Research News

Climate models should consider people’s perceptions of climate risk


Published March 26, 2019

headshot of Sara Metcalf
“Social science is a different domain from physical science, but it has something very valuable to offer when it comes to understanding the impact of human behavior on climate change.”
Sara Metcalf, associate professor
Department of Geography

How dangerous is climate change, and how are extreme events such as hurricanes and wildfires linked to rising temperatures?

People’s perceptions of climate risks can influence society’s willingness to take measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. And that’s why climate models should take this aspect of human behavior into account when making predictions about future temperature increases and sea level rise, says Sara Metcalf, associate professor of geography.

“I would argue for a greater inclusion of social components in physical climate models,” says Metcalf, an expert on modeling with a long-standing interest in environmental issues. “There may be concern that including human behavior could increase the uncertainty of the models, but there’s a case to be made that it’s worth doing this. We can gain insights about what the true possibilities are for humans to affect the course of climate change, and what collective actions people could take to do things to help the situation.”

Metcalf has been working with colleagues across the U.S. over the past few years to link C-ROADS, an existing climate model, to a new social model they’ve created to explore how the perceived dangers of climate change influence behavioral change.

The result, published in 2018 in Nature Climate Change, was an integrated model that shows how changes in greenhouse gas emissions could influence global temperature and the frequency of extreme events, and how these events could alter attitudes toward climate change, resulting in behavioral adjustments in greenhouse gas production.

The model suggests that appropriately attributing extreme events to climate change could have an important impact on people’s perceptions of climate risk — and on emissions. The model identified mitigation measures that are not easily reversed — such as installing solar panels or insulating homes — as good ways to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Metcalf has been involved as a co-organizer of a national working group on human risk perception and climate change that’s further developing this social model of climate change. Improvements the researchers are discussing include refining the model to include regional perceptions of climate change, and how changes in behavior may alter regional emissions. (The current model focuses on global behavior and emissions.) The team is also exploring whether and how economic impacts should be included in climate modeling. The team members are continuing to collaborate virtually on these developments, and the working group met in person this January for its last official meeting under current funding.

“It’s been a very fruitful discussion,” says Metcalf. “Social science is a different domain from physical science, but it has something very valuable to offer when it comes to understanding the impact of human behavior on climate change. We know humans matter when it comes to climate change. So the question is: How much of that is worth representing in the model?”

This interdisciplinary approach reflects Metcalf’s background: She studied management and chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before going on to get a PhD in geography from the University of Illinois. Since she was a master’s student at MIT, she has been interested in how social and physical sciences can work together to solve important problems.

The working group that Metcalf collaborates with is supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, affiliated with the University of Maryland, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, affiliated with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Both the center and institute receive funding from the National Science Foundation.

Metcalf says climate change will be a major part of her work for the foreseeable future. Other projects she has completed in this realm include a study that modeled how social influences could impact household evacuation behavior before a hurricane, focusing on the Florida Keys. That research was published in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems.