What about me? Factors affecting individual adaptive coping capacity across different populations

This study examines psychological drivers of individual-level adaptation and developed a Coping with Climate Change tool with implications for the communication of climate change adaptation policies.


When and why will people adapt to climate change? We conducted a number of studies examining the psychological drivers of individual adaptation to climate change across different populations. We used a variety of methodologies including interviews, surveys, survey experiments and face-to-face experiments. There was a high level of rigour involved in each of these methodologies which means that we can believe in the results. This programme of research represents one of the largest and most integrated attempts to understand some of the psychological drivers of individual-level adaptation.

First, we used the most recent advances in the psychological literature of coping more generally to develop a valid scale to measure coping with climate change. Across three studies we found that our tool was both reliable and valid, providing an accurate measure of the different ways in which people cope with climate change. This tool can now be used to understand the effects of both adaptive and maladaptive coping and to understand what leads to these different ways of coping.

Next, we examined adaptive capacity. We found that adaptive coping strategies were associated with perceiving climate change as a threat to oneself and one’s way of life, rating environmental goals as important, and believing that adaptive behaviours could help achieve significant personal goals. Furthermore, when looking at societal adaptive capacity (support for governmental policies) we found that not only were a threat appraisal, climate change or environmental goal, and goal connectedness related to support, but also political affiliation, perceived human contribution to climate change, (lack of) denying that climate change exists, and a number of emotions (enthusiasm, worry, (lack of) happiness, and (lack of ) embarrassment). By knowing these factors that lead to adaptive coping and support for adaptive policies we can identify strategies to improve individual adaptive capacity.

Third, based on a range of psychological literature, we hypothesised that adaptive behaviour would be related to goals, goal connectedness, adaptive coping, beliefs about climate change (including denial), and emotions that create an uneasy state of activation (enthusiasm and hope combined with worry). We found support for each of these relationships. Thus, we can again identify strategies to increase adaptive climate change behaviour. 

Across the studies, we found that adaptive capacity and adaptive behaviours relied upon both “green” beliefs and goals and “non-green” beliefs and goals. Moreover, believing that the adaptive behaviours helped a person to achieve their goals (whether they were related to climate change or not) was strongly related to adaptive capacity and behaviour. We have therefore shown that we can improve adaptation not only in those people who want to help the environment but also in those who are less interested.

Unfortunately, the goal structure of environmental goals appears difficult to change. However, making people think about politics did have an effect: Regardless of their own political orientation, a person’s belief about the degree of human contribution to climate change decreased when they were thinking about politics (compared to not thinking about politics). This has implications for how climate change adaptation is discussed in the media and by researchers.

The results of our research also have implications for the communication of climate change adaptation policies. Our results show that framing the costs of reducing CO2 emissions in terms of a decrease in future gain—rather than as an opportunity-cost—renders people more willing to commit to climate change initiatives.

In summary, this programme of research has taken an integrated and rigorous step towards greater understanding of some of the psychological drivers of individual adaptation to climate change. Given the complexity of the problem, more research is needed, however we believe that our research provides a good early step in this direction.

Please cite as:
Unsworth, KL, Russell, SV, Lewandowsky, S, Lawrence, C, Fielding, KS, Heath, J, Evans, A, Hurlstone, MJ & McNeill, I 2013, What about me? Factors affecting individual adaptive coping capacity across different populations, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 149 pp.

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Attributions and Constraints
Kerrie Unsworth,Sally Russell,Stephen Lewandowsky,Carmen Lawrence,Kelly Fielding,Jon Heath,Alice Evans,Mark Hurlstone,Ilona McNeill