Theses Doctoral

The Effects of Personal Experiences on Climate Risk Mitigation Behaviors

Sisco, Matthew Ryan

Human risk perceptions and responses to risks are driven in part by personal experiences with relevant threats. In the case of climate change, humans have been slow to take sufficient action to mitigate climate risks, but personal experiences with extreme or abnormal weather events may shape attitudes and behaviors regarding climate risk. This dissertation presents a series of five papers that examine the effects of experiences with weather events on people’s attitudes and behaviors related to climate change.

Paper 1 presents a detailed review of existing recent theoretical and empirical papers on the topic. Paper 2 presents evidence that a variety of extreme weather events can increase attention to climate change. This paper quantifies attention to climate change as frequencies of social media messages about climate change paired with records of extreme weather events in the United States. Next, Paper 3 reports evidence that experiences with abnormal weather events can impact climate policy support, an essential climate mitigation behavior. Across five studies in Paper 3 including survey data, online search data, and real election outcomes paired with objective weather observations, findings indicate that experiences with abnormal temperatures can increase climate policy support. Papers 2 and 3 together provide evidence that experiences with extreme or abnormal weather can affect attention to climate change and can affect substantial real-world climate mitigation behaviors. Paper 4 sheds light on the psychological mechanisms underlying the effects of experiences with extreme weather on climate change attitudes and behaviors.

We examine experienced affect about climate change as a candidate mechanism which is investigated over three studies including survey data, experimental data, and social media data. We find support for the hypothesis that weather experiences influence climate attitudes and behaviors in part through experienced affect. Papers 1-4 together provide evidence that experiences with abnormal weather events can influence climate attitudes and behaviors. It remains an important question how these effects compare to effects of other drivers of climate attitudes such as climate activist events. Paper 5 analyzes the effects of climate activist events in direct comparison with effects of abnormal weather experiences. We find that the aggregate effects of weather experiences over the course of an average year are comparable to the individual effects of the world’s largest recent climate activist events and also to the effects of intergovernmental climate summit events. In sum, this dissertation reviews and synthesizes past literature, reports new evidence that abnormal weather experiences can affect citizens’ climate attitudes and mitigation behaviors, sheds light on an underlying mechanism of this phenomenon, and demonstrates that the magnitude of the effects of personal experiences is comparable to other known drivers of climate risk perceptions and mitigation behaviors.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Bolger, Niall Paul
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2021