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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Understanding intuitive theories of climate change


There is a pressing need to inform the public and drive personal and political action to mitigate climate change. Recent theorizing suggests that people’s intuitive theories may be key levers for affecting attitude and behavior change (Weisman & Markman, 2017). We asked 400 participants to estimate the probability of different future events related to climate change. Our findings indicate that people hold coherent theories of climate change, that these theories were predictive of policy positions, and that they varied across individuals and across partisan groups. In particular, political independents and Republicans’s causal models underestimated the impacts of climate change. We also examined an educational intervention that explains a key mechanism of climate change (Ranney & Clark, 2016). Unfortunately, while the intervention increased mechanistic knowledge, it did not affect participants’ beliefs about climate outcomes. Nevertheless, the coherence of participants’ intuitive theories gives hope that other educational interventions could have meaningful and systematic effects on policy attitudes and political behaviors.

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