Chair's Column


Dear students, colleagues, and friends of Geography,

I welcome you back to Hunter for the fall semester. I wish you all the best of luck and hope you achieve all of your goals this coming academic year. As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is bringing unprecedented rainfall and flooding Texas and Louisiana. Our hearts go out to people in Houston and beyond who are suffering. Here is one place you can find out how to help: .

More generally, as the national and international political scene continues in a divisive fashion, I’d like to briefly discuss a branch of climate change studies that may be relevant to broader political issues -- the matter of perception.

You may not know that one of the most important aspects of climate change is studied by researchers in departments such as planning, economics, psychology, political science, philosophy, behavioral sciences, and communications, in addition to the more expected fields of earth science, physics, chemistry, geography, and environmental studies. It turns out that many factors unrelated to climatological events influence our perception of climate variations and our responses to perceived risks. Among the non-climatological factors, personal experience and personal belief systems influence individual perceptions more than strictly social and demographic factors. For example, in comparison to the scientific consensus, people who have recently experienced an event such as a storm, flood, or heat wave are more likely to view climate change as being more dramatic; while those living in places that have not experienced a recent event tend to underestimate climate change. One NY Times reader’s on-line response to recent news stories perhaps perfectly sums up the role of individual experience in the perception of climate change: “I’ve shoveled snow less than 10 times in two years in Buffalo. Climate change is real.” On the other hand, one study has shown that in southern England people who have recently experienced severe flooding are indeed more likely to perceive a changing climate, but no more likely than others to advocate action related to climate change.

Interpretation of events is also affected by the type of thought processes that individuals tend to rely on. Those who rely on more associative (i.e., personal experience based) thought processes sometimes come to different conclusions than those with more analytical (i.e., data-driven) thought processes. While someone may experience an extreme weather or hydrological event, the attribution of that event to any particular cause requires a mental model. A mental model uncorroborated by data may lead to incorrect conclusions, such as the unwarranted attribution of an event to human activities. Climate scientists tend to focus on data.

Weather and climate events and climate risks are often interpreted according to one’s personal belief system, or cultural viewpoint, as manifested in one’s prior belief about climate change. For example, the perceived trustworthiness of an information source plays a significant role in an individual’s willingness to incorporate information into their cultural viewpoint. This factor seems to have become more relevant with the increased cultural differentiation in the US with regards to news sources on climate change and other issues.

This summer, in addition to Hurricane Harvey, the news has reported record-setting heat waves, droughts, and forest fires in western North America and southern Europe, and just last week the first known traverse in history by a ship through the fabled Northwest Passage in the Arctic without the use of ice breaking. How should we interpret these events with regard to climate change? Some may be surprised to learn that their interpretations do not exactly jive with the “experts”.

Perhaps more importantly, how can our society attempt to bridge the gap between different cultural viewpoints? Perhaps communication can help. As individuals, we can listen to people with different points of view about climate change and other even more divisive issues. We can educate others with whom we come into contact with about our own point of view; and we can be open to hearing theirs, and incorporating new information into our own thoughts. Attitudes can change. This is particularly true within the community that we share—Hunter College. In our community and beyond, we should endeavor to be tolerant of, respectful of, and even interested in opposing viewpoints while, of course, remaining intolerant of personal attacks. To a large extent, our ability to work together within our community and beyond is a matter of perception.

Allan Frei
Chair, Department of Geography, Hunter College
CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities