Climate Change and Individual Decision Making: An Examination of Knowledge, Risk Perception, Self-Interest and their Interplay

32 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2011

See all articles by Francesca Pongiglione

Francesca Pongiglione

Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele; Post-Doctoral Fellow, Università di Bologna; Visiting Fellow, FEEM

Date Written: November 16, 2011


In this essay, three separate yet interconnected components of pro-environmental decision making are considered: knowledge, in the form of basic scientific understanding and procedural knowledge, risk perception, as it relates to an individual’s direct experience of climate change and self-interest, either monetary or status-driven. Drawing on a variety of sources in public policy, psychology, and economics, I examine the role of these concepts in inducing or discouraging pro-environmental behavior. Past researches have often overemphasized the weight of just one of those variables in the decision making. I argue, instead, that none of them alone is capable of bringing about the behavioral change required by the environmental crisis. Evidence shows that increasing the public’s scientific knowledge of climate change cannot unilaterally bring about a strong behavioral change. The same can be noticed even when knowledge is joined by risk-perception: deep psychological mechanisms may steer people towards inaction and apathy, despite their direct experience of the detrimental effects of climate change on their lives. Focusing on self-interest alone is similarly unable to induce pro-environmental behavior, due to a host of psychological factors. Instead, in all of the above cases an important missing ingredient may be found in providing the public with locally contextualized procedural knowledge in order to translate its knowledge and concern into action. The importance of this kind of practical knowledge has solid empirical and theoretical underpinnings, and is often overlooked in the climate-change debate that tends to focus on more high-level issues. Yet, for all its essential simplicity, it may carry important public-policy implications.

Keywords: individual behavior, climate-change, psychology, uncertainty

JEL Classification: D03, D80, Q00

Suggested Citation

Pongiglione, Francesca, Climate Change and Individual Decision Making: An Examination of Knowledge, Risk Perception, Self-Interest and their Interplay (November 16, 2011). FEEM Working Paper No. 72.2011, Available at SSRN: or

Francesca Pongiglione (Contact Author)

Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele ( email )

Via Olgettina 58
Milan, 20132

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Università di Bologna ( email )

Piazza Scaravilli 2
Bologna, 40100

Visiting Fellow, FEEM ( email ) Magenta 63
Milano, 20123

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