Are Illiteracy and Culture Barriers to Climate Adaptation?

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Climate adaptation platform education and culture barriers to climate adaptation

Climate change will be harder on the uneducated because illiteracy and lack of education prevent people from changing their ways even though traditional practices are proving ineffective or failing due to the changing weather patterns.   

In contrast, educated people are better at adapting to the changing situation, they seek out information to guide decision-making, and their enhanced cognitive skills make them willing to change risky behaviour, which leads to better health, makes them physically able to adapt and allows them to earn more which can come in handy during difficult situations.

According to The Economist article “Climate change is harder on less educated people”, when faced with changing weather patterns through lingering droughts, erratic rainfall, and water scarcity, educated people have access to information that allows them to change their farming practices and choose more climate-resilient crops with the result of having better productivity and profit compared to their uneducated peers who stick to their old ways.

The willingness to change their behaviour to adapt to the changing climate makes people more resilient to the impacts of climate change, while the lack thereof makes them vulnerable.

Culture combined with illiteracy can also act as a strong barrier to adaptation. The Economist article, “Why Peruvian villagers tore down a flood-warning system”, shares a story of the indigenous residents in Hualcán, a village in Peru, who dismantled the antennae at Lake 513, a part of the early warning system back in 2016, because they blamed it for stealing the rain and sending them drought.

The antennae sit at Lake 513, one of the lakes that form below the country’s tropical glaciers as it melts due to climate change, and part of the system of sensors, video cameras, and radio signals that trigger sirens to a downstream community when disasters in the form of floods and landslides struck.

The story highlights the difficulty in helping the indigenous communities adapt to climate change.

Why Peruvian (2022) narrates, “Christian Huggel of the University of Zurich, who spent four years developing the dismantled system, says his team underestimated the cultural challenges. For locals, water scarcity seems more urgent than a disaster that may never happen. Similarly, in Huaraz, a city where thousands live in a flood path, some residents have opposed mapping flood risks because of concerns about property values.”

A study by Nielsen, J.Ø. and Reenberg, A. in 2010, “Cultural barriers to climate change adaptation: a case study from Northern Burkina Faso”, says that human adaptation to climate change involves a diverse process and that culture together with class and gender plays a role whether adaptation strategies are either accepted or rejected at a local scaled.

The paper looks into the adaptation strategies in adapting to droughts by the two main ethnic groups in the small village in Northern Burkina Faso and finds that for one of the ethnic groups, Fulbe, culture acts as a significant barrier to embracing four of the most successful livelihood strategies: labour migration, working for development projects, gardening, and the engagement of women in economic activities.

Culture should not be viewed as a barrier but as a mediator of climate change adaptation.

A study by Few, Spear, et al. titled “Culture as a mediator of climate change adaptation: Neither static nor unidirectional” mentions that practitioners and policymakers involved in adaptation tend to view culture in an overly narrow and fixed term, portraying conservating cultural norms as stifling positive change, but a growing body of research across the world shows that the reality is not as simple as this; instead, culture works in a complex and variable way, and above all, it is inherently dynamic.

More excerpts from “Culture as a mediator of climate change adaptation: Neither static nor unidirectional” are below:

“Drawing especially from research on vulnerability and adaptation conducted in semi-arid regions, we illustrate this argument by briefly exploring three themes—multiple knowledge systems for farming in Botswana, the dynamics of pastoralist values and livelihoods in Kenya, and the interplay of caste and livelihood choices in India. Understanding how different facets of culture such as these operate in context helps move away from viewing culture statically as a barrier or enabler and toward a more plural and dynamic appreciation of the role of culture in adaptation. This includes recognising the potential for factors that may be construed as barriers to become enablers.”

The authors suggest that a “Critical, balanced engagement with cultural dimensions in both research and practice, understanding and working with these dynamic social structures, is essential if adaptation is to create meaningful and lasting change for those who need it most.”

The IPCC Working Group II 2007 report explains how culture can act as a barrier to climate adaptation and how climate adaptation can be implemented successfully amid this challenge.

Below are some salient points we have quoted from the report

  • “Social and cultural limits to adaptation can be related to how people and groups experience, interpret and respond to climate change. Depending on their worldviews, values and beliefs, individuals and groups may have different risk tolerances and preferences regarding adaptation measures. Conflicting understandings can impede adaptive actions. Differential power and access to decision-makers may promote adaptive responses by some while constraining them for others. Thomas and Twyman (2005) analysed natural-resource policies in southern Africa and showed that even so-called community-based interventions to reduce vulnerability create excluded groups without access to decision-making. In addition, diverse understandings and prioritisations of climate change issues across different social and cultural groups can limit adaptive responses”.
  • “Most analyses of adaptation propose that successful adaptations involve marginal changes to material circumstances rather than wholesale changes in location and development paths.”
  • When implementing climate adaptation strategies like migration, resettlement, and relocation, the IPCC suggests that marginal or minute changes be made because when done on a large scale, these adaptive measures are associated with high social costs and unacceptable impacts on human rights and sustainability.


Climate change is harder on less educated people. (2022 June 1). The Economist. Retrieved from

Why Peruvian villagers tore down a flood-warning system. (2022, June 2). The Economist. Retrieved from

Nielsen, J.Ø. & Reenberg, A. (2010). Cultural barriers to climate change adaptation: a case study from Northern Burkina Faso. [Abstract]. Global Environmental Change Vol. 20 No. 1. pp.142-152. Retrieved from

Few, R., Spear, D., Singh, C., Tebboth, M. G. L., Davies, J. E., & Thompson‐Hall, M. C.. (2021). Culture as a mediator of climate change adaptation: Neither static nor unidirectional. Wires Climate Change12(1).

Social and cultural barriers. Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. IPCC. Retrieved from

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