Examining public perceptions of climate change risk: The role of personal experience, emotion, and statistical descriptions (Priestley Doctoral Scholarships)


Dr Sally Russell, Dr Emmanouil Konstantinidis, Dr Yasmina Okan

Project description

Public perceptions of climate change risk play a key role in people’s willingness to engage in mitigation and adaptation behaviours. The IPCC suggests that education, information, and community approaches can accelerate the wide scale behaviour changes necessary to adapt and to limit global warming to 1.5°C (IPCC, 2018).

Public perceptions of climate change risk, however, do not always align with those of climate scientists (Taylor et al., 2014; Weber, 2010). Non-experts often underestimate impacts of climate change (e.g., heat-related threats; Taylor et al., 2017), and as a result may be less willing to take action on climate change.

This project focuses on two key mechanisms that shape perceptions of climate change risk (Weber, 2010). The first mechanism is people’s personal experience with extreme weather events, which increases climate change concerns, and associated emotions (e.g., Akerlof et al., 2013; Broomell et al., 2015). This, in turn, affects willingness to engage in mitigation or adaptation behaviours (McDonald et al., 2015).

The second key mechanism involves communications of projected climate change (e.g., numerical or graphical descriptions of projected rainfall and associated likelihoods). However, communications of climate change risks are often difficult for people to interpret (Budescu et al., 2014), even among stakeholders who face decisions about adaptation (Lorenz et al., 2015; Taylor et al., 2015).

Communications that are difficult to interpret may capture people’s attention to a lesser extent, limiting their effectiveness to motivate willingness to take action. The proposed project will apply insights from the fields of behavioural decision making, risk perception and communication, and environmental psychology to examine how personal experience and statistical descriptions affect public perceptions of climate change risks in the UK.

Specific project objectives are: (1) To examine public understanding of climate risks, associated emotional reactions and willingness to implement mitigation and adaptation actions; (2) To assess the relative impact of presenting estimates of climate change risks (e.g., from the Met Office) through personal experience (e.g., Dutt & Gonzalez, 2012) vs. simple statistical descriptions (e.g., simple graphs suitable for heterogeneous audiences; Okan et al., 2015); and (3) To test the effectiveness of an intervention to reduce biases in public perceptions of climate change risks (e.g., underestimations), and promote willingness to take action, building on insights from previous steps.

Project objectives will be achieved through a mixed-methodology that forms the building blocks of developing effective risk communications (Bruine de Bruin & Bostrom, 2013), including interviews, lab-based experiments (e.g., simulations manipulating exposure to climate risks; Dutt & Gonzalez, 2012), and measuring emotions physiologically; Russell, Craddy & Ross, under review), and online surveys.

The use of computational cognitive modelling approaches will ensure that observed behaviour (e.g., from lab experiments and online surveys) can be decomposed in its constituent processes (Konstantinidis & Shanks, 2014). This will provide deeper insights as to the causes, mechanisms, and moderating effects of perceptions of climate change risks.

Key benefits

The Priestley International Centre for Climate brings together researchers cross-campus to deliver excellent research to underpin robust and timely climate solutions. Leeds has outstanding reputation for climate related research with more than 170 experts and 110 PhD researchers and an active research grant portfolio of over £70m.

The Priestley Centre supports a range of events, activities and opportunities to foster exciting interdisciplinary collaborations including our Climate Exchange seminar series and public engagement events, Piers Sellers Prizes, Priestley Society and Priestley Climate Scholars. Find out more at http://climate.leeds.ac.uk/.

Entry requirements

Applications are invited from candidates with or expecting a minimum of a UK upper second class honours degree (2:1) or equivalent, and/or a Master's degree in the relevant subject area.

If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University’s minimum English Language requirements.

How to apply

Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the university's website.

If you require any further information, please contact the Graduate School Office e: apply-phd@see.leeds.ac.uk, or t: +44 (0)113 343 1634.

We welcome scholarship applications from all suitably-qualified candidates, but UK black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers are currently under-represented in our Postgraduate Research community, and we would therefore particularly encourage applications from UK BME candidates. All scholarships will be awarded on the basis of merit.