elements. Interviewees integrated the
impacts of climate with land and resource management decisions, ra¬
ther than sorting them into different categories: they discussed climate
in terms of, for example, snowpack levels, wildfire, endangered species,
human migration, and other local to regional processes and features.
Climate proxies considered especially important were discussed in de¬
tail, often not explicitly tied to their underlying climate driver.
For example, interviewees were asked to describe an “adverse cli¬
mate” that would evoke feelings of risk or be detrimental to their li¬
velihoods. Many answered this question with how human elements of
change, and specifically changing demographics, had or would cause
impacts to livelihoods and the landscape. A deep-seated tension exists
within the community between the tourism economy, marked by a
growing recreational footprint and increasing number of second-home
owners, and the communities that identify with the traditional and
historic economies, tied to agriculture, forestry and mining.
Specifically, people discussed increased migration and vacationing
(tourism) as a likely part of climate change.
An older rancher felt that recreation pressures and increased po¬
pulations were the greatest threat to ranching in the upper basin and
that both of these pressures will likely continue to increase and be
driven by a changing climate. The rancher explains that the biggest
impact of climate change for the ranching community will not be cli¬
matic changes in Gunnison; it will be the warming of other localities
linked to the Basin.
“They say if it continues to get wanner, tourism is going to increase
because the Southwest is going to be unbearable. So that is going to mean
more people come, more people want to live here. The more people, the
harder it is on our business. It doesn’t matter whether it is winter or
summer. So, to me that is the biggest challenge. ”
This discussion on migration due to climate change echoed through
many interviews, often with a positive connotation within the recrea¬
tion community and dread in the ranching community. Visitors come
from around the country and globe, but the largest sources are nearby
states of Texas and Oklahoma. Second-home owners and regular sea¬
sonal visitors are seen as fleeing to the mountains to escape the suffo¬
cating summer heat in Texas and Oklahoma. People saw this seasonal
migration as inextricably linked to climate and part of a growing social
pressure that previous generations did not encounter or need to ne¬
gotiate on a daily basis.
Dust, or dust storms, was another climate proxy that emerged nu¬
merous times in interviews. One specific manifestation often mentioned
was “dust-on-snow,” which results when dust storms that originate in
the Colorado Plateau deposit reddish, easily noticeable, dust on the
mountain snowpack. This is not a new phenomenon, but many who
commented on it argued that it is increasing in intensity (an observation
supported in the scientific literature, see Neff et al., 2008; Painter et al.,
2010, though little is known about what is causing this uptick in dust
events). A variety of impacts result from dust-on-snow, but the main
one discussed was faster and earlier snowmelt. A mountain guide, who
works in winter recreation - primarily skiing - described this trend in
terms of climate risk.
“The dust layers that have been happening here in the spring have been a
huge problem. We’ve seen more and more of that happen, and then it
shuts down the end of the ski season. Because the dust sits on top and
then ruins the spring skiing and then snow melt happens way faster, so
that’s been a huge concern. ”
This fear was echoed by others because of how important the ski
industry is to the Basin’s economy, but also the impact to water supply,
a perennial natural resource and political worry entangled in legal
mandates and exacting regulations of Colorado River water. A complex
series of drivers is probably liberating this dust, including land use and
climate of the southwestern states, but for Basin residents, this was an
element of their climate.
Many more climate proxies were employed by Basin residents
during interviews and these signaled an important element of experi¬
enced climate knowledge; these included climate effects such as:
wildfire, snowmelt, bark beetle, endangered species listings, elk mi¬
gration, and green-up (see Supplementary material for additional
quotations). We argue that these represent not an avoidance of climate
questions or a form of illiteracy, but instead rich climate knowledges.
People engage with climate through proxies.
5. Finding 2: climate knowledge is shaped by rubrics
People use climate rubrics, based on their own, or others’, experi¬
enced climate knowledge, to make sense of complex patterns. We define
climate rubrics as stable evaluative linkages that people apply to de¬
termine how one feature will affect another feature, or refract through a
benchmark; these linkages coevolved over time and allow people to use
climate information about one feature to inform decisions about an¬
other feature or benchmark. Rubrics that people expressed took several
forms, with the most frequent being: time-hacks (e.g., holidays), gui¬
dance passed down across generations (e.g., take the cows up-country
along this path in snowy years), or visual cues in the landscape (e.g.,
blooming of certain plants used to signal grazing or other land uses).
People whose family had lived in the Basin for generation-
s—primarily ranchers—possessed rubrics formed, tweaked and handed
down over time along with land. Trial and error and experienced cli¬
mate knowledges shaped these rubrics to help people anticipate pro¬
cesses and near-future conditions, and aid in climate-sensitive decision¬
making. An older rancher from a long line of cattle producers in the
Basin shared a rubric that helps him decide when to move cattle to
different pastures at different elevations in the narrow window between
when the grass is ready for grazing and when the poisonous Larkspur
blooms. Unlike his father and grandfather who herded the livestock, he
schedules trucks to transport cattle to pastures, and this must be
scheduled several days in advance. To help him decide when to move
the cattle, he cites a phenological marker—in a climate rubric—that his
“My dad had a saying up here, just this side of [a landmark] where one
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
of our big head gates is. We get all the water for these meadows up here,
and there is a bunch of chokecherries up there and he’s saying used to be
‘when the chokecherries bloom at the headgate, you are ready for cows at
[a local] creek. ’ And it’s pretty damn close to always being that way. ”
Another rancher created a new climate rubric based on new
benchmarks. In our interview, his wife prodded him to explain how he
used snow depth on a mountain pass as an indicator for the season. This
snow measuring station (a SNOTEL or “Snow Telemetry” gauge that can
be tracked on the web) did not even exist when his father ranched, but
he can use it to help order his climate and inform his landscape deci¬
“Wife: Are you looking for visual clues?
Husband: Just watching the SNOTEL. The marker on Monarch and
W: The marker is a physical measuring stick. And he, every time we go
over, we check that and then he kind of correlates that to ‘Okay, if its
only at 4 feet, we are in trouble, but if its at 5 ft, we’ll be Okay’ ...he
would have liked 7
H: I want 7. 6 Feet the first of May...
W: It’s a good year
H: Even if it gets hot, and you can go back. I mean if you have 7 feet the
15th of March and then you have a hot spring you are still going to make
it. Or if you have 5.5 feet the first of May, then you are going to be OK.
But, if you are 3 feet the first of May, then you are probably going to be
in trouble. You can start to know you can’t kid yourself that even if we
get a big storm in May, but if the marker was at 2 feet, its not going to be
enough. You still can’t [kid yourself] because you have seen it enough
years, you think it’s going to help, but its not.
W: See? I told you he was amazing. This is like in his blood. He’ll just
watch that and say ‘oh its 4.5 feet, oh OK here is how much hay I will be
able to produce. ’”
This discussion between husband and wife shows how a very sharp
rubric was created and honed over the years to aid in predicting im¬
portant climatic and terrestrial processes. He uses the benchmark of
different depths of snow at a certain time to predict features like cattle
forage. This informs key decisions like how much additional feed he
needs to buy.
Different groups developed climate rubrics that reflected their li¬
velihoods and the decisions they needed to make. Flyfishers would stop
fishing a stretch of steam if a certain rock was exposed by a certain date.
Research laboratory scientists used snow levels on their access roads to
decide when to begin their experiments, start their summer fieldwork,
and expect certain phenological events. Rubrics reveal how people
build experienced climate knowledge, the structure of that knowledge
(benchmarks and features), and how they act on that knowledge. This
shows us that climate knowledge is not only about features, processes,
and benchmarks (or how these structures manifest as proxies), but that
climate knowledge is relational. The relationships, or linkages, among
different elements of climate matter and shape how people understand
However, people also reported that rubrics relied on for years to
generations are losing efficacy. Rubrics help connect terrestrial chan¬
ges—often related to proxies—with their underlying climate processes,
but they rely on the consistent order and timing of climate processes.
Many residents in the Basin, from scientists to recreationalists, ex¬
plained to us that they were seeing increasing climate mismatch, where
longstanding processes that had coevolved together were de-tethering
(this behavior is also discussed in the scientific literature, e.g.: Inouye,
2008; Miller-Rushing et al., 2010; Thomson, 2010). This made their
rubrics less robust. For example, mismatch can manifest in climate in
one place changing without other corresponding places similarly
changing, so the snow could melt earlier in the Gunnison Basin, but
pollinators would arrive at their original time, missing an important
pollination window. These types of changes made people less confident
about the rubrics they reported to us.
6. Finding 3: people did not discuss different elements of climate
discretely, but instead in an integrated way
Interviewees did not always isolate specific climate variables nor
discuss them discretely, but instead refused to disentangle elements
from their complex relationships and contexts. People rarely talked
about one climate element (e.g. temperature) removed from its con¬
nection to others, and instead explained to us how elements interacted
with related processes. This highlights how experienced climate
knowledge reflects an integrated system, allowing residents to under¬
stand how impacts of climate could cascade through social and ecolo¬
gical communities. This finding is distinct from our first finding re¬
garding proxies because people often did not interpret climate through
just one proxy alone, but instead identified how changes and proxies
together worked to alter the landscape and livelihoods. We employ two
proxies discussed in the first finding — human migration and dust—to
show how those proxies are embedded in complex dynamics.
One longtime rancher described a series of landscape changes that
he linked to both social change and climate. He was approaching re¬
tirement after more than seven decades in the Basin and had witnessed
significant increasing demographics and recreational pressures. Both
his father and grandfather had spent their lives ranching the same land,
using the same practices. He explained how different ranching was for
him than for his father:
“We have a whole different set of circumstances today that he didn’t have
to deal with He didn’t have to deal with all the mountain lions. He didn’t
have to deal with all the tourism and all the recreation. He didn’t have to
deal with too many elk. All those kind of things are new today compared
to what he had to deal with 60 or 70 years ago. ”
He claimed that growing recreation pressure, and mountain biking
in particular, was altering how he ranched. Like many of the inter¬
viewees, he also emphasized the human migration proxy: more people
moving into the Basin, escaping hotter conditions elsewhere. This
pressure was not only encroaching on his private land and the federal
lands he held permits to graze on, but also influencing wildlife popu¬
lations. More people were biking in the Basin and they were expanding
further into wildlands, disrupting and hazing elk herds so that the herds
moved onto his grazing land before his cattle did. For the rancher,
climate was driving processes that included human migration, ex¬
panding recreation, altered elk movements, and predator behavior,
with all of these processes influencing each other and compounding the
feeling of change.
A wildlife biologist took a similar integrated approach to explain
how he expected changes in climate to ripple through the abiotic and
biotic systems. He started by describing anticipated changes in pre¬
cipitation timing from climate models and how he thought those would
affect the greater climate system.
“We will have rains later in the fall, and we will have... still this time
period where we are going to have snow. But then we are going to have
rain on snow events in the spring and we are going to start losing those
little reservoirs of moisture. And that is going to have dramatic impacts
on soil moisture throughout the entire system. Dust-on-snow events, and
then intensive solar radiation, we are going to have... a hydrograph that
peaks early at a much higher level and then drops off really fast. And that
is going to change the ecology of the entire system. It’s also going to
change, its going to have dramatic impacts on agriculture, which those
agricultural meadows are really important for [sage] grouse and a
number of other species. ”
He carefully described the series of changes he expects by starting
K.R. Clifford, W.R. Travis
Global Environmental Change 49 (2018) 1-9
with how altered precipitation temporal patterns (opposed to the more
common focus on quantity), would affect the snowpack and melt rates
accelerated by rain falling on snow. An earlier runoff would both drive
and be driven by dust-on-snow events, one of the climate proxies that
emerged in this study. He envisions a complex system of feedbacks
where runoff shapes soil moisture and therefore dust, but also where
dust shapes runoff. Next, he anticipates how these abiotic changes
could shape the ecology of the area through plant productivity and then
animal communities. This is another example of how people understood
climate and its impacts in complex, relational ways that integrated a
range of different processes into one system.
7. A social-ecological-atmospheric construct
Our aim was to better understand the content and structure of cli¬
mate knowledge, to focus on what was present rather than absent in
that knowledge, and to evaluate whether people were as naive about
their climate as many previous studies claimed. By taking an approach
that engaged climate broadly, we were able to identify three findings
about the character of this knowledge help us better conceptualize how,
not if, people understand climate. Our first finding showed that people
often keyed on climate-related proxies that might be disregarded as
tangential by narrow definitions of climate. The second finding, that
people use rubrics to structure climate knowledge, highlights how
people do not understand climate through isolated elements, but in¬
stead as relational and connected. The third finding, that climate
knowledge does not isolate individual climate elements, accentuates
the complex way that many processes together constitute climate.
These findings reveal climate as a social-ecological-atmospheric
construct in which climate processes are imbricated with ecological and
human processes. They suggest that people do not separate humans
from atmosphere in the same way that models or climate scientists do.
Interviewees viewed climate with more complexity, as a socio-ecolo-
gical-atmospheric system with complicated interactions among dif¬
ferent types of processes. Marin and Berkes (2013) similarly referred to
people’s observations about climate that “often rely on holistic ways of
knowing their environments, integrating large numbers of variables,
and the relationships between these” (p. 1). This construct makes these
relationships explicit and pulls in other theorizations recognizing the
hybridity of climate, and that personal climate knowledge is “bound up
with places, bodies and with social practices such as farming, fishing,
gardening and recreation” (Hulme, 2017, p. 29).
Previous studies of climate knowledge find some of the same com¬
plexities revealed in this study. Geoghegan and Leyson (2012), who
take an explicitly critical and interpretive approach, argue that it is in
the “often excluded, complex and ‘unquantifiable’ relationships with
climate and landscape that people make sense of and respond to climate
change” (p. 64). Our study examined those “unquantifiable” elements
of climate that cannot be as readily assessed in literacy and attitude
surveys. Approaching climate as a social-ecological-atmospheric con¬
struct makes room for the hybrid ways climate forms, asks scholars to
re-think how they study and ask questions about climate, and most
importantly allows for local expertise and placed-based climate
knowledge to count
8. Conclusion: a more inclusive climate
Our research can provide new interpretations of results from pre¬
vious research on attitudes about climate change, especially skepticism.
Surveys of attitudes toward climate change fail to address the under¬
lying question of how people understand climate, much less why and
how it changes. A focus on climate skepticism assumes that climate
change beliefs are based on ignorance, politics and socio-economic
motivations, when differences in climate experiences, and climate
knowledges, could lead to some of these differences in attitude.
Future research is needed to explore climate knowledges and
compare different research approaches. Are our coding structures useful
to research in other settings and with different demographics? Are other
approaches missing climate knowledge? Research that engages multiple
approaches (e.g. climate knowledges and climate literacy) would be
useful to highlight the limitations of each. Would conclusions about
climate literacy be altered if researchers administered climate literacy
tests and followed up with open-ended qualitative research that re¬
cognizes that climate extends beyond atmospheric processes?
A better understanding of climate knowledge can, and should, shape
how we work to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Yet, some cli¬
mate perception studies may be misleading. People might “fail” climate
literacy tests because of jargon or technical language while still having
robust knowledge; they might respond negatively to the politics of
“climate change” or “global warming” in attitude surveys despite
holding personal observations that climate is changing. Resources de¬
voted to fixing assumed illiteracy or combating assumed skepticism,
may thus be wasted. Our conclusions do not negate previous findings,
but highlight their limitations in understanding a complex, dynamic,
and non-linear topic. By understanding more about how people know
climate, we may be able to better interpret climate attitudes and beliefs,
diagnose why past efforts to encourage climate adaptation and miti¬
gation have been unsuccessful, and provide insights into limits on the
effective application of climate information.
KC and WT conceived of the study. KC conducted the fieldwork,
interviews and initial analysis. KC and WT drew conclusions and co¬
wrote the paper.
The authors declare no financial/personal interest or belief that
could affect their objectivity in this research. The funding agency did
not participate in the design or carrying out of the work.
We would like to thank the many residents of Gunnison, Colorado
who participated in interviews. We are grateful to Sara Fall and three
anonymous reviewers whose comments and feedback improved this
paper. Ami Nacu-Schmidt produced the map. Research was supported
by the Western Water Assessment, a project of the University of
Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental
Sciences, funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration under Climate Program Office grant
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