Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Knowledge as a driver of public perceptions about climate change reassessed


It is intuitive to assume that concern about climate change should be preceded by knowledge about its effects1,2. However, recent research suggests that knowledge about climate change has only a limited effect on shaping concern about climate change3,4,5,6. Our view is that this counterintuitive finding is a function of how knowledge is typically measured in studies about climate change. We find that if it is measured in a domain-specific and multidimensional way, knowledge is indeed an important driver of concern about climate change—even when we control for human values. Likewise, different dimensions of knowledge play different roles in shaping concern about climate change. To illustrate these findings, we present the results from a survey deployed across six culturally and politically diverse countries. Higher levels of knowledge about the causes of climate change were related to a heightened concern. However, higher levels of knowledge about the physical characteristics of climate change had either a negative or no significant effect on concern. Efforts aimed at improving public knowledge about climate change are therefore not the lost cause that some researchers claim they may be.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The items used to assess three kinds of knowledge concerning climate change, their response distributions and scalabilities (Hi), and Loevinger’s scalability coefficient (H) and reliability (ρ) of the scales.


  1. Walsh, E. M. & Tsurusaki, B. K. Social controversy belongs in the climate science classroom. Nature Clim. Change 4, 259–263 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Arvai, J., Gregory, R., Bessette, D. & Campbell-Arvai, V. Decision support for developing energy strategies. Issues Sci. Technol. 28, 43–52 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Malka, A., Krosnick, J. A. & Langer, G. The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Anal. 29, 633–647 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kahan, D. M. et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Clim. Change 2, 732–735 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kellstedt, P. M., Zahran, S. & Vedlitz, A. Personal efficacy, the information environment, and attitudes toward global warming and climate change in the United States. Risk Anal. 28, 113–126 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Menny, C., Osberghaus, D., Pohl, M. & Werner, U. General Knowledge About Climate Change, Factors Influencing Risk Perception and Willingness to Insure Discussion Paper No. 11-060 (ZEW-Centre for European Economic Research, 2011).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Sundblad, E-L., Biel, A. & Gärling, T. Knowledge and confidence in knowledge about climate change among experts, journalists, politicians, and laypersons. Environ. Behav. 41, 281–302 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bord, R. J., O’Connor, R. E. & Fisher, A. In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change? Public Underst. Sci. 9, 205–218 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Helgeson, J., van der Linden, S. & Chabay, I. in Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change (eds Wals, A. E.J. & Corcoran, P. B.) 329–346 (Wageningen Academic, 2012).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  10. Stevenson, K., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H., Moore, S. & Carrier, S. Overcoming skepticism with education: interacting influences of worldview and climate change knowledge on perceived climate change risk among adolescents. Climatic Change 126, 293–304 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Milfont, T. L. The interplay between knowledge, perceived efficacy, and concern about global warming and climate change: a one-year longitudinal study. Risk Anal. 32, 1003–1020 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., Glendon, A. I., Ellul, M. & Callaghan, R. Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings and Responses to Climate Change in Australia and Great Britain (Griffith University, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Kaiser, F. G. & Fuhrer, U. Ecological behavior’s dependency on different forms of knowledge. Appl. Psychol. 52, 598–613 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Tobler, C., Visschers, V. H. & Siegrist, M. Consumers’ knowledge about climate change. Climatic Change 114, 189–209 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Corner, A. Science literacy and climate views. Nature Clim. Change 2, 710–711 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Ajzen, I. The theory of planned behavior. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. 50, 179–211 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Ajzen, I., Joyce, N., Sheikh, S. & Cote, N. G. Knowledge and the prediction of behavior: the role of information accuracy in the theory of planned behavior. Basic Appl. Soc. Psychol. 33, 101–117 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Shi, J., Visschers, V. H. & Siegrist, M. Public perception of climate change: the importance of knowledge and cultural worldviews. Risk Anal. 35, 2183–2201 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A. How can we know the risks we face? Why risk selection is a social process. Risk Anal. 2, 49–58 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Monahan, J., Callahan, L. & Peters, E. Cultural cognition and public policy: the case of outpatient commitment laws. Law Hum. Behav. 34, 118–140 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Schwartz, S. H. Universals in the content and structure of values: theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 25, 1–65 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Stern, P. Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. J. Soc. Issues 56, 407–424 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Corner, A., Markowitz, E. & Pidgeon, N. Public engagement with climate change: the role of human values. WIREs Clim. Change 5, 411–422 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Steg, L., De Groot, J. I. & Clayton, S. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Van der Linden, S. The social-psychological determinants of climate change risk perceptions: towards a comprehensive model. J. Environ. Psychol. 41, 112–124 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Guy, S., Kashima, Y., Walker, I. & O’Neill, S. Investigating the effects of knowledge and ideology on climate change beliefs. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 44, 421–429 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Van der Linden, S. A conceptual critique of the cultural cognition thesis. Sci. Commun. 38, 128–138 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Oreg, S. & Katz-Gerro, T. Predicting proenvironmental behavior cross-nationally: values, the theory of planned behavior, and value-belief-norm theory. Environ. Behav. 38, 462–483 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. De Groot, J. & Steg, L. General beliefs and the theory of planned behavior: The role of environmental concerns in the TPB. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 37, 1817–1836 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Molenaar, I. W., Sijtsma, K. & Boer, P. MSP5 for Windows: A Program for Mokken Scale Analysis for Polytomous Items: Version 5.0: User’s Manual (Iec ProGAMMA, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Van Schuur, W. H. Mokken scale analysis: between the Guttman scale and parametric item response theory. Polit. Anal. 11, 139–163 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. STAT_TAB (Swiss Federal Statistical Office, accessed 20 September 2015);

Download references


Financial support for J. Shi, which was provided by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), is gratefully acknowledged. The authors also would like to thank Respondi AG, InterfaceASIA Holden and Insightrix Research Inc. for assistance with the survey.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the design, data collection and written presentation for the research reported here. In addition, J.S., V.H.M.V. and M.S. organized and managed the data collection in China, Germany, Switzerland and the UK and J.A. coordinated data collection in Canada and the US. J.S. was primarily responsible for data analysis and for the first complete draft of this manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jing Shi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 854 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shi, J., Visschers, V., Siegrist, M. et al. Knowledge as a driver of public perceptions about climate change reassessed. Nature Clim Change 6, 759–762 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing