Research Summary

Using social representations theory to make sense of climate change: what scientists and nonscientists in Australia think

Word Association Task Measures Perceptions of Climate Change

Ecology and Society

Understanding climate change is elusive. Climate change cannot be seen, touched, smelled, or heard; it is intangible and, therefore, to understand it, it must be conceptualized. Accurately communicating and conceptualizing climate change is challenging as it has a vast scale and magnitude, is layered in complexity, and is riddled with uncertainty. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that individuals’ environmental and political views strongly influence how they perceive climate change. Some perceptions can be counterproductive to accurately understanding climate change. Prior research, for example, has found that 61% of Americans associate climate change with geographically and psychologically distant events. This sense of distance can generate feelings of disempowerment or avoidance of an issue that is perceived to be too large and overwhelming or someone else’s problem.

The authors of this study used a word association task to understand how different groups in Australia—scientists, government employees, and community members— perceive climate change. In this task, participants wrote down the first words that came to mind when thinking about climate change. The task was included as part of an online survey, which had 5,036 respondents from metropolitan, regional, and rural Australia. A nearly identical survey was also administered at a scientific conference on climate change (n=103), to the Victoria State Government Department of Sustainability and Environment (n=68), and to members of the general public (n=229). The first three words of each respondent were collected, amounting to 8,650 words total.

The data were organized based on the self-identification of the respondent, categorized by three groupings: (1) scientist (including academics and researchers), (2) government employee, and (3) community member. Words were homogenized to account for semantic differences, and the frequency magnitude for each word was calculated to account for differences in sample sizes among the different groups.

The word most frequently used by all three groups of respondents was “hot.” Other frequently used words and phrases were: dry, weather, pollution, global warming, sea level, carbon dioxide, water, and melting ice caps. These words and phrases illustrate a common perception of the tangible, physical effects of climate change on the environment.

Commonalities of climate change conceptions were also seen within different groups. Government employees, for example, associated climate change with issues and impacts they expect to confront, such as disaster, food security, water, and future. Responses received from scientists and community members shared more commonalities than government employees and elicited responses demonstrating a conception of cause and effects (e.g., temperature, storms, and flooding), as well as social responses (e.g., politics). Scientists were more likely to associate climate change with attributes of weather, such as weather changes and extreme weather, and made associations with the nature of climate change as uncertain, inevitable, and adaptable. Community members were more likely to associate climate change with causal effects, such as pollution, and the consequences of climate change, such as dry and melting ice caps.

These elicited responses illustrate a tangible perception of climate change among Australians. Although this does not mean respondents agree with these associations, they are aware that these associations exist, increasing the possibility of public discourse. Some challenges to this discourse may be the perceptions of weather versus climate. Scientists, government employees, and community members shared a number of word categories relating to weather, which suggests a lack of understanding about climate and climate change. Personal experiences with local weather, for example, influence perceptions of climate change, highlighting misconceptions between weather and climate. Another challenge, and concern, is the lack of anthropogenic-related responses from community members (e.g., mass migration due to sea-level rise and famine). This suggests a perception of climate change in which human activity is not an influencing factor.

As exhibited by the use of the term “inevitable” by scientists, the impacts of climate change can no longer be avoided. To that end, scientific and research institutions are shifting their focus from mitigation and intervention to adaptation. The question has become: How do we adapt to the changing climate? While “adapting to climate change” is a phrase increasingly used by scientists, nonscientists have not yet adopted this new perception, suggesting a miscommunication between scientific and nonscientific communities.

The Bottom Line

Climate change is a large, abstract topic and, therefore, people often hold different perceptions—and misperceptions—about what it is, how it is caused, and what to do about it. A quick way to assess people’s understandings or misunderstandings about climate change or to motivate an open discussion about the topic is to invite them to list all the words they associate with climate change. The larger brainstormed list can be shared with the group as a prompt for discussion or can be typed into an online word-cloud generator to see which types or clusters of words appear most frequently. Such strategies can be used pre- and post-assessment to bookend units on climate change and, in a classroom setting, may also help quickly ascertain student preconceptions.