3 Climate change: perceptions and behaviour

3.1 The perception of climate change risk

The IPCC defines adaptation to climate change as ‘adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial activities’. Adaptation takes place at many scales – individual, household, company and organisation – and is related to perceptions of climate risk.

While climate science has tended to focus on definitions of ‘dangerous’ climate change by experts, relatively little work has been undertaken to investigate how non-experts view climate change, a topic lying more within the remit of risk research. This is important, as gaps between definitions and perceptions of ‘dangerous’ climate change can make the task of formulating and delivering effective climate change policies more difficult. Where climate change is not seen as a sufficient risk, action via relevant treaties, regulations, taxes or subsidies may be constrained. A US study in 2003 found that Americans perceived climate change as a moderate risk with impacts mainly perceived to be in distant places and much later in time.

Perceptions of climate change develop from a number of factors: the likelihood of extreme impacts; concern over climate change (versus other global problems); motivation to take action; and responsibility for the problem of climate change. Films, reports or other media may increase the level of public concern about climate change and increase the motivation to act, but for this to be effective it is essential that people have information on what action they can take to mitigate climate change. Information can be direct (personally sensed or experienced) or indirect (e.g. reports, media) with direct information generally influencing individual decision-making more strongly. With the immediacy of burning, a risk such as fire is often felt as more direct than climate change, where the impacts may be removed (both spatially and temporally) from the point of emissions. Also, in the case of indirect information, risk perceptions are more likely to reflect the quality of reporting and the credibility of the source than actual levels of exposure or risk. Even where a source is seen as credible, if there is a gap in understanding (e.g. between the author of a scientific report and a member of the public), the information – however accurate – is less likely to lead to action.

The Tyndall Centre, citing a 2006 UK study, noted that climate change is increasingly communicated and discussed in the context of major impacts in order to highlight its importance and scale. However, research suggests that, while public concern about climate change has increased, behaviour has not been greatly affected. Even without the uncertainty about the human causes of climate change promoted by climate change sceptics, reasons include feelings of isolation, hopelessness, powerlessness and lack of public trust in government. When the perceived threat is greater than the ability to cope, related messages are rejected – essentially a defensive (if misplaced) response – and people may be demobilised and so do not effectively address the issues. Therefore, despite the strength of the scientific evidence of climate change, the translation into widespread policy and behavioural change remains challenging. However, recent research into perceptions by the US public found a more open attitude towards concerted national efforts to address climate change.

Activity 10

Comparing the 2003 and 2009 US reports, what are the main differences in perception? What do you think may have led to these differences?

2.7 UK emissions targets

3.2 The role of the media