How People Understand Climate Change and Climate Risks

Climate change represents a special challenge for human comprehension (Fischhoff, 2007; Marx and Weber, 2009). To make decisions about climate change, a basic understanding of the processes of climate change and of how to evaluate the associated risks and potential benefits would be helpful for most audiences. However, despite several decades of exposure to information about climate change, such understanding is still widely lacking. A number of recent scientific analyses (Leiserowitz, 2007; Maibach et al., 2010; Moser and Tribbia, 2006, 2007; Wilson, 2002; see also NRC, 2010b) have identified some of the comprehension challenges people—including both the general public and trained professional in some fields—face in making decisions about how to respond to climate change.

First, because of the inherent uncertainties, projections of future climate change are often presented in terms of probabilities. Cognitive studies have established that humans have difficulty in processing probabilistic information, relying instead on cogni tive shortcuts that may deviate substantially from what would result from a careful analysis (e.g., Gigerenzer, 2008; Nichols, 1999).

Second, the time scale of climate change makes it difficult for most people to observe these changes in their daily lives. Climate change impacts are not yet dramatically noticeable in the most populated regions of the United States, and even rapid climate change takes place over decades, making it difficult for people to notice unless they look at historical records (Bostrom and Lashof, 2007; Moser, 2010). Scientists are only beginning to understand how recent and longer-term trends in weather influence perceptions of climate change (Hamilton and Keim, 2009; Joireman et al., in press). It is also difficult to unambiguously attribute individual weather events to climate change, and climate change is easily displaced by events people perceive as exceptional or simply as more important at any one time (Fischhoff, 2007; Marx and Weber, 2009; Marx et al., 2007; Weber, 2006).

Third, people commonly use analogies, associations, or simplified mental models to communicate or comprehend climate change, and these simplifications can result in significant misunderstandings. For example, climate change is sometimes confused with other types of pollution or with other global atmospheric problems (especially the stratospheric ozone "hole," which some people erroneously think leads to global warming by allowing more solar radiation to enter the atmosphere) (Bostrom et al., 1994; Brechin, 2003; Kempton, 1991). Likewise, confusing the atmospheric lifetimes of GHGs with those of conventional air pollutants sometimes leads people to the erroneous inference that if emissions stop, the climate change problem will rapidly go away (Bostrom and Lashof, 2007; Morgan et al., 2001; Sterman, 2008; Sterman and Booth Sweeney, 2007).

Fourth, individual information processing is influenced by social processes, including the "frames" people apply when deciding how to assess new information, the trust they have in sources providing new information, and the views of those to whom they are connected in social networks (Durfee, 2006; Morgan et al., 2001; Moser and Dilling, 2007; Nisbet and Mooney, 2007; NRC, 2010b; Pidgeon et al., 2008). Information that is consistent with, rather than incongruent with, existing beliefs and values is more likely to be accepted, as is information from trusted sources (Bishr and Mantelas, 2008; Cash et al., 2003; Critchley, 2008; Cvetkovich and Loefstedt, 1999).

These challenges demonstrate the importance of understanding how people—acting as consumers, citizens, or members of organizations and social networks— comprehend climate change, and how these cognitive processes influence climate-relevant decisions and behaviors. Fundamental knowledge of risk perception provides a basis for this understanding (e.g., NRC, 1996; Pidgeon et al., 2003; Renn, 2008; Slovic,

2000), but this knowledge needs to be extended and elaborated (e.g., Lorenzoni et al., 2005; Lowe, 2006; O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). A wide range of relevant theories and concepts have been advanced in various branches of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as well as the political, pedagogic, and decision sciences (among others), but these have yet to be more fully synthesized and applied to climate change (Moser, 2010). Improved knowledge of how individuals, groups, networks, and organizations understand climate change and make decisions for responding to environmental changes can inform the design and evaluation of tools that better support decision making (NRC, 2009g).

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