Climatic Change

, Volume 108, Issue 1–2, pp 31–46 | Cite as

Why do people misunderstand climate change? Heuristics, mental models and ontological assumptions



Studies have indicated that many people misunderstand climate change. Equipped with a limited mental model they inappropriately use a pattern matching heuristics to analyze climate change and mistakenly believe that we can stabilize atmospheric CO2 by keeping anthropogenic emissions at current rates. Drawing on the findings from cognitive and developmental psychology, I argue that the widespread misunderstanding of climate change may arise from an error in people’s ontological assumptions. The pattern matching heuristics highlights correlations in shape and associates with a static mental model, both of which are effective for understanding objects. When people adopt the pattern matching heuristics, they may have implicitly treated climate change as an object. However, climate change belongs to a different kind of ontological existence. It is a dynamic process with temporal totality and inertia, two unique features essential to understanding climate change. Due to the sequence of cognitive development, we have developed an object bias – a tendency to treat processes as objects. This object bias can become a mental block, preventing us from adopting appropriate mental models to analyze climate change. To understand climate change, we need a fundamental transformation from an object-only ontology to a new one that properly treats objects and processes as distinct kinds. Finally, I briefly discuss strategies to foster the new ontological perspective in the discussion of climate change.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCalifornia Lutheran UniversityThousand OaksUSA

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