PUBLISHED ONLINE: 20 MARCH 2011 | DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1059
Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to ﬂood experience
A. Spence1 *, W. Poortinga2 , C. Butler3 and N. F. Pidgeon3 *
One of the reasons that people may not take action to mitigate climate change is that they lack ﬁrst-hand experience of its potential consequences. From this perspective,individuals who have direct experience of phenomena that may be linked to climate change would be more likely to be concerned by the issue and thus more inclined to undertake sustainable behaviours. So far, the evidence available to test this hypothesis is limited, and in part contradictory1–4 . Here we use national survey data collected from 1,822 individuals across the UK in 2010, to examine thelinks between direct ﬂooding experience, perceptions of climate change and preparedness to reduce energy use. We show that those who report experience of ﬂooding express more concern over climate change, see it as less uncertain and feel more conﬁdent that their actions will have an effect on climate change. Importantly, these perceptual differences also translate into a greater willingness to saveenergy to mitigate climate change. Highlighting links between local weather events and climate change is therefore likely to be a useful strategy for increasing concern and action. Climate change targets for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions have now been instituted across many developed and developing nations. Research demonstrates that these targets are unlikely to be met without majorchanges in societal structures that will necessarily require engagement of the wider public, for example to achieve more efficient or reduced energy use5,6 . Although for many years a majority of individuals have expressed concern about climate change in the UK, as elsewhere, an examination of polling data in recent years actually reveals a small decline in concern, alongside an increase in scepticismregarding its seriousness and anthropogenic causes7–9 . Indeed, public perceptions typically reflect a much lower concern about climate change than is expressed by climate scientists, potentially owing, in part, to the public’s lack of personal experience with climate impacts10,11 . Psychological research indicates that one reason for a lack of concern about climate change may be the perceptionthat it is a distant issue. Lay people tend to perceive areas that are vulnerable to climate change impacts as geographically distant—at least in Western countries12,13 . This relates to research within the domain of embodied social cognition that links distance, and in particular spatial distance, with the dampening of reactions and judgements14 . These observations logically lead to the idea thathighlighting the links between local events and climate change may encourage people to engage with the issue15 and to take action to mitigate potential impacts. Indeed, personal experience is thought to be a key driver of risk perceptions, and the perceived likelihood of a risk is found to increase if it has recently been experienced or can readily be imagined16 . Relating local events to climatechange may also have perceptual and behavioural impacts to the extent that these help to
make the issues less distant and more tangible. It might be expected that experiencing some kind of (generally negative) event that could be attributed to climate change would leave people feeling helpless. However, goal-setting theory17 highlights the benefits of setting concrete, specific goals inincreasing instrumentality (that is, an individual’s belief that actions will lead to outcomes) and the likelihood of subsequent action being taken. In line with this, if people are better able to relate to the potential consequences of climate change impacts, they may also be more likely to feel that their behaviour can lead to changes in these impacts. Climate change itself is not directly observable...
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