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Using social representations theory to make sense of climate change: what scientists and nonscientists in Australia think

Gail Moloney, Psychology, Southern Cross University
Zoe Leviston, CSIRO, Land and Water Flagship
Timothy Lynam, CSIRO, Social and Economic Sciences Program
Jennifer Price, CSIRO, Land and Water Flagship
Samantha Stone-Jovicich, CSIRO, Land and Water Flagship
Duncan Blair, CSIRO, Land and Water Flagship


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The mass media has ensured that the challenging and complex phenomenon of climate change now has the household familiarity of a brand name. But what is it that is understood by climate change, and by whom? What frame of reference is drawn upon to communicate meaningfully about climate change? Do particular subgroups within our society hold different understandings, or have the debate and the prolific dissemination of information about this issue coalesced around a core perception or image of what climate change is? To answer these questions, we conceptualized climate change within the theory of social representations as emergent socially constructed knowledge. We analyzed word association data collected in Australia from persons identifying as having a scientific, government, or general public background (N = 3300). All respondents were asked to write the first words that came to mind when they thought about climate change. Comparative analyses of the word associations reveal that respondents from different backgrounds define climate change in different ways. The results suggest that there is a common core set of concepts shared by the different groups, but there are also a great many differences in how climate change is framed and conceived by respondents. The results are discussed in relation to what they imply for responses to climate change by these social groups and in relation to interventions designed to encourage climate adaptation.

Key words

adaptation; climate change; social representations theory; word associations

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087