Psychological Distance and How It Can Hinder Climate Adaptation Support

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People will not likely support climate change adaptation nor be concerned about climate change if they believe that it won’t affect them, or climate change will only affect a specific population or area, says the study by a research team from the three U.S. universities.  

According to the study, the perception or belief of individuals about climate impacts should concern policymakers to gain their support for climate policies and climate adaptation measures.

Governments should improve communication about climate change and emphasize that climate change impacts are already occurring. It is impacting their constituents now and will continue. Adaptation measures are the means to cope and deal with risk associated with climate change effects.

The study says that there is much research and scholarship on individual or community adaptation, capacity to adapt, and even climate mitigation policies; however, there is very little research devoted to factors that explain support for climate adaptation policies. This lack of research is based on the notion that it will reduce the need to mitigate climate change effects when people focus on adaptation.

Although some research shows a general awareness and concern in individuals for climate change in the US, they believe that it only presents a moderate risk and will affect people in distant places and far away in the future, which can lead to inaction. The study calls this belief or perception psychologically distant.

In contrast, when climate change happens in places known to them, people will show more significant concern and willingness to address climate change.

When individuals are psychologically distant from climate change or perceive that climate change impacts will only happen in some faraway places or the distant future, it will make them less likely to address climate change and hinder their support for climate adaptation policies.

Measuring psychological distance

Psychological distance in the study is measured using four dimensions: hypothetically – the likelihood of the event is occurring, temporal – when the event is happening, social – who will experience the event, and spatial – the physical distance where the event will take place. The more geographically distant climate change is happening, the more psychologically distant individuals can become.

For example, when the risk or consequences of an action will likely happen in the distant future, e.g., smoking will cause lung cancer over time, people tend to discount the risk.

In the US, they perceive climate change as a temporally (will happen in the distant future) and spatially distant (it will occur in faraway places) phenomenon, which tends to diminish support for climate mitigation.

Climate change and psychological distance relationship

Some studies find the complex relationship between psychological distance and climate change, with decreased distance linked to greater concern. Another study finds that greater distance is associated with positive attitudes towards mitigation, or people will most likely support mitigation policies. 

A study on California farmers shows that when farmers perceive that climate change will impact areas close to their farms, they are more motivated to adopt adaptation strategies.

Overall, the study finds that the more psychologically distant in all four dimensions individuals perceive climate change to be, the less concerned they are about climate change impacts and less support towards adaptation strategies.

The study also says that support for climate adaption measures also depends on their perceived efficacy or whether the people believe that proposed climate mitigation and adaptation measures effectively address the challenges of climate change.

Overcoming psychological distance

Overcoming psychological distance among individuals is key to overcoming inaction or lack of support towards climate adaptation and mitigation policies and poses a challenge to policymakers.

The study recommends that policymakers develop effective measures and communicate how its efficacy can reduce vulnerabilities to climate change impacts to increase support for climate adaptation policies.

It says that there is a fine line between making people aware of climate change threats to drive action and making them overwhelmed to the point of inaction, something that communicators should be mindful of when communicating the risk of climate change.

To motivate public support for climate adaptation, individuals must first believe that a solution exists for any response, whether it be a policy or individual behaviour, to be effective.

To read the entire study, click the link below:

Source Citation:

Ajay S. Singh, Adam Zwickle, Jeremy T. Bruskotter, Robyn Wilson, The perceived psychological distance of climate change impacts and its influence on support for adaptation policy, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 73, 2017, Pages 93-99, ISSN 1462-9011,

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