Communicating Adaptation: Using Psychological Insights to Facilitate Adaptive Responses to Climate Change Impacts

  • Niall Mcloughlin

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Climate change has been described as the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. The influence of human activity on climate change is unequivocal, climate change impacts are already affecting people’s lives and, even with rapid greenhouse gas reductions, some further warming of the planet is inevitable. Despite the threat of climate change, adaptation efforts to date have been limited. In turn, the way people communicate about adaptation can play an important role in facilitating adaptive responses to the threats posed by climate change. Communications informed by psychology can influence cognitive, affective and behavioural engagement with adaptation, leading to changes at the individual, community and broader socio-political level. However, communication about adaptation has largely been neglected in favour of communicating mitigation, and further research is urgently needed to address the social-psychological complexities of engagement with adaptation. This thesis sets out to advance knowledge about both (a) the psychological factors that shape individual-level ‘adaptive responses’ (i.e. behaviours aiming to reduce the negative impacts of climate change) and (b) how such knowledge can inform communications interventions. Focusing on emerging climate impacts in a UK context (including flooding and public health), the research considers how communications can be optimised by harnessing the most significant psychological mechanisms that promote adaptive responses. Investigating these issues through a set of incremental, novel, mixed-methods studies, the project addresses not only how people cope with the unfolding threats of climate change, but also interrogates how communications framings can be appraised as threatening or non-threatening. Throughout, the work draws on the Protection Motivation Theory (PMT) model, which has previously been used to explain responses to environmental stress and health communications.Following a literature review, interviews with flood victims were conducted to explore people’s socio-cognitive experiences of a major flood event (Chapter 3). The key themes emerging in these interviews were then used to inform a quantitative survey, where models of behaviour and policy support were tested in relation to flooding and climate change (Chapter 4). Together, these studies informed a communication testing phase, leading to a fork in the thesis. Two experiments were conducted to understand people’s responses to threatening and non-threatening communication styles, and the possible influence of perceived majority-minority status (Chapter 5 & 6). Additionally, a national survey tested different framings and imagery related to the health impacts of climate change (Chapter 7). Finally, an academic placement was conducted, where findings were translated into real-world climate communication practices through co-created activities (Chapter 8). In total, over 1,500 participants took part in the research.A range of theoretical contributions were generated through this work. In particular, the findings highlight the consistent influence of efficacy beliefs on climate adaptation behaviours, going beyond past work to show that different types of efficacy (self, response and collective) influence responses at personal, policy and broader social levels. Other factors, including threat appraisals, descriptive social norms and freedom threats were also shown to influence responses to adaptation. In turn, the work demonstrates how non-threatening communication approaches, visuals and collaborative engagement can influence efficacy and facilitate adaptive responses, and how health impact framings can increase concern about climate change in the UK. Perceived minority status and request styles were also shown to influence how favourably people responded to communications. Together, the work explains that the PMT model can be usefully modified to better explain the communication of climate adaptation.In turn, the research has substantial practical implications for climate change communications. In particular, the research demonstrates the importance of using communications to nurture people’s sense of efficacy to respond adaptively and suggests efficacy messages should be tailored to the response level being encouraged. The findings highlight the need to be non-threatening toward people’s psychological needs when making behavioural requests, while suggesting that air pollution may be a particularly useful impact framing to communicate adaptation in the UK. Together, the work suggests a need to go beyond current approaches to communicating adaptation, and at a broader level, shift away from fear appeals towards efficacy appeals.
Date of Award26 May 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorIan Walker (Supervisor) & Saffron O'Neill (Supervisor)


  • Climate Change
  • Communication
  • Adaptation
  • Adaptive behaviour
  • Framing
  • Psychology
  • Behaviour change
  • Efficacy
  • Flood
  • Health
  • Policy
  • UK
  • Public engagement
  • Air pollution
  • Interviews
  • Experiment
  • Survey
  • Qualitative
  • Quantitative
  • Mixed methods
  • Visuals
  • Visual Methods
  • Placement
  • Action research
  • Protection Motivation Theory

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