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Public understandings of climate change

Psychological research on risk perception explores how people perceive, appraise and understand environmental problems and how concerned people are (or not), and how motivated they are (or not) to take action. This is what we refer to as the ‘public’s understanding of climate change’.

The more we know about how people are feeling, thinking and doing in relation to climate change, then the more we are able to help them respond in useful ways – in ways that both reduce the threats of climate change as well as prepare people to adapt to the changes that cannot be avoided.

Key points

  • How people make sense of facts does not simply follow from rational interpretations of scientific evidence, and there are number of psychological ways we try to manage a sense of risk.
  • Humans are prone to exaggerate some risks and minimise others. We tend to exaggerate risks that are spectacular, beyond personal control, much discussed, highly visible, or that affect them personally, and are imposed by a clear enemy.
  • We tend to downplay risks that are common, familiar, invisible, long-term, gradual, natural, affect others not self, and lack any clear ‘bad guy’. Unfortunately, climate change is often described in these terms:
    • It is caused by commonplace, natural, invisible gases (although excessive amounts of these are emitted by human behaviour, which is the major problem).
    • It is seen as slow moving (although many would actually argue that it is taking place at breakneck speed).
    • It is often described in abstract, scientific terms, which makes it harder for people to engage with.
  • Climate change can often seem distant in space. Most people tend to see the worst environmental problems as being global or far away from them. However, people’s feelings of responsibility for the environment are greatest at the neighbourhood level.
  • People can also see climate change as distant in time. The worst impacts are far off in time so it still feels distant from everyday concerns.
  • Climate change can also feel socially distant and not a problem that individuals can solve. As a global problem that requires global solutions, it is easy to think that world leaders, governments, and multinationals should solve it, not us.
  • The ways people see the risks associated with climate change are significantly influenced by their values, beliefs, worldviews and cultural identity, which gives rise to the confirmation bias. We automatically look for information that confirms what we already think, want or feel, and filter away opposing information. People who are already concerned about climate change, for example, will read more news that confirms it. People who don’t believe in it, or who are heavily invested in a world governed by fossil fuels, might prefer news that questions climate science.
  • System justification is the tendency to be resistant to changes to the ‘system’ we are familiar with, defend the status quo and to see the way things are now as right and just. People engaging in system justification are likely to selectively attend to information about climate change that does not threaten their current way of life.
  • People often experience cognitive dissonance when what they know (e.g. that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change) conflicts with what they do (driving, flying, etc). If it’s hard to change behaviour (because your lifestyle is car dependent), then it’s often easier to change your thinking, and tell yourself things like: ‘Well, compared to China, our emissions in Australia aren’t really that big. What I do won’t make much difference.’ This is faulty thinking, because our huge per capita contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions make an enormous impact on climate change.

How the APS is involved


APA Society’s Grand Challenges: Insights from Psychological Science-Global Climate Change– Booklet written by Etienne Benson, Available athttp://www.apa.org/research/action/gc-climate-change.pdf.

Stuart Capstick, S., Whitmarsh, L., Poortinga, W., Pidgeon, N., Upham, P. (2015). International trends in public perceptions of climate change over the past quarter century. WIREs Climate Change, 6:35–61. doi: 10.1002/wcc.321.

Hine, D.W., Reser, J., Phillips, W. J., Cooksey, R, Marks, A. D. G. , Nunn, P., Watt, S.E., Bradley, G.L.,Glendon, A.I. (2013).Identifying climate change interpretive communities in a large Australian sample. Journalof Environmental Psychology, 36, 229-239.

Leviston, Z., Greenhill, M., & Walker, I. (2015) Australians attitudes to climate change and adaptation: 2010-2014. CSIRO, Australia.https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP158008&dsid=DS2

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Smith, N., & Hmielowski, J. D. (2012).Extreme weather, climate preparedness in the American mind. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Retrieved fromhttp://environment.yale.edu/climate/publications/extreme-weather-climate-preparedness/

Loewenstein, G. F., Weber, E. U., Hsee, C. K., & Welch, E. (2001). Risk as feelings.Psychological Bulletin, 127, 267-286.

PEW Research Centre (2015). Global Attitudes Survey. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/05/global-concern-about-climate-change-broad-support-for-limiting-emissions/

Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L., & Ellul, M.C. (2014). Encountering climate change: ‘seeing’ is more than ‘believing’. WIREs Climate Change, 5, 521–537. doi: 10.1002/wcc.286

Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., Glendon, A. I., Ellul, M. C., & Callaghan, R. (2012).Public RiskPerceptions, Understandings, and Responses to Climate Change and Natural Disasters in Australiaand Great Britain,Gold Coast, Australia: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/public-risk-perceptions-final

Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L., Gendon, A.I., Ellul, M.C. & Callaghan, R. (2012)Public risk perceptions, understandings, and responses to climate change and natural disasters, 2010 and 2011.Gold Coast, Qld: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/public-risk-perceptions-second-survey

Slovic, P. (2000).The Perception of Risk.Earthscan, London.

Stanford University Climate Public Opinion.Series of national surveys, regional surveys, and experiments on the American Public's opinion of global warming.

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E.,Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 6. 758-763.

Weber, E. U. & Stern, P.C. (2011). Public understanding of climate change in the United States.American Psychologist, 66, 4,315-328

Wolf, J. & Moser, S. (2011) Individual understandings, perceptions, and engagement with climate change: Insights from in-depth studies across the world.WIREs Climate Change, 2, 547-569.

Yale Project: The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.http://environment.yale.edu/climate/publications/extreme-weather-climate-preparednes