Kieran Findlater, PhD

Environmental Risk and Decision Making

Kieran Findlater, PhD, PAg



I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia, collaborating on projects based in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, the Department of Geography, and the Department of Forest Resources Management. Broadly speaking, I am an interdisciplinary environmental researcher investigating individual, institutional and societal responses to complex sustainability problems, especially those related to climate risks and climate change adaptation.

Specifically, I am currently conducting research on how people make decisions about environmental risks – that is, how they perceive, understand and respond to these stimuli, guided by their lived experience, education, social learning and other sources of information. I take a problem-oriented mixed-methods approach, emphasizing methodological innovation and continuous stakeholder and policy engagement. My primary work uses novel methods (combining mental models, interviews and surveys) to gather and analyze data on individual in situ decision making about weather and climate change risks. How are these risks coordinated with each other, and how are they integrated with all of the other goals or concerns that people usually think about?

Please do not hesitate to reach out, by email or social media, to discuss any of my ongoing projects, to propose new work and new lines of inquiry, or simply to chat. I am actively seeking new opportunities, both within and beyond the academic research environment. My current place of residence is Ottawa, Canada, but my outlook is global.


Featured Publications

A short list of featured publications. You may find a more complete list on the Publications tab.

Farmers’ risk‐based decision making under pervasive uncertainty: Cognitive thresholds and hazy hedging


This paper revisits farmer decision making using an in-depth, in-situ mental models approach with a focus on climate change and conservation agriculture. We assess how large‐scale commercial grain farmers in South Africa (n = 90) coordinate decisions about weather, climate variability, and climate change with those around other environmental, agronomic, economic, political, and personal risks that they manage every day. Contrary to all-too-common simplifying assumptions, we show that these farmers tend to satisfice rather than optimize as they face intractable and multifaceted uncertainty; they make imperfect use of limited information; they are differently averse to different risks; they make decisions on multiple time horizons; they are cautious in responding to changing conditions; and their diverse risk perceptions contribute to important differences in individual behaviors. In an increasingly risky, uncertain and complex world, they use two important strategies to make practical decisions: cognitive thresholds and hazy hedging. These strategies, evident in farmers' simultaneous use of conservation agriculture and livestock to manage weather risks, are the messy in situ performance of naturalistic decision‐making techniques. These results may inform continued research on such behavioral tendencies in narrower lab‐ and modeling‐based studies.

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Six languages for a risky climate: How farmers react to weather and climate change


This analysis tests the relationship between the cognitive orientations and climate-adaptive practices of commercial grain farmers in South Africa. It uses an innovative, multi-layered, interdisciplinary method to generate important insights into the in situ practice of climate-adaptive decision making. I show that farmers use six exhaustive and mutually exclusive linguistic framings (agricultural, cognitive, economic, emotional, political and survival) in describing weather and climate risks. The prevalence of these framings (especially ‘emotional’ and ‘survival’) strongly predicts their adoption of conservation agriculture, a climate-resilient set of best practices. But these framings and their practical effects are difficult to discern using common research methods. Survival framing, for instance, is a consequential mindset rather than a financial state, and would therefore go undetected in conventional studies that rely on direct survey or interview questions.

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Free read-only version:

Integration anxiety: The cognitive isolation of climate change


In this analysis, I examine the relationship between weather and climate risk management by commercial grain farmers in South Africa. The results yield important insights into the challenges that farmers must overcome in ‘mainstreaming’ climate change adaptation so that climate risks can be managed efficiently and effectively in coordination with other objectives. In particular, I find that these farmers isolate climate change from their mental models of weather and other ‘normal’ risks, which will make it difficult to manage climate risks rationally, or to integrate climate-adaptive responses with other decisions. The paper further reinforces the need to pay attention to the messy ways in which farmers actually make decisions. Following publication, this paper was featured by Nature Climate Change in their Research Highlights as one of four notable contributions to the climate change literature in May 2018, and the only social science paper covered that month.

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decision making
risk perceptions
risk communication
climate change




Ph.D. Resources, Environment and Sustainability


M.Sc. Resource Management & Environmental Studies


B.Sc. Biological Sciences / Earth & Atmospheric Sciences (double major)




Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability

School of Public Policy and Global Affairs

Department of Forest Resources Management


Professional Agrologist (P.Ag.)

Selected Awards

UBC, Freda Pagani Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis (IRES)

Society for Risk Analysis, International Travel Award

UBC, Faculty of Science Graduate Award

UBC, Les Lavkulich Scholarship for Resources and Environment

IODE Canada, IODE War Memorial Doctoral Scholarship

UBC, Olav Slaymaker Fellowship in Environment

UBC, Liu Institute for Global Issues, Liu Scholar

UBC, Four Year Doctoral Fellowship

NSERC, Canada Graduate Scholarship

The Killam Trusts, Killam Memorial Pre-Doctoral Fellowship

NSERC, Postgraduate Scholarship (PhD)

Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Student Excellence Award

NSERC, Postgraduate Scholarship (MSc)


International Development Research Centre, Doctoral Research Grant

Centre for International Governance Innovation, Graduate Research Grant

NSERC, Foreign Study Supplement