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Graduate Defense: Lauren Hunt

March 16 @ 9:00 am - 11:00 am MDT

Dissertation DefenseDissertation Information

Title: Climate Change Perceptions, Beliefs, and Adaptation Behaviors

Program: Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

Advisor: Dr. Vicken Hillis, College of Innovation and Design

Committee Members: Dr. Matt Williamson, College of Innovation and Design; Dr. Kelly Hopping, College of Innovation and Design; and Dr. Morey Burnham, Biological Sciences


Barring significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is projected to inflict substantial damage to societies and ecosystems across the US. Despite increasingly severe climate impacts, many people do not perceive their risk and are skeptical about climate science, limiting climate action and climate policy support. To understand how climate change perceptions and experiences affect climate adaptation behaviors and policy preferences, I utilized a mixed-methods approach. I first examined the spatial patterns of alignment between climate-related risks, and risk perceptions across the conterminous US to make spatially explicit policy recommendations about climate-related political strategies and programs. My analysis showed that over 30% of all US counties underestimate their projected climate risk. Second, as part of the qualitative focus of my dissertation, I conducted semi-structured interviews (N=23) and engaged in participant observation to examine how western ranchers experience, conceive of, and communicate about climate change, and the opportunities and barriers these social processes create for climate change adaptation. I found that, despite high levels of skepticism about climate science, all ranchers are aware of changing environmental conditions, and most engage in climate-smart practices, even if their goal is not explicitly to adapt to or mitigate climate change. Third, I administered a conjoint survey experiment via mail to agricultural landowners in Idaho, Oregon, and Montana (N=862) to measure how agricultural programs framed around economic, social, or ecological co-benefits of climate action may influence climate change program engagement. I found that programs which emphasized economic co-benefits drive the largest increase in programmatic support, followed by environmental co-benefits; however, climate benefits explicitly decrease support, indicating that careful emphasis of certain benefits may substantially affect engagement in climate programs. My research provides spatially-explicit recommendations for different types of political action, expands our understanding of climate-skeptical producers’ climate knowledge, tests the utility of climate co-benefits framing and identifies the climate program preferences of climate-skeptical agricultural producers. These findings can improve climate engagement and increase support for climate action, particularly among the most climate skeptical.