Perceptions of sea-level rise

2 October, 2012

Recent advances in climate science have characterised both the threat of climate change and the specific effects it could have on our environments.

In particular, projections of sea-level rise from six reports suggest it is likely to rise by 0.12 – 2.2m by 2100.

Residents of Wellington City and Kapiti Coast districts in New Zealand were surveyed about their opinions on sea-level rise, its potential threat, and possible solutions both to sea-level rise itself and to the overarching problem of climate change.

How the survey worked

This study examined how people responded to information about sea-level rise when it was framed in different ways.

Past research has shown that different framings of identical information can change the way that people respond to it, and we were especially interested in whether this might be true with regard to a very real threat: sea-level rise.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of several conditions, which determined the framing of the information they saw.

In particular, the researchers were interested in showing people information about sea-level rise in the near (2050) or far (2100) future, and they focused some groups on the more extreme (but still possible) end of the projections, while others were focused more on the less extreme range.

Finally, because it’s important to establish a baseline for how people tend to respond without any information, some people received no information about sea-level rise and only responded to the questions about their habits, behaviours, and beliefs about climate change.

There was no deception used in this research. All information presented was true, including the images, which were developed by Wellington City Council. All climate change information was reviewed by climate scientists either at or formerly at Victoria University of Wellington.

Survey findings

The researchers discovered several interesting things from this study. On average, respondents perceived sea-level rise as becoming a serious threat within 28-45 years.

However, they favored immediate solutions, suggesting that strategies such as Accommodation and Protection begin in 2015 and Retreat begin in 2022.

They showed the most support for Accommodation strategies, followed by:

  • Retreat, then Protection, and most respondents preferred multiple strategies.
  • Support for reducing greenhouse emissions was high, and willingness to perform personal behaviours, both to adapt to changes and to lower personal emissions, was moderate to high.

They researchers found that presenting information to people, as opposed to not presenting it, affected responses across nearly our entire range of questions, although effects were usually small. People were generally more concerned and more supportive when they received information about sea-level rise.

Finally, the researchers also found that, in some cases, the way information was framed also had an effect.

When focused on extreme projections, people anticipated greater sea-level rise, felt that sea-level rise was a more serious problem for them personally, and showed greater support for adapting to climate change and for individual adaptation options, such as Accommodation and Retreat.

They also perceived sea-level rise as a nearer-term threat when information was framed to focus on 2050 and the more extreme projections.

Importantly, more “extreme” information always resulted in more concern and support from respondents.

Importance to psychologists

This kind of research is very important to psychologists, because it helps us understand how people approach threatening information, and which presentation is the most empowering, allowing people to feel most able and willing to tackle difficult challenges.

Additionally, the data from this study will be reviewed by the Wellington City Council, the Kapiti Coast District Council, and the Greater Wellington Regional Council, and it may aid in their decision-making about how to respond to sea-level rise.

You can access a copy of the full survey results here.