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Shaping Climate Attitudes

By Taciano Milfont

People are more likely to support climate change mitigation when they are first confronted with the local adaptations that will be required.

Mitigation and adaptation are the main strategies to tackle climate change. Mitigation refers to actions to reduce the magnitude of long-term climate change, while adaptation refers to actions to respond and adjust to climate change impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long emphasised the interrelationship between mitigation and adaptation to counter the effects of human action on the climate, yet discussions around climate change adaptation have been slow compared to discussions on the mitigation of emissions.

The stronger focus on climate change mitigation has emerged from fears that highlighting the impacts may distract attention from reducing emissions. However, recent social science research has shown that discussing adaptation may actually increase people’s willingness to mitigate emissions.

One study conducted in Oregon, USA, observed an increased interest in mitigation action after residents discussed strategies to increase resilience to climate change impacts. Another US study showed that action-focused conversation with the community about the impacts of sea-level rise in Richmond (Virginia) and Tampa (Florida) yielded mitigation support, even among climate change deniers.

Expanding on these qualitative studies, we conducted an experiment, now published in Global Environmental Change (http://tinyurl.com/lncxwrv), with residents of the coastal districts of Wellington City and Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. We randomly assigned residents to only answer questions about climate change and mitigation, or to answer the mitigation questions after first considering local sea-level rise and the adaptation measures that could be taken in their region.

Examples of possible personal adaptation behaviours included increasing level of home insurance and collecting emergency survival items. Local council adaptation strategies included options such as accommodation (e.g. requiring floors of buildings to be raised), protection (e.g. building seawalls) and retreat (e.g. withdrawing from the shoreline).

When answering questions about mitigation, residents who first answered local adaptation questions were more willing to reduce their personal emissions than residents who only completed mitigation questions.

Similar to the USA findings, we observed that consideration of local adaptation options leads to a greater personal willingness to mitigate emissions, such as using public transport, eating less meat and flying less. We also observed that the results did not change depending on the residents’ uncertainties concerning anthropogenic climate change.

The positive effect of considering local adaptation on willingness to mitigate can be explained in terms of reduced psychological distance, which is one identified barrier that hinders risk perception associated with climate change. Other barriers include lack of knowledge and perceived political action, distrust of information sources, fatalism, and a “drop in the ocean” feeling.

Climate change is viewed as a distant threat because it tends to be perceived as having underlying uncertainties, occurring at a distant point in time, far away geographically, or affecting people who are different from ourselves. Perceived psychological distance hinders solutions because the more people believe that climate change is distant, the less likely they are to take action in the here and now.

Our experiment showed that considering local adaptation increased people’s willingness to act. This is possibly due to reducing perceived distance by reflecting on the impacts of sea-level rise on the local region. Indeed, an increasing number of psychological studies have shown that lowering perceived psychological distance (i.e. “climate change is certain and is already affecting people like me in my region”) leads to an increase in concern and a willingness to act.

These results stress the importance of discussing both adaptation and mitigation options, and has implications for Australia. Discussions of climate change adaptation – once seen as “taboo” – now appear essential for climate change perception, understanding, and action. Discussing immediate local adaptation to the more extreme recent IPCC projections may have a positive spill-over effect on personal emissions-reducing behaviours.

Climate change advocates should not fear that discussion of adaptation might distract attention from the importance of carbon emission mitigation and climate change prevention.

Taciano Milfont is Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, and Fellow of the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.