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Using experimental manipulation of questionnaire design and a Kenyan panel to test for the reliability of reported perceptions of climate change and adaptation

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While the use of surveys to understand perception of climate change and adaptation is common in research on agriculture, the reliability of some aspects of the methodology is largely untested. In particular, there is limited evidence on (i) the degree to which measures of perception are sensitive to questionnaire design, (ii) the accuracy of recall methods for climate change, and (iii) the degree to which measures of adaptation based on recall from one-time surveys match the historical record. Using an established panel of farmers from across Kenya and a split sample method, I test both the sensitivity of stated perceptions of climate change to question format and the accuracy of recalled adaptations. In one treatment, farmers face open-ended questions about temperature and rainfall changes while in the other treatment, farmers are offered closed-end questions. Both approaches are common in the voluminous literature on climate change adaptation. Responses are highly sensitive to question format, both in the degree of perceived change and in the types of changes. Stated adaptations are not so sensitive to question format, but still diverge. Stated adaptations do not correspond well to the historical record of farming practices over the 15 years of the panel. Overall, the evidence suggests that researchers and policy-makers should be highly cautious in their use of subjective perceptions of climate change and the use of adaptation measures based on recall data.

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  1. I also compare the perceived change in climate with satellite records, and thereby contribute to the literature on the relationship between subjective perceptions of climate change and more objective measures provided by satellite data. However, since this literature is already extensive (e.g. Hansen et al. 2012.), I do not focus on the results here.

  2. Marlon et al. (2018) contains a useful summary on the strength of the relationship between perception and reality of climate change. See also Zaval et al. (2014), Salerno et al. (2019) or Rao et al. (2011) for evidence that the accuracy of beliefs is often extremely limited.

  3. A third important issue, one that is not central to the main point of this paper is whether perception is a necessary condition for adaptation. In many papers cited, only farmers who indicate some form of climate change are asked about adaptation. This creates a potential problem of selection bias when the relationship between climate change and adaptation is to be estimated. At a deeper level, it is not clear that perception is necessary for adaptation. Farmer A, for example, may perceive change while B does not. Farmer A adapts and B notices that farmer A is producing higher yields or earning a higher income and then copies farmer A. Such transmission of technical knowledge through social networks is typical. I would argue that B also adapts to climate change, but in many surveys this adaptation would not be recorded.

  4. We can also test whether the stated perceptions of climate change match the available data on climate change. While speculation about each of these claims is common, it is this hypothesis that has received most attention in prior work (e.g. Simelton et al. 2013 ). The evidence seems to be that within relatively shorter time periods, the match between perception and meteorological data is poor, but that is slightly better over longer periods (Fosu-Mensah et al. 2012; Li et al. 2014; Budhathoki and Zander 2019). Since it is well-researched issue, I don’t pursue it here, but see Munro (2020).

  5. Inevitably there is some attrition and in fact all the panels have been refreshed at some point. In the data analysis below, when focusing on historical changes in land use, I only use households who are present throughout the panel.

  6. Open-ended questions may also elicit comments about extreme temperatures for example. In fact, we do not see many such comments, but the key issue for this study is whether the responses about means, rainfall seasons and droughts in the close-ended questions are reflected in the responses to the open-ended format.

  7. These data were obtained from the NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) POWER Project funded through the NASA Earth Science/Applied Science Program.

  8. Kenya has 47 counties. The number of sub-counties per county varies, but is typically 10-15 so that the within-sub-county climate variation is small. I use fixed effects to absorb the myriad of influences on adaptation that are common to a locality. I do not use fixed effects at the village level since for about half the sample there is only one household per village. For many other villages there are only two or three households in the sample.Footnote 9 Overall I have 43 sub-counties in the sample.

  9. There are also no enumerator dummies in the equations. Kenya has many local languages and therefore a large team (35) of enumerators was used, most of whom worked in only one or two sub-counties. Models with enumerator and sub-county fixed effects do not typically converge. On the other hand, models with enumerator fixed effects only and no sub-county dummies give substantially the same results as those presented here.

  10. The omitted adaptations are “To non-farming” “Other”, and “No adaptation”. The first of these is omitted because only a few participants respond that they have switched away from farming and this produces a lack of variation within sub-counties that produces a non-convergent model. There is no evidence from the mean responses that this variable is sensitive to the version of the questionnaire.

  11. The impact of the questionnaire format may also affect the probability indirectly through its influence on the reporting of particular climate changes. Thus the coefficient on the version dummy may under- or overestimate the overall influence of the survey format on measures of adaptation. Leaving out the subjective reports of climate change, however, does not change the basic pattern of results reported in this section.

  12. This absence may be due to the use of the fixed effects model, which means that the climate change variables only pick-up the the impact of differences between perceptions and the satellite data. Footnote 13

  13. text

  14. These adaptations are as follows: Different planting dates/Earlier planting/Later planting, Shading and sheltering/tree planting, Used insurance or weather derivatives, Prayer or ritual offering. Possibly the first of these is the most important, but the dates of planting were not recorded in the RePEAT panel and it is not possible to reliably infer them from the database.

  15. I do not use any personal characteristics of the farms or farmers in these Tables, mainly because actual surveys of farmer perceptions will vary in the degree to which such information is available. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that including some personal information can, for at least some equations, be predictive for changes in land management, though it seems to vary by question. However, the important point is that including other farm and farmer information does not alter the basic conclusion that stated adaptation is typically not predictive for historical change.

  16. Some care has to be taken over the meaning of the word “predictive” here. For example, reported intercropping is predictive of the historical record of change. However, according to the panel, intercropping has diminished over the sample period, whereas according to the climate change model, farmers report actually higher use of intercropping. The positive correlation occurs because farmers who have reduced intercropping more are less likely to report that they have increased intercropping.

  17. All the variables take on either two levels (positive, negative or no change and increase) or three (up, no change, down).


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Thanks are due to Yoko Kijima, Tomoya Matsumoto, Chikako Yamauchi, and the REPEAT survey team led by Bbosa Davis for data collection and assistance on task design. Thu Trang Vu provided capable research assistance. I gratefully acknowledge the useful feedback from EAERE conference attendees and funding from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies for piloting work and from JSPS Kakenhi Grant Number 25101002 for the main field work.

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Appendix 1. Key survey questions

1.1 Version 1

  1. 1.

    Thinking back to 2003 (when the first Repeat survey was done) have you noticed any long term changes in the average temperature on your farm? (please explain). (record key phrases. Do not prompt subject)

  2. 2.

    Thinking back to 2003 (when the first Repeat survey was done) have you noticed any long term changes in the average rainfall on your farm? (please explain) (record key phrases. Do not prompt subject)

1.2 Version 2

  1. 1.

    Thinking back to 2003 (when the first Repeat survey was done), have you noticed any of the following long term changes in the average temperature on your farm?

    1. (a)

      Increased average temperatures 1=Yes, 2=No, 99 = Don’t know

    2. (b)

      Decreased average temperatures 1=Yes, 2=No, 99 = Don’t know

    3. (c)

      Altered Temperature range (the gap between lowest and highest temperatures has got bigger/small) 1=bigger, 2=smaller, 3=No change, 99 = Don’t know

  2. 2.

    Thinking back to 2003 (when the first Repeat survey was done), have you noticed any of the following long term changes in the average rainfall on your farm? (1=Yes, 2=No, 99 = Don’t know)

    1. (a)

      Increased rainfall /an extended rainy season

    2. (b)

      Decreased rainfall / a shortened rainy season

    3. (c)

      The rains come earlier

    4. (d)

      The rains come later

    5. (e)

      There are more periods of drought

    6. (f)

      There are fewer periods of drought

1.3 Both versions

  1. 1.

    What adjustments in your farming have you made to these long term shifts

    1. (a)

      Planted different varieties

    2. (b)

      Planted different crops

    3. (c)

      Crop diversification

    4. (d)

      Introduced inter-cropping

    5. (e)

      Different planting dates

    6. (f)

      Earlier planting

    7. (g)

      Later planting

    8. (h)

      Changing quantity of land under cultivation

    9. (i)

      Change from crops to livestock

    10. (j)

      Change from livestock to crops

    11. (k)

      Made adjustments to livestock management

    12. (l)

      Change from farming to non-farming activity

    13. (m)

      Change from non-farming to farming activity

    14. (n)

      Increased use of irrigation /groundwater / watering

    15. (o)

      Decreased use of irrigation / groundwater / watering

    16. (p)

      Changed use of chemicals and fertilizers

    17. (q)

      Increased use of water conservation techniques

    18. (r)

      Decreased use of water conservation techniques

    19. (s)

      Used soil conservation techniques

    20. (t)

      Shading and sheltering / tree planting

    21. (u)

      Used insurance or weather derivatives

    22. (v)

      Prayer or ritual offering

    23. (w)

      Other [specify]

    24. (x)

      Made no adaptation

Appendix 2. Additional tables

Table 10 Stated adaptation and measured change: all respondents versus only change noticers
Table 11 Stated adaptation and change noticers
Table 12 Stated adaptation and measured change 2012–2018

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Munro, A. Using experimental manipulation of questionnaire design and a Kenyan panel to test for the reliability of reported perceptions of climate change and adaptation. Climatic Change 162, 1081–1105 (2020).

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