In Box

The Longitude of Latitude

Could rising temperatures hurt democracy?

Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Illustration by Matthew Hollister

"I’ve lived in good climate," John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, his 1962 chronicle of his trip around America, "and it bores the hell out of me."

At the time, Steinbeck was traipsing through New England, reminiscing about his dull days in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and other warm spots, and pondering the need for a little cold in a man’s life to "give [the warmth] sweetness." This is, of course, the same Steinbeck who won fame chronicling the lives of Oklahoman sharecroppers who gave up everything to reach California, where "it never gets cold" and "you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange."

The difference between how the Pulitzer Prize-winning Steinbeck experienced the gentle climes of Mexico and how the desperate Joad family dreamed of California was largely due to disparate resources. So says research by Dutch psychologist Evert Van de Vliert, who also argues that how people experience climate goes on to shape culture.

In a recent paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, titled "Climato-Economic Habitats Support Patterns of Human Needs, Stresses, and Freedoms," Van de Vliert argues that varying levels of freedoms around the world — from freedom of the press to freedom of speech to freedom from discrimination — can be explained by looking at the interaction between the challenges a climate poses and how much wealth a country has to address those challenges.

Freedoms are treated differently in countries that are inhospitable and poor, inhospitable and rich, and in countries — both rich and poor — where the weather is balmy, Van de Vliert argues. Poverty, he says, encourages those living in an inhospitable climate to see it as threatening — to respond with fear and a need for control, which results in lower levels of freedom (think Afghanistan, Belarus, or Sudan). Given adequate resources, however, a climate that is too hot or too cold becomes not a threat but a challenge to be conquered with the kind of creativity and open-mindedness that encourages high levels of freedom (think Canada, Finland, or Iceland).

These latter countries — poorly situated, but blessed with the resources to temper the effects of Mother Nature — tend to be freer than their temperate counterparts, where daily living involves a minimum of challenges, Van de Vliert concludes, using data from prior studies and new survey data across 85 countries. The model, he argues, has interesting consequences when global warming is factored in: Milder Februarys in Helsinki or a balmy Winnipeg winter could have adverse effects on freedom, Van de Vliert says. Meanwhile, poorer countries in frigid regions might actually gain freedoms as a result of climate change, as their environments become less threatening.

That climate has an impact on culture isn’t a new idea; Hippocrates, Ibn Khaldun, and Montesquieu all dabbled in geographical determinism. The idea found a ready audience in the colonial period, as Western explorers found explanations of national values and character in longitude and latitude. In the following decades, these theories quickly fell into disrepute in geography departments around the world. But as the potential effects of climate change loom larger, research on how the environment can affect pretty much everything is experiencing a resurgence. Heavy hitters from scientist Jared Diamond to economist Jeffrey Sachs have waded back into these turbulent waters.

The goal of his theory, Van de Vliert says, is to move beyond a straightforward story of how climate influences culture: to introduce more variables, like wealth. For the moment, the theory may raise more questions than it can answer: What do we make of rich but authoritarian countries in what could easily be considered a challenging climate, like Qatar? Should cold and hot climates be treated differently? (Yes, Van de Vliert says — but he left it out of this paper, for the sake of simplicity.) And what about countries where freedom levels have experienced wild swings, like Germany?

For now, perhaps the theory is best a blanket for those of us hunkering through long winters: When the thermometer drops into single digits, just think of how warm freedom is on the inside. And when it comes to visiting paradise, remember: Nice place to visit — wouldn’t want to live there.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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