The significance and influence of personal experience when climate change comes home

by | Jul 23, 2020

What is the nature, psychological significance, and issue engagement influence of personal experience when it comes to climate change?

Image credit: NOAA

The focus of this article is the nature, psychological significance, and issue engagement influence of personal experience of climate change, drawing on research published between January 2014 and midyear 2019, and following an initial review of emergent findings and issues covering a similar period (Reser, Bradley & Ellul, 2014). We undertook these sequenced reviews as social and environmental psychologists engaged in Australian and cross-national research addressing a central “human dimension” of climate change, in the broader context of largely survey research on public risk perceptions, understandings, and issue engagement responses to climate change. These involvements highlighted, for us, the many underlying issues and challenges conceptual, language, methodological, cross-disciplinary, and strategic associated with this broad research front.

Research and policy questions implied but rarely stated include: What is the nature and changing incidence of such perceived encounters? How salient and significant are such experiences with respect to acceptance of the reality of global change, its psychological proximity as distinct from “distance”, perceived gravity and implications, and personal significance, influence, and impacts?

The issues we encountered tell us as much about current fault-lines in this body of research as they do about personal encounters with perceived climate change. These include differing disciplinary assumptive worlds, methods, problematic levels of analysis, an absence of construct specification and “measurement”, and extent of familiarity with individual, personal-experience-based research, and science/humanities transdisciplinary research generally in this arena of climate change.

It is remarkable that many researchers addressing “exposure to” and “experience of” climate change, for example in the common use of a severe flooding event as an “evidence-based” regional case of a community’s or individuals’ personal experience of climate change, neither clearly specify what they mean and are operationally defining by such “exposure” or “experience”, nor address how these might differ.

A frequently expressed researcher view is that the most objective and scientific way of researching this personal experience aspect of climate change is to purposefully exclude research respondents’ environmental perceptions, causal attributions, and own accounts of reported encounters and experiences, as these are too prone to subjective bias to be evidence-based, or at a sufficient level of confidence for objective scientific consideration. Yet this common use of residential/geographic location (“exposure”) to extreme weather conditions or impacts (e.g., property damage) as a strategy for establishing or inferring personal experience of perceived climate change is fraught with multiple problems. A respondent’s view and account are the core and most credible data when addressing an individual’s perceived and experienced encounter with what he/she deemed to be a likely manifestation of climate change. And an extreme weather event or consequence must be perceived and attributed to be a probable manifestation or consequence of climate change for it to constitute anthropogenic/human-forced climate change.

Such dismissals of an individual level of analysis, self-report, and personal perceptions and accounts of one’s own environmental encounters and experience can of course effectively distort if not preclude a genuine human sciences consideration of the nature and extent, psychological significance, and issue engagement influence of perceived personal experience of climate change. Yet, expressions like “I experienced it for myself”, “this really brought it home to me”, “this experience made me realize”, “this encounter made it real for me” reflect and underscore the largely ignored psychological significance and broader issue engagement influence of perceived personal experience of this profound planetary change.

In our review of this literature over the past five years, only 5 of 36 studies identified involved asking or otherwise eliciting and documenting individual respondents’ self-report as to whether they had actually had personal experience of natural environment changes, conditions, or occurrences which they thought might well be manifestations of climate change, and what the circumstance(s) and nature of their personal experience was, and its possible personal significance and/or influence. A substantial proportion of these studies also appeared to be largely uninformed with respect to a four-decade research investment by psychologists, sociologists, human geographers, and other researchers addressing the nature, extent, significance, and influence of perceived climate change experience and impacts when “climate change comes home”.

There are many future direction challenges facing this human dimension of climate change research. Enhancing an awareness on the part of natural and physical climate change scientists and international climate change science bodies of the importance of those human dimensions of climate change which relate to individuals’ internal psychological environments, dynamics, and impacts is crucial. A better understanding of the nature and extent to which virtual exposure to and experience of anthropogenic climate change contributes to and influences individual risk perceptions, understandings, personal experience, and psychological impacts of and responses to both direct personal experience of climate change and the risk domain and ongoing stressor of climate change is equally important.

The legacy of this analysis will hopefully be that of laying out, at this juncture of the Anthropocene, where social and behavioural science research is at with respect to a constellation of important considerations relating to the human dimensions of climate change in general, and more specifically, to the nature, significance, and influence of perceived personal experience of climate change. Such a legacy consideration is particularly important given the dramatic increase over the past five years of research presented as addressing this focus on individual and societal experience of climate change. This horizon will hopefully encompass the global, information environment coverage of not only climate change per se, but the natural and physical science reporting and representation of the unfolding nature, extent, and planetary ecosystem and human impact implications of climate change. This is timely given that the dramatic and rapidly escalating planetary changes and impacts taking place relating to climate change.

In our own research, particular consideration was given to respondents’ initial encounters with anomalous environmental changes, conditions, and events perceived as likely manifestations of climate change, and the extent to which such personal experience might catalyze acceptance, realization, reflection, and issue engagement. However the steadily increasing incidence and recurrence of such encounters and experiences reflect a transitioning “new normal” in which the nature and extent of local impacts and implications of climate change will have quickly outpaced initial, first-hand, personal encounters. In our view such current initial individual level encounters and experience provide a crucial window for better understanding the nature of psychological adaptation processesto climate change and psychologically significant issue engagement. 

Written by: Joseph Reser and Graham Bradley

Reference: Joseph Reser and Graham Bradley, ‘The nature, significance and influence of perceived personal experience of climate change,’ WIREs Climate Change (2020). DOI:10.1002/wcc.668