A Tiny Fraction Of Australians Think Climate Change Isn't Happening, But Say Half The Country Agrees With Them

Dr Zoe Leviston. Photo supplied

Four out of every five Australians think climate change is happening, the CSIRO’s fourth annual study into national attitudes to the issue has found.

More than 5000 Australians were surveyed on a range of environmental issues and while there’s been little change in the community’s view on the reality of climate change, with 81% saying it’s real, the issue doesn’t rate highly in importance, coming 14th out of 16 general concerns, and and 7th out of 8 environmental concerns.

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that those opposed to the belief have a skewed view of what they think others think. Less than 8% of respondents thought climate change was not happening at all, but thought almost 50% of the Australian public shared their view.

In a reflection of a noisy public debate on the issue, the prevalence of the view that climate change is not happening was overestimated by people of all opinion-types.

The CSIRO study, first conducted in 2010 is a fascinating snapshot of the Australian psyche. Co-author Dr Zoe Levinston, a social scientist, wrote on the CSIRO blog that they asked what people were doing in their everyday lives, such as recycling or using renewable energy, to respond to climate change.

She published the following chart of behaviours.

And here’s where it gets fascinating. She writes:

When we added up all the actions people said yes to (regardless of why they were doing them), we found a normal distribution of responses: a few people did not much of anything; quite a lot of people did a moderate amount; and a few people did a great deal.

We then asked our respondents this question: “How much do you think you do compared to the average Australian: a lot less, a little less, about the same, a bit more, or a lot more?” Here’s what they said.

Dr Levinston goes on:

So how good were our 5000 respondents at guessing how they compared with others? To find out, we cross-referenced what people said they did with their estimates of how they compared with an average Australian.

Just under one-quarter (21.5%) got it about right: regardless of how many actions they performed, their assessment of where they stood in relation to other people was fairly accurate.

The same amount (21.5%) were what we might call “self-deprecating”: they undervalued their comparative performance.

But more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were compared to others.

Below are some of key findings from the executive summary of the Fourth annual survey of Australian attitudes to climate change: Interim report.

You can download the full report – and earlier ones – here.

Climate change attitudes

  • More than 80% of respondents thought climate change was happening, similar to previous surveys. On average, respondents estimated that human activity accounted for about 62% of changes to the climate.
  • People are more likely to think that human activity is the cause (47%) as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%).
  • There is little familiarity with climate change terminology.

Climate Change Behaviour

  • Environmental motivations figured more prominently for respondents engaging in more behaviours, while financial motivations dominated for respondents engaging in fewer behaviours.
  • More than 90% of respondents estimated they engaged in the same or more behaviours than other Australians. Less than 7% thought they did less than other Australians.
  • For respondents engaging in relatively few behaviours, only 10% thought they did less than the average Australian.
  • Tested together, personal relevance, feelings of moral and ethical responsibility, and experience with climate change, were the strongest predictors of pro-environmental behaviour.
  • Levels of surety that climate change was happening and threat perception, however, made no significant additional contribution to predicting behaviour.

Climate change estimates

  • People think extreme climate and weather events will increase more in intensity than frequency in the future.
  • The majority of respondents thought their region had become hotter since 1990, and would be hotter in 20 and 40 years’ time.
  • The majority of respondents thought their region had become wetter since 1990, but would get drier in 20 and 40 years’ time.
  • Roughly 25% to 30% of respondents thought both temperature and rainfall had remained and would remain stable in their region.

Ability to cope

  • Respondents anticipated they would cope moderately well (financially, mentally, and physically) with a changing climate, but lower coping was anticipated for events where respondents had little prior experience of loss, damage, or injury.
  • Natural ecosystems and food security were rated by respondents as the most vulnerable sectors, while tourism was rated as the least vulnerable sector.
  • Most support was given to investment in renewable energy resources, while least support was given to investment in nuclear power stations.
  • Moderate support was given for taxing industries that emit high levels of greenhouse gases.

Changes in attitude 2010-13

  • Attitudes to climate change, and climate-relevant behaviours, have remained relatively stable since 2010, with a few minor exceptions.
  • People are now slightly more trusting of a range of agencies to tell them the truth about climate change, through overall trust levels remain modest.
  • While there were no changes over time, trust in university scientists, and friends and family, remained highest throughout the time period.
  • People are slightly more positive now about the potential outcomes of responding to climate change.

  • Conversely, respondents were less likely to say that responding to climate change would cost too much money and jobs, and that nothing meaningful could be done by Australia about climate change.

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