IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Informational and cognitive barriers

Extensive evidence from psychological research indicates that uncertainty about future climate change combines with individual and social perceptions of risk, opinions and values to influence judgment and decision-making concerning climate change (Oppenheimer and Todorov, 2006). It is increasingly clear that interpretations of danger and risk associated with climate change are context specific (Lorenzoni et al., 2005) and that adaptation responses to climate change can be limited by human cognition (Grothmann and Patt, 2005; Moser, 2005). Four main perspectives on informational and cognitive constraints on individual responses (including adaptation) to climate change emerge from the literature.

1. Knowledge of climate change causes, impacts and possible solutions does not necessarily lead to adaptation. Well-established evidence from the risk, cognitive and behavioural psychology literatures points to the inadequacy of the ‘deficit model’ of public understanding of science, which assumes that providing individuals with scientifically sound information will result in information assimilation, increased knowledge, action and support for policies based on this information (Eden, 1998; Sturgis and Allum, 2004; Lorenzoni et al., 2005). Individuals’ interpretation of information is mediated by personal and societal values and priorities, personal experience and other contextual factors (Irwin and Wynne, 1996). As a consequence, an individual’s awareness and concern either do not necessarily translate into action, or translate into limited action (Baron, 2006; Weber, 2006). This is also known as the ‘value-action’ or ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap (Blake, 1999) and has been shown in a small number of studies to be a significant barrier to adaptation action (e.g., Patt and Gwata, 2002).

2. Perceptions of climate change risks are differing. A small but growing literature addresses the psychological dimensions of evaluating long-term risk; most focuses on behaviour changes in relation to climate change mitigation policies. However, some studies have explored the behavioural foundations of adaptive responses, including the identification of thresholds, or points at which adaptive behaviour begins (e.g., Grothmann and Patt, 2005). Key findings from these studies point to different types of cognitive limits to adaptive responses to climate change. For example, Niemeyer et al. (2005) found that thresholds of rapid climate change may induce different individual responses influenced by trust in others (e.g., institutions, collective action, etc.), resulting in adaptive, non-adaptive, and maladaptive behaviours. Hansen et al. (2004) found evidence for a finite pool of worry among farmers in the Argentine Pampas. As concern about one type of risk increases, worry about other risks decreases. Consequently, concerns about violent conflict, disease and hunger, terrorism, and other risks may overshadow considerations about the impacts of climate change and adaptation. This work also indicates, consistently with findings in the wider climate change risk literature (e.g., Moser and Dilling, 2004), that individuals tend to prioritise the risks they face, focusing on those they consider – rightly or wrongly – to be the most significant to them at that particular point in time. Furthermore, a lack of experience of climate-related events may inhibit adequate responses. It has been shown, for instance, that the capacity to adapt among resource-dependent societies in southern Africa is high if based on adaptations to previous changes (Thomas et al., 2005). Although concern about climate change is widespread and high amongst publics in western societies, it is not ‘here and now’ or a pressing personal priority for most people (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon, 2006). Weber (2006) found that strong visceral reactions towards the risk of climate change are needed to provoke adaptive behavioural changes.

3. Perceptions of vulnerability and adaptive capacity are important. Psychological research, for example, has provided empirical evidence that those who perceive themselves to be vulnerable to environmental risks, or who perceive themselves to be victims of injustice, also perceive themselves to be more at risk from environmental hazards of all types (Satterfield et al., 2004). Furthermore, perceptions by the vulnerable of barriers to actually adapting do, in fact, limit adaptive actions, even when there are capacities and resources to adapt. Grothman and Patt (2005) examined populations living with flood risk in Germany and farmers dealing with drought risk in Zimbabwe in order to better understand cognitive constraints. They found that action was determined by both perceived abilities to adapt and observable capacities to adapt. They conclude that a divergence between perceived and actual adaptive capacity is a real barrier to adaptive action. Moser (2005) similarly finds that perceived barriers to action are a major constraint in coastal planning for sea-level rise in the United States.

4. Appealing to fear and guilt does not motivate appropriate adaptive behaviour. In fact, communications research has shown that appealing to fear and guilt does not succeed in fostering sustained engagement with the issue of climate change (Moser and Dilling, 2004). Analysis of print media portrayal of climate change demonstrates public confusion when scientific arguments are contrasted in a black-and-white, for-and-against manner (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Carvalho and Burgess, 2005; Ereaut and Segnit, 2006). Calls for effective climate-change communication have focused on conveying a consistent, sound message, with the reality of anthropogenic climate change at its core. This, coupled with ma

king climate change personally relevant through messages of practical advice on individual actions, helps to embed responses in people’s locality. Visualisation imagery is being increasingly explored as a useful contribution to increasing the effectiveness of communication about climate change risks (e.g., Nicholson-Cole, 2005; Sheppard, 2005).

Overall, the psychological research reviewed here indicates that an individual’s awareness of an issue, knowledge, personal experience, and a sense of urgency of being personally affected, constitute necessary but insufficient conditions for behaviour or policy change. Perceptions of risk, of vulnerability, motivation and capacity to adapt will also affect behavioural change. These perceptions vary among individuals and groups within populations. Some can act as barriers to adapting to climate change. Policymakers need to be aware of these barriers, provide structural support to overcome them, and concurrently work towards fostering individual empowerment and action.