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Lay Perspectives on Global Climate Change

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Global Environmental Change, Number 1, p.183-208 (1991)



Ethnographic interviews were conducted with a small but diverse sample of US residents in order to understand how ordinary citizens conceptualize global climate change and make value judgments about it. Most informants had heard of the greenhouse effect. However, they conceptualized global climate change very differently from scientists because they interpreted it in terms of four pre-existing categories: stratospheric ozone depletion; plant photosynthesis; tropospheric pollution; and personally experienced temperature variation. The strongest environmental value to emerge was a desire to preserve the environment for one's descendants - it was spontaneously mentioned by twelve of the first fourteen informants. Species extinction and range shifts are among the most significant potential effects of global climate change, yet these effects were virtually unknown. Few informants recognized the connection between energy consumption and global warming, and they typically regarded their personal fuel consumption as inelastic.