We all live on the same planet, but we experience different worlds.

Some farmers might understand climate change as short-term weather change, while others perceive shifting rainfall and temperature patterns across decades. Some climate modeling scientists see climate change as interlocking cause-and-effect chains. Others understand that beyond computer models, culture also influences climate change. One point that seems increasingly certain, nonetheless: These differences do not emerge from just differing levels of climate knowledge, they emerge from different worldviews.

By understanding that people with different worldviews actually construct different mental images of how climate change and the world work, climate change communicators can better craft their messages. And climate change activists, by meeting people “where they are,” can better help them build climate solutions.

That people understand different worlds is not a new idea. When psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that younger children systematically made mistakes that older children did not, he suspected that children actually operate at different cognitive levels as they mature. Piaget, for example, concluded that before seven years of age, children tend to believe that if they feel hunger, so too does everyone feel hunger. After age seven, however, they realize that others have their own points of view. Through such observations Piaget defined four stages of cognitive development. Other researchers have since mapped additional developmental stages for emotions, morality, ego, sexuality, spirituality, and more.

Although most people recognize that humans stop growing physically around age 20, they often do not realize that people can continue to grow cognitively, passing through later stages, possibly for the rest of their lives. People at different stages then may have different, even conflicting, understandings of climate change and the world.

STAGES and worldviews

University of Oslo Ph.D. student Gail Hochachka has been investigating the role of developmental psychology on climate change understanding. For her dissertation work, she applied the STAGES Matrix of ego development to show that as people mature, they view reality – climate change in particular – very differently.

She teamed up with psychologist Terri O’Fallon, who developed STAGES based on earlier cognitive development models. O’Fallon’s work defines 12 stages across three tiers – called concrete, subtle, and metaware, each consisting of several stages. People at earlier stages think in concrete terms. At the subtle stages they add abstract thinking, and at the later stages people can think about awareness itself. O’Fallon is one of numerous researchers who have studied this developmental unfolding of worldviews, and her stages map accordingly onto worldviews more commonly called traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral (see table).

Summary of the Four Principal Worldviews and How They See Climate Change
WorldviewFactorsHow Climate Change WorksSolutionsPossible Themes
TraditionalPerspective: Second person (other)
Objects: Concrete
Thought: Bits and pieces locally relevant
Time: Now and recent past
Seen as local weather causing personal effects (“my well is dry,” “I can’t plant beans on time”) caused by forces beyond control, such as fate or GodChange local behaviors for example to improve drainage so increased rains don’t destroy crops. Prefer what makes their lives better.God has sent these drastic weather changes to test our faith and responsibility in caring for and responsibly stewarding His glorious creation.
ModernPerspective: Third person (objective)
Object: Concrete and abstract
Thought: Cause and effect chains, logical, scientific, abstract thoughts
Time: Generations past and future
The result of interlocking cause-and-effect chains such as pollution, poorly applied technologies (fossil fuels, internal combustion engines, intensive agriculture), inept government policies, and market failures.New technologies (renewable energies, sustainable forestry, LEED-certified buildings) and ways of operating institutionally (federal incentive programs, EPA) and individually (retraining). Prefer quantitative evidence of problems and solutions.Climate change is a logical consequence of rapid human socio-technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution, and it can be solved through technical innovation, ingenuity, and geoengineering.
PostmodernPerspective: Fourth person (early)
Objects: Awareness itself
Thought: Systems, contextually sensitive, non-hierarchical models
Time: Distant past and distant future, evolutionary time
Caused by inappropriate human values (i.e., Modernist) driving place-based poor decisions that add up to global systemic problems. Problem also tied to environmental and social injustices which must be addressed for an equitable solution.Redefine humanity’s relationship to nature and change systems and ways people think in a complex economic, environmental, social system; includes earlier solutions as part of the integrated package. Prefer qualitative changes of heart and wellbeing.Human-induced climate change reflects the imbalance between those privileged few and the rest of humanity and nature seen as provoked by capitalism, greed, injustice, and environmental disregard.
IntegralPerspective: Fourth person (late)
Objects: Own and others’ awareness
Thoughts: Abstract plus how we create reality through cultural and development lenses, reflect on own projections
Time: All time, infinity, timelessness
Climate change is a social invention fed by different worldviews. It combines biophysical, social, economic, and psychological elements.All previous solutions plus helping people progress in their consciousness seeking tipping points in global awareness and participation. Prefer to see new and improved developmental processes evolve.Anthropogenic climate change includes and transcends physical dimensions, demanding humanity’s collective action, cultural evolution, and spiritual ascension.

Hochachka applied STAGES to climate change understanding in rural communities in El Salvador using a technique called photo voice. For this method she asked community members to take pictures that answered the following questions: “What is climate change to me? What are the impacts of climate change for me and my community? How am I adapting?”

They chose their most significant photos and then interpreted them in individual one-hour recorded interviews. The group then conducted a pattern-finding exercise with the photos and grouped them into 27 photos that best reflected the communities’ shared response to the questions.

Black-and-white and color images
While no worldview lens is more “correct” than any other, it does shape the beholder’s reality. (Photo: Courtesy of Jon Kohl)

The STAGES methodology normally uses a statistically robust sentence completion test. The interviewer provides a partial sentence, which the participant completes. Researchers score responses across three criteria that indicate the stage the participant’s response best represents:

Complexity of thought. At the traditional worldview (concrete), people think in bits and pieces of ideas that do not form coherent systems. Instead of climate change, people notice local weather change, that the well ran dry, or that forests burn. At the modern worldview (concrete and abstract), they visualize linear cause-and-effect relationships in systems. At the postmodern stage, their climate change understanding is more contextual, place-based, multigenerational, and cultural. At the integral worldview, thinkers understand that we create reality with our thoughts.

Scope of time. Traditionalists think in the present moment and recent past. Modernists think about the distant past and future. At later postmodern and integral worldviews, people think across generations, understand evolutionary time all the way back to the Big Bang, and even timelessness itself.

Object awareness. Traditionalists are aware of physical objects such as rain and storms while modernist thinkers may consider abstract ideas such as rainfall patterns and the destabilization of the polar jet stream. Later, postmodernists and integralists are aware of the effects of culture, worldviews, and eventually awareness itself. As object awareness increases, people “see” more of climate change.

Together these criteria locate a person’s responses along the STAGES matrix. For the El Salvador project, Hochachka used a modified version of the methodology to analyze responses without needing partial sentences. Hochachka found that even in small seemingly homogenous towns in rural El Salvador, responses ranged almost evenly across the first three worldviews described above. She reflects on the diversity or plasticity of community climate change views that she found: “The main finding from this analysis is that a developmental approach can help to make sense of why there is such plasticity of meanings about climate change.” Global Environmental Change published her results in 2019.

Importance of developmental psychology for climate change communication

Researchers often apply social psychology to climate change, most notably to classify people’s related beliefs and attitudes. The leading example: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s Six Americas model,* for example, groups Americans into six different concern levels. Beyond answering the what/how/why of people’s beliefs about climate change, the Yale group’s additional research addresses issues ranging from cognitive processing, affect and emotion to social norms, political identity and ideology, values and worldviews, and impacts of media coverage.

Fallon says that developmental psychology also can contribute to that greater understanding of what people believe, how they construct meaning, and why they do so at different levels. Referring to Hochachka’s work with STAGES in which she constructed an inventory of participant beliefs, O’Fallon observes, “When you collect the viewpoints of many different participants who take this inventory you can begin to see the patterns of perspectives and thinking people have at each developmental level. This includes many people at each developmental stage which can indicate the ‘social psychology’ (collective perspectives at each stage) that drives social behavior.”

Understanding these stage-based beliefs can help climate communicators translate different messages into meanings consistent with how different groups think: It’s a step up from simply dismissing their beliefs, editing them, patching one kind of knowledge on top of another, or, worse yet, labeling them as climate illiterate.

“What if someone were to translate their meaning-making?” Hochachka asks on the Daily Evolver podcast, referring to the process by which people understand something. “How would they build that out into an adaptation strategy,” she continues, “but not from climate science, but from within their own meaning-making?”

For climate change communicators and activists, according to Hochachka,  the implication is that allowing people to create climate change meaning through their worldview – what she calls “meaning-making sovereignty” – rather than imposing meaning from another worldview such as when climate scientists try to “educate” traditionalists with their scientific-modern perspective, empowers people to muster increased enthusiasm, involvement, and sustained commitment to take constructive climate action.

Jon Kohl, a freelance writer based in Costa Rica, is executive director of the non-profit PUP Global Heritage Consortium.

*Editor’s note: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication is the publisher of Yale Climate Connections.