The cultural consequences of climate change

Patchy snow dotting the grass around the Sellick Bowl is evidence of sudden increases in temperature this February. Photo by Natalie Goo


Students are bombarded with accounts of the climate crisis every day. Scientists sound the alarm about looming changes in weather patterns while news feeds fill with fires and floods. Students are beginning to realize the gravity of the situation, as they will bear the physical and monetary burden of these disasters. 

However, an unintended consequence of disaster-messaging is that people may only recognize climate change in large-scale events. This runs the risk of overlooking the ways that daily life has already been affected. Major shifts can be found not only in faraway places on TV but within our own communities. 

Cultural areas such as work and recreation have been forced to adjust to the new realities of unpredictable weather. 

First-year environmental studies major Hugh Weatherly recounted how his shift as a lifeguard in Illinois was canceled due to dim and smoky skies during the Canadian wildfires in the summer of 2023

“I could look up in the sky, almost straight at the sun, and I could only see a red ball in the sky,” Weatherly said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is the apocalypse. What’s going on?’” 

Weatherly’s ability to work — and people’s ability to relax by the pool in summer — were disrupted by a fire in another country. Jarring scenes of the effects of seemingly distant ecological events will become more and more common as time goes on. Events such as droughts and floods could break globalized supply chains that are vulnerable to even a single disruption. How communities understand work and play may change, both due to limited accessibility to products once taken for granted and locally changing weather patterns. 

The standard for what a normal environment looks like has become blurred. Orange skies and acrid smoke are strange in Illinois — for now — but are already an accepted element of life in places like California where fires are common. Humans have adapted to change their expectations as the world around them changes. This ability allows humans to thrive in an impressive array of situations, but it means shifts in the environment can be difficult to notice. 

Dr. Jesse Van Gerven, an assistant professor of science, technology and environmental studies, has observed the intergenerational differences between his youth and his children’s. 

“My kids are growing up in a world where it snows twice a winter,” Van Gerven said. “That’s not the way I grew up, [but] they’re never going to know anything different. It’s not going to be perceived as a loss for them.” 

Communities where frigid temperatures used to be the norm lose more than snowflakes when winter heats up. Consciously or not, people rely on the seasons to help them keep track of time. 60-degree weather in February sounds lovely, but it creates a flicker of unease in the Midwest. Fleeting abnormalities are signs of the large-scale, permanent environmental changes to come. Something is wrong with the world even if people can’t put their finger on it at the moment. 

That unease is combined with a cascade of lost opportunities from sledding to snowball fights. These experiences are part of a common cultural language. Parents use winter activities to share the joys of their own childhood with their children in a way that words alone could never express. 

The next generation is limited by what they perceive as the natural state of the world. They may work to restore the ecosystems that they know, but these ecosystems have already been drastically altered. This makes it vital to pass on memories of the environment. The knowledge that the world used to be different, and that it can be changed, is what will drive efforts to imagine a more sustainable future. 

In the meantime, the goals of climate activism are shifting from convincing people that climate change is real to encouraging them to act on that knowledge. People must be encouraged to become personally invested in combating climate change without falling into nihilism

Hannah Howard, a junior environmental studies major and the president of EcoReps, observed how communities that were formerly sheltered from the effects of climate change can struggle to accept the trade-offs necessary to combat it. 

“In America, people don’t want to give things up,” Howard said. “[But] some people have had to make those analytical decisions all the time. I think we’re seeing more privileged [communities] have to make those choices. Unfortunately, people don’t notice things until the dominant social group does.” 

Marginalized communities have borne the brunt of pollution and natural disasters for decades. Recognizing this fact is vital to ensuring that campaigns to combat climate change are equitable and do not cause further suffering. An increased willingness to call out corporations for their emissions and greenwashing as well as celebrities for their private jet usage reflects this recognition. 

People’s voices are their most powerful tool for creating a positive impact, especially those of students. Van Gerven encourages his students to find places where they can magnify their voices. 

“You [can] convince your friends and family to shop and act more sustainably,” Van Gerven said. “That’s great — we’re making progress by addition that way. But what we need right now is [progress] by multiplication, and policy is how you [do that].” 

Students can use their influence in universities, offices and places of worship to change local policy. These larger institutions can then throw their weight behind state and national policies. Taking action from the ground up ensures that the communities most affected by climate change are not overlooked. 

If students are seeking to get involved at Butler University, they can join EcoReps or participate in the events that EcoReps host. Past activities have included student clothing exchanges and plarning, which is repurposing shopping bags to create knitted mats for people experiencing homelessness. 

“The little things that you’re doing are making a difference,” Howard said. “You can [share what you learn] with peers at school. Advocate for broader change, and don’t let big corporations get away with this stuff.”


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