To communicate climate change and adaptation to stakeholders such as European forest owners is a challenge. A capacity to adapt to climate change has, until now, mainly been understood as how trees and forest ecosystems can adapt to climate change and which socio-economic factors determine the implementation of adaptive measures.

The new study lead by Kristina Blennow from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), shows, for the first time, the importance of two personal factors; when forest owners believe in and see the effects of climate change, they are more likely to have taken adaptive measures. These two personal factors almost completely explain and predict forest owners’ adaptation to climate change.

The paper was published online in the journal PLOS ONE on 21 November 2012.

Knowing what triggers humans to respond to climate change is crucial in communicating climate change policies. Because climate is defined in terms of average weather, climate change has been claimed to have low salience as a risk issue because it cannot be directly experienced. An international team of scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Lund University (Sweden), the Technical University of Lisbon (Portugal), the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL and the University of Freiburg (Germany) present, based on survey data from 845 private forest owners operating across Europe, that a substantial proportion of the respondents strongly believe that they have directly perceived climate change. Furthermore, the researchers present the first evidence that the personal strength of belief and perception of local effects of climate change significantly and almost completely explain and predict their responses to climate change.

The results are based on responses to a questionnaire among private forest owners in Sweden, Germany and Portugal. These countries represent a north-south gradient across Europe and cover a wide range of bio-climatic conditions as well as economic-social-political structures. In addition to socio-demographic data (gender, age, size of forest holding etc.), the survey addressed three main questions: how strongly do forest owners believe that climate change will affect their forest, how strongly do they believe that they have experienced local effects of climate change and have they adapted their forest management in response to climate change? Using statistical models, the collected data was used to simulate estimated expected probabilities of having taken measures to adapt to climate change.

Fifty percent of the forest area in Europe is privately owned. Hence, the results of the study show that the personal climate change belief and perception of those who make decisions for adaptation at the local level strongly influences the adaptive capacity of a substantial proportion of the European forest sector.

The findings of the team of researchers have implications for effective climate change policy communication. They indicate that gathering and disseminating evidence of climate change and its effects could be an efficient strategy to increase people’s perceptions of having experienced climate change and hence to consider the need to take adaptive measures.

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