What Australians really think about climate change

We’d like someone to do something about climate change, but we’d rather it didn’t cost too much. shell belle/Flickr

Current discussion in the news media highlights how polarised the issue of climate change has become. However, recent scientific research has shown that most Australians are sure about climate change and that those who have a preference for inaction are in the minority.

In late 2010 we conducted an internet survey with a random sample of 1,602 Australians to understand the current attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and knowledge of the Australian general public about climate change issues, their responses to climate change, and their preferred methods of communication about these issues.

Consistent with our earlier research the results showed the majority of respondents (78%) indicated a belief that climate change is real.

Only 7% believe that climate change is not happening, while 15% are unsure.

Can we see climate change now?

The majority of respondents who believe to some extent in the reality of climate change indicated they felt that climate change impacts were either fairly likely or very likely.

They perceive that climate change will have a significant impact globally, nationally and on future generations, and a lesser impact on a local and personal level.

Adverse weather patterns, temperature changes and seasonal changes were cited as evidence that climate change is already happening.

Those that believed climate change will occur in the next 30 years, cited climate change being part of a natural cycle, evidence of the commencement of small scale changes, and increasing population.

Those who suggested that climate change is not happening and won’t in the future generally believe that information about climate change is propaganda, or that any evidence of change is part of a natural environmental cycle.

Respondents who were unsure about climate change most commonly cited a lack of knowledge and the presence of conflicting opinions in the media about the nature of climate change as the reasons for their response.

How much do you know about climate change?

In response to the question “I have a clear understanding of climate change science” the mean response was 3.04 (SD=0.98) indicating a slightly positive stance overall.

The most common response was the midpoint (3) option of neither agrees nor disagrees (44%).

About one third of respondents felt they had an understanding of climate change science, where 377 (24%) respondents somewhat agreed and 108 (7%) strongly agreed.

In response to a range of questions to measure respondents’ actual knowledge of climate change it was found that the public’s level of knowledge remains moderate to low.

Not surprisingly therefore, 58% of the sample surveyed indicated a desire to learn more about climate change. The key reasons listed for wishing to learn about climate change were to be better informed, to have sufficient knowledge to reduce climate change impacts, and to be able to form a more balanced view on the topic.

Topics of interest highlighted by respondents include the impact of climate change, individual action options, and more general information about climate change issues.

Who should do something about this?

When it comes to taking action on climate change the majority of respondents believe that everyone has a role to play to reduce the impact of climate change including individuals, the wider community and governments.

Support was given for ongoing research into renewable energy and for encouraging reduced energy consumption. There was little support for inaction.

Preferred government responses were those that limited the financial burden on the public. Given that one third of respondents cited the cost of living and financial hardships as one of the three most important issues currently facing Australia, this preference is perhaps not surprising.

However, early action has been identified in reports by Nicholas Stern in the UK and Ross Garnaut in Australia as the lowest cost way to address climate change. This creates a challenge for governments wanting to act responsibly.

How important is climate change?

When compared to the list of important issues, climate change was rated as the fifth most important behind the cost of living, the economy and the global financial crisis, employment and the health system. It was ahead of other issues such as immigration, education, and crime and justice.

However, when asked what are the three most important environmental problems facing Australia today, almost one quarter of respondents considered climate change and its related topics to be the most important environmental issue. 22% considered water to be the most important issue.

Climate adaptation options for governments such as preparing for sea level rises, increased funding for emergency services to prepare for climate impacts, creating new industries to address climate change issues, and helping business to adapt were all supported. Preferred action options for individuals included reduced energy use, recycling and using renewable energy sources.

What do we do with numbers like these?

Although recent social research indicates that the majority of Australians are concerned about climate change, our research indicates that many are conflicted about the issues.

While there is a majority belief that action needs to be taken by Australia in relation to climate change, to some extent this belief may be tempered by the respondents’ key concerns about the cost of living and financial hardship.

Perhaps the essential challenge for society is to clarify the relatively minor costs of acting now compared to those of acting later. We need to find a path forward that proactively address the needs of individuals while encouraging action on climate change.