Climate Change through the Eyes of a Californian Farmer
This guest post is by Dr. Ryan Haden and Ph.D. candidate Meredith Niles at the University of California Davis. Their recent study in the journal PLoS ONE is the first to use an approach called Construal Level Theory, which considers the ‘level’ – local or global – that people construe a problem, to examine the experiences and attitudes that motivate farmers to implement sustainable farming practices in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
In California, the farmers who raise cattle and cultivate the Central Valley’s diverse mix of orchards, vineyards, and row crops are well-aware of how dependent they are on favorable climatic conditions. As one grower puts it, “Agriculture is more vulnerable to climate change than anyone who is not a farmer can even imagine”. Helping farmers anticipate and adapt to changes in the local climate is therefore vital to preserving rural livelihoods and safeguarding global food security.
With the implementation of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act now underway, local farmers are also being asked to consider their role in the state’s carbon footprint. Since agriculture in California accounts for roughly 6–7 % of total greenhouse gas emissions, state agencies have opted for a voluntary approach to mitigating emissions from agriculture compared to mandatory reductions from the industrial and transportation sectors. This reliance on voluntary action by farmers raises the question – What motivates them to mitigate and adapt to climate change?
To answer this question our research team worked with local stakeholders in the Central Valley to conduct a survey that examined farmers’ experiences, perspectives, and behaviors related to climate change. Our questions covered a range of topics including; i) farmers’ past experience with local climate impacts (e.g. changes in temperature and water availability), ii) their beliefs about the existence, causes, and risks of climate change, iii) their concerns for global and local impacts on agriculture, and ultimately iv) their willingness to adopt various mitigation and adaptation practices.
As it turns out, what motivates a farmer to take action is quite different if the goal is reducing the emissions that cause climate change (i.e. mitigation), as opposed to coping with the consequences (i.e. adaptation). Perhaps more importantly, the specific concerns that motivate each response depend heavily on whether the risks of climate change are framed in a global or local context.
To understand the distinction between global and local framing we drew on several recent psychological studies that apply Construal Level Theory (i.e. the level at which people ‘construe’ ¬the problem) to environmental decision making and behavior. In particular, work by Alexa Spence at the University of Nottingham and several of her colleagues at Cardiff University recognized that the “psychological distance of climate change” has strong implications for what experiences and attitudes motivate people to respond to climate change. They observed that the impacts of climate change can be perceived in either a psychologically distant or proximate mindset (i.e. distant = high level construal and close = low level construal). This conceptual framework was then used to understand how personal experience with flooding helped to motivate people in the UK to reduce their energy use and thus mitigate emissions.
Our work, which looks at the psychological distance of climate change through the eyes of a California farmer, goes one step further by considering the subtle difference between mitigation and adaptation goals. We found that past experience alone did not directly motivate climate action among farmers. Instead, the effect of past experience on behavior was mediated by their level of concern for either the local or global impacts on agriculture.
Moreover, we also observed that the attitudes motivating mitigation and adaptation behaviors tend to be cognitively represented at different construal levels – with psychologically distant “global concerns” driving mitigation and more proximate “local concerns” spurring adaptation. For instance, farmers who expressed concern about the global impacts of climate change on agriculture were more willing to adopt mitigation practices such as using energy and fertilizers more efficiently. In contrast, those who were concerned about local impacts, particularly on water availability, were more motivated to adapt by implementing improved irrigation practices.
So what might explain these results? We think it’s likely due to the fact that mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is a classic collective action problem that cannot be solved by the actions of one person alone. It requires cooperation on a global scale. Also, the outcome our personal efforts to reduce emissions are diffused globally and thus difficult to see firsthand. As such, the concerns and behaviors linked to mitigation tend to be psychologically distant.
In contrast, farmers who anticipate local climate impacts and take specific measures to adapt can often see tangible evidence of their efforts. Thus, the concerns and behaviors motivating adaptation are psychologically closer than those which influence mitigation. This example from agriculture also underscores the fact that both cooperative and self-interested behaviors will each be necessary if we hope to address the causes and consequences of climate change.
So for those of us who are interested in more effectively engaging farmers (and the broader public) in initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change, our study offers several conclusions to consider:
1. Keep the messages on mitigation and adaptation strategies focused on their respective global and local spheres. The real value of this approach is that people pay closer attention to messages that match attitudes with desired behavior according to their psychological distance.
2. Develop information resources that equip farmers to identify and address local climate-related impacts. This approach strengthens local adaptive capacity because individuals who are operating in a psychologically proximate mindset will tend to pursue feasible goals that they perceive as being effective for dealing with problems near at hand.
3. Use messages that emphasize the societal benefits of mitigation rather than fear of personal consequences. This is important because the main benefits of farmers’ efforts to mitigate emissions are diffused globally and thus may not directly benefit their crops or economic returns.
4. Remember that many farming practices have complex ramifications for both mitigation and adaptation. This means that climate change initiatives should be designed to help farmers weigh the mix of benefits and tradeoffs that generally accompany new farming practices.
Even if we eventually achieve the mitigation targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, our past emissions will continue to impact the climate for many decades to come. Therefore, we may want to pay close attention to the common wisdom of our California farmer when he emphasizes that we “need to be thinking about mitigation and adaptation” in our future policy and outreach initiatives.
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