What shapes Australians' climate change view?

Climate scepticism takes on several dimensions and varies across gender, age and education lines. It also appears that a fossil fuel addiction, like Australia's, fuels a psychological response to downplay the threat.

The Conversation

There is growing evidence that public opinion about climate change is shifting over time. In many countries, surveys reveal that people are becoming less worried, and in some cases more sceptical about climate change, even while awareness of climate change is increasing.

This shift in public opinion has also been documented in Australia. A recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, reveals that in 2007–08, 73 per cent of Australians stated that they were concerned about climate change, but by 2011–12 this had fallen to 57 per cent.

Scepticism about climate change can take on many dimensions. Individuals may be unconvinced that global temperatures are increasing (trend sceptics). They may acknowledge the existence of climate change but not believe that human activity contributes to it (attribution sceptics). Or, they may acknowledge its existence, and the role of human activity, but not believe that it is going to have any serious consequences (impact sceptics).

A 2011 CSIRO survey of Australian attitudes to climate change found that about 7 per cent of respondents did not think climate change is happening (trend sceptics). Just over 40 per cent believed it is happening but that it is just a natural fluctuation in the Earth’s temperature (attribution sceptics). There is some evidence however that these different forms of scepticism tend to go hand in hand with each other.

Between 2010-2012 people in several different countries, including Australia, were asked about climate change as part of the International Social Survey Programme. Individuals were asked which environmental problem was the most important for their country. They were able to choose from a list of environmental issues including air pollution, water shortage and climate change. In Australia climate change was identified as the third most important problem after water shortage and using up natural resources.

Source: International Social Survey Programme 2010

In Japan, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Norway, 25 per cent or more of the population identified climate change as the most important concern for their country. In several countries, including Norway, Sweden and Spain, climate change was even ranked as the most important environmental issue.

Another question asked people to judge whether the statement “every time we use coal, oil or gas we contribute to climate change” was definitely true, probably true, probably not true or definitely not true. In Australia 24 per cent believed the statement to be “probably not true” or “definitely not true”. This level of scepticism about the role of fossil fuels in contributing to climate change was higher than any other country.

Source: International Social Survey Programme 2010

Some suggest that countries are most likely to downplay or deny the existence of climate change if they have high carbon dioxide emissions and few measures to address climate change. This is thought to be a psychological effect which allows people to avoid the emotional and psychological conflicts that may arise from acknowledging the “uncomfortable truth” that their actions might cause climate change.

In Australia we find that knowledge about the role of fossil fuels in contributing to climate change is strongly related to education, sex and age. For people with Year 11 or below, 57 per cent thought that it was true that fossil fuels contributed to climate change. This compared to three-quarters of those with a university degree. It is also interesting to note that 1 out of 10 respondents with Year 11 or below education answered that they “could not choose” whether they thought the statement was true or not.

Older respondents were also more likely to say that they did not believe coal, oil or gas use had an impact on climate change. Men were also more sceptical: 26 per cent of men believed the statement to be not true compared to 20 per cent of women. Gender differences in belief about climate change have also been found in other research but there is no consensus about what lies behind this gender pattern.

For many people climate change is a remote issue. Their perception of risk is limited by the fact that it is a global and long-term issue, and by the way the debate is framed in the media and who is delivering the message.

Understanding what the general public thinks about climate change is important because attitudes towards climate change shape individual behaviour (including household energy use and use of public transport). Governments require strong public support to implement policies to address climate change.

Ann Evans is a demographer with an interest in the family and social attitudes at Australian National University. Anna Reimondos is a Research Assistant, Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, Australian National University.

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Republished with permission.

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