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date: 30 May 2017

Mental Models and Risk Perceptions Related to Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Mental models are the sets of causal beliefs we “run” in our minds to infer what will happen in a given event or situation. Mental models, like other models, are useful simplifications most of the time. They can, however, lead to mistaken or misleading inferences, for example if the analogies that inform them are misleading in some regard. The coherence and consistency of mental models a person employs to solve a given problem are a function of that person’s expertise. The less familiar and central a problem is, the less coherent and consistent the mental models brought to bear on that problem are likely to be. For problems such as those posed by anthropogenic climate change, most people are likely to recruit multiple mental models to make judgments and decisions.

Common types of mental models of climate change and global warming include: (a) a carbon emissions model, in which global warming is a result of burning fossil fuels thereby emitting CO2, and of deforestation, which decreases the possible sinks that might take CO2 out of the atmosphere; (b) a stratospheric ozone depletion mental model, which conflates stratospheric ozone depletion with global warming; (c) an air pollution mental model, in which global warming is viewed as air pollution; and (d) a weather change model, in which weather and climate are conflated. As social discourse around global warming and climate change has increased, mental models of climate change have become more complex, although not always more coherent. One such complexity is the belief that climate changes occur according to natural cycles and due to factors beyond human control, in addition to changes resulting from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and releasing other greenhouse gases.

As our inference engines, mental models play a central role in problem solving and subjective projections, and hence are at the heart of risk perceptions and risk decision making. However, both perceiving and making decisions about climate change, and the risks thereof, are affective and social processes foremost.