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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Explaining climate-sensitive decision-making : on the relationship between cognitive logic and climate-adaptive behaviour Findlater, Kieran Mark


The harmonization of climate-adaptive behaviour with pre-existing decision-making processes is central to the way climate change adaptation is described in the literature. Yet such behaviour is largely understudied, making it difficult to predict whether and how individuals can integrate (i.e., ‘mainstream’) climate change with risk management processes for weather and other ‘normal’ stressors. In this dissertation, I examine the decision-making processes of South Africa’s commercial grain farmers, as a uniquely informative case, through five complementary studies of two original datasets. I seek to better understand the relationship between risk perceptions and climate-adaptive behaviour in this group, who are known to be sensitive to weather risks and who are adopting climate-resilient farming practices (i.e., Conservation Agriculture (CA)), but who are nonetheless perceived by local experts to be insensitive to climate change risks. In doing so, I distinguish between weather-sensitive decision-making, in which farmers perceive and react to weather risks in conjunction with other ‘normal’ risks, and climate-sensitive decision-making, in which they also perceive and react to the anticipated effects of climate change. Using mental models interviews in the Western Cape province (N = 90), I first reconceptualise farmers’ risk-based decision-making processes, drawing on theories of risk perception and framing from cognitive psychology and behavioural economics to interpret the empirical evidence. Second, I explain the variation in farmers’ adoption of climate-resilient CA practices based on the different cognitive frames (expressed as linguistic frames) that they use to perceive, interpret and respond to weather risks. Third, I use these results to guide the quantitative analysis of a national survey (N = 441), with which I assess the utility of the CA concept in promoting, monitoring and evaluating sustainable and climate-resilient farming practices, as envisioned by the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification frameworks. Fourth, I use the interview data to evaluate whether and how farmers integrate climate change and weather risks in farm-level decision-making. Fifth, I build on these findings by using the survey data to quantitatively test whether farmers perceive weather and climate change as equivalent risks.

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