Changing Perceptions about Climate Change

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Professor Joseph Reser
Griffith University
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final report

What follows is a distillation and summary of more noteworthy findings of a second Australian national survey undertaken by Griffith University researchers between 15 July and 8 August, 2011.  The study was based on a geographically and demographically stratified national sample of 4347 individuals and followed a similar survey of 3096 respondents conducted in mid-2010.  Both samples were further stratified by regional exposure to projected climate change impacts, extreme weather vulnerability, and gender.  This second report follows our initial 2010 survey report released on 31 July, 2011, which included national and international comparison findings, methodological and statistical details, and background information.  Both this current and the companion report also include the reporting and discussion of qualitative research findings.  

The researchers are applied psychologists and social scientists with convergent interests and expertise relating to the phenomenon and threat of global climate change, and in particular public risk perceptions, understandings, adaptation responses, and the documentation and monitoring of the psychological and social impacts of climate change.  The likely audience for this second report, as for the first, is diverse, including fellow climate change researchers, our funding bodies, federal and state level government policy advisers, the Pacific region authors of the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, multiple organisational end users, interested individuals, and an international research community.  We have attempted to write a report and monograph that will be accessible and meaningful across this wide spectrum of interest, and have provided a selective glossary in those cases where terms or phrases might not be familiar to some readers and where there might exist problems of language use and meaning across disciplinary boundaries, and with respect to both historical and emergent cultures of use.


The most important problem

1. The initial survey question asked was “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?”  The most frequent serious problem mentioned by respondents was climate change or the environment, with this problem category being given three times as often (39% of respondents) as the next most frequently mentioned problem, overpopulation (13%), followed by poverty and hunger (11%) and the economy/unemployment (6%).

Monitoring change and impacts 

2. Survey findings are identifying and monitoring specific psychological responses to and psychological impacts of the threat of climate change, such as climate change acceptance, concern, distress, resolve, and psychological as well as behavioural adaptation.

3. When the full set of responses to the 2010 and 2011 surveys are compared, the most general survey finding is one of modest change against a backdrop of appreciable stability, and a tendency for many respondents to have strengthened their respective views, beliefs, and concerns.  

Public belief in climate change

4. Survey findings in 2011 fully confirmed strong levels of belief and acceptance that climate change is both a very real threat and is already taking place in Australia.  When asked, “As far as you know, do you personally think the world’s climate is changing?”, 74% of respondents in both 2010 and 2011 said ‘yes’.  

5. Seventy percent of respondents in 2011 either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘tended to agree’ with the statement “I am certain that climate change is really happening.”  Seven percent ‘strongly disagreed’ as compared with 5% in 2010.  

6. Fifty percent of respondents in 2011 reported that Australia was ‘already feeling the effects of climate change’.  


7. Scepticism with respect to the reality of climate change was carefully considered and assessed in 2010 and 2011.  On the basis of answers to four individual but convergent survey questions the proportion of 2011 respondents who could be considered strong sceptics or disbelievers with respect to climate change was found to be 4.7%, using a more stringent criterion, and 8.5% using a less stringent criterion.  Comparison figures for 2010 respondents were 3.0% and 6.5%, respectively.  Other Australian social science-based national surveys undertaken in this time period report comparable figures of 7%.

Public concern about climate change

8. Almost two thirds of 2011 respondents (64%) reported being ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ concerned about climate change with this level of concern being similar to respondent concern levels in 2010 (66%), and with an additional 22% of respondents indicating some level of concern across both years.  

9. Seventy-six percent of respondents judged that if nothing was done to reduce climate change it would be a ‘very serious’ (45%) or ‘somewhat serious’ (31%) problem for the world.  

10. Two thirds of respondents (66%) in 2011 judged that climate change was a serious problem ‘right now’.

11. Fifty-three percent of respondents in 2011 reported that their level of concern about climate change had increased over the preceding two years, with 35% indicating that their level of concern had stayed about the same.

12. Reasons given for reported increased concern were predominately: increased awareness about the nature, magnitude, and possible consequences of climate change; media coverage of climate change; lack of action by government on climate change; and the perceived increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Energy futures

13. Respondent preference profiles for alternative energy sources in 2011 were very similar to those found in 2010.  Sun/solar power continued to be the most favoured energy source.  Wind power was the second most favoured energy source for both samples, with hydro-electric power the third most favoured source.  Gas went from fourth most favoured energy source to fifth in 2011.  Coal went from seventh rating to sixth in 2011, possibly reflecting a slight increase in preference.  The rated favourability of nuclear power dropped from a ranking of sixth in 2010 to the least favoured of energy sources (eighth) in 2011.


Causal understandings

14. To squarely address causal understandings of climate change, respondents were asked, “Thinking about the causes of climate change, which of the following best describes your opinion?”, with response options covering all combinations of natural and/or human causation possibilities, and a “There is no such thing as climate change” option.  Eighty-seven percent of respondents in 2011 accepted some level of human causality for climate change and only 4.2% of respondents selected “There is no such thing as climate change”.  The great majority of respondents (83%) thought that both natural and human causes were contributing to climate change.

Objective and subjective knowledge and public understandings

15. Objective knowledge of climate change was strongly associated with climate change concern (r = .59), belief/acceptance (r = .58), risk appraisal (r = .49), perceived responsibility (r = .49), psychological adaptation to climate change (r = .46), self-efficacy (r = .46), climate change distress(r = .45), trust (r = .40), behavioural engagement (r = .36), and perceived direct experience with climate change (r = .35).

16. Respondent objective knowledge levels about matters relating to the underlying science of climate change and projected impacts were modest, with respondents getting, on average, four to five out of 10 true/false/don’t know statements about climate change correct. 

17. In 2011 as in 2010 the relationship between self-reported knowledge about climate change and objectively assessed knowledge about climate change was very weak, with a correlation of r = .12.  In both years objective knowledge was higher among female respondents than it was for males.  Interestingly, subjective knowledge was significantly higher for males than is was for females. 

18. Objective knowledge of the underlying science of climate change and projected impacts in 2011 was slightly lower than objective knowledge scores in 2010.  No significant difference was found for self-reported knowledge levels between 2010 and 2011 respondent samples.

19. Respondent understandings of climate change were both distinct from and more encompassing than objective knowledge of climate change science.  These understandings included important emotional responses; perceived responsibility and extent of causal and corrective human agency, moral considerations, personal experience-based understandings of environmental change and extreme weather events, and cultural and symbolic associations and understandings.

20. Climate change appeared to be understood by most respondents as a very genuine risk domain, but one that is imbued with very mixed response associations with respect to its natural/technological disaster character, cost implications, media treatment and credibility, perceived scientific consensus, and faith/trust in science and societal resources to effectively manage the climate change threat.

The interrelatedness of climate change and natural disasters in public understandings

21. There is a very strong climate change signal in extreme weather events and natural disasters for both 2010 and 2011 survey respondents.

22. Research findings suggest an important nexus between climate change and natural disasters/extreme weather events in public perceptions and understandings, as evidenced by respondents’ comments about, descriptions, and reported direct experiences of climate change, which reflected understandings of climate change principally in terms of extreme weather events and natural disaster manifestations and consequences.

23. In response to the question, “Overall, how much do you think climate change is influencing the frequency and intensity of weather events?”, 47% of respondents selected the two highest causal influence response options, ‘a good deal’ and ‘moderately’, indicating that climate change is being viewed by many as an important causal factor in recent extreme weather events in Australia.

Respondents’ cumulative life experience with natural disasters 

24. Many respondents reported extensive exposure to and experience with natural disasters, with the percentages of respondents in 2011 reporting direct experience with differing types of disasters being: cyclones (18%), bushfires (23%), drought (25%), and floods (29%).

25. Reported direct disaster experience over the 12-month period preceding the survey and including the 2010-2011 ‘summer of disasters’ was also very substantial, with 29% of the national sample of 4347 experiencing flooding event(s), and 9% experiencing cyclone event(s), over this period.  Ninety-nine individuals experienced a cyclone event more than once over this period, 44 experienced a bushfire more than once, 29 experienced drought more than once, and 203 experienced floods more than once during this eventful year.

26. Cumulative life experience with natural disasters did not evidence strong or noteworthy associations with other climate change response variables.

Direct experience with environmental changes or events thought to be associated with climate change

27. A striking finding in both the 2010 and 2011 surveys was that 45% of respondents reported having had direct personal experience with changes or events thought to be associated with climate change.  

28. Even more noteworthy was that such encounters or experiences appeared to be particularly significant and influential, with dramatic differences found across all core response measures between those having had such encounters and those without such reported experience.

29. Analyses from multiple quantitative and qualitative vantage points indicate that these differences are not simply a reflection of believing is seeing.  Rather, they seem to reflect a powerful combination of direct experience, personal confirmation, and a realisation that the more indirect, virtual, and psychologically distanced phenomenon and threat of climate change is actually a very real and current reality in one’s local, known, and ‘own’environment and place. 

Psychological impacts of climate change and natural disasters

30. Survey findings suggest that the Australian public has been experiencing a range of psychological impacts relating to the threat of climate change, with these psychological responses and impacts in turn associated with psychological adaptation processes and behavioural responses.  

31. In addition to the 86% of respondents reporting some level of concern about climate change, 27% of respondents reported thinking about the issue of climate change ‘a great deal’ or ‘often’, and 20% of respondents reported feeling, at times, appreciable distress at the prospect and implications of climate change and its consequences.

32. Experienced psychological distress in response to the climate change threat was found to be the strongest predictor of psychological adaptation to climate change in the comprehensive structural equation modeling analyses undertaken, with psychological adaptation powerfully mediating the relationship between distress and behavioural engagement.

33. As suggested by the above finding, the psychological impacts of climate change appear to be strongly motivating for many, with strong associations found between climate change distress and each of: adaptation (r = .75), felt responsibility (r = .67), self-efficacy (r = .65), green self identity (r = .54), and behavioural engagement (r = .52).  These figures underscore the fact that psychological adaptation to climate change has both costs and benefits.

34. While direct experience with extreme weather events and natural disasters was associated with strong psychological impacts for many respondents, cumulative adverse experience with natural disasters surprisingly evidenced only very modest associations with a limited number of research variables, including indirect exposure (r = .20), residential exposure/vulnerability (r = .13), and psychological adaptation (r = .10), suggesting nonlinear, weaker, and/or more complex relationships across these and other research variables. 

Exposure and vulnerability

35. Forty-five percent of respondents reported that they live within 50 kilometres of areas “frequently affected by extreme weather events or natural disasters.

36. Fifty-four percent of respondents thought that the region where they lived was vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with 28% of respondents indicating that their location was ‘very’ or ‘likely’ vulnerable.  

37. Residential exposure (i.e., proximity of one’s residence to perceived climate change threats) and ‘indirect exposure’ (i.e., consumption of climate change risk messages via multi-media and personal contacts) were associated with climate change belief/acceptance, concern, and behavioural engagement.  Analyses revealed that these two types of exposure each contributed uniquely and positively to a range of climate change-related perceptions and responses.

38. Perceived residential exposure to extreme weather events and the impacts of climate change was positively associated with variables such as acceptance of climate change (r = .38), climate change concern (r = .45), climate change distress (r = .35), psychological adaptation to climate change (r = .40), objective knowledge of climate change (r = .33), and self efficacy  (r = .36), with all of these variables contributing to judgments as to the salience, local relevance, and perceived importance of known and anticipated environmental threats.

Public perceptions of and trust in scientists, government, and media

39. In response to the question, “How much do you trust what different sources say about the environment?” 54% of respondents responded ‘completely’ or ‘very substantially’ in the case of ‘scientists’ as compared with 49% in 2010.  The corresponding 2011 figures for the media and for government sources were only 5% and 9% respectively.

40. When asked for extent of agreement with the statement, “I trust the Australian government to take appropriate action on climate change,” 23% of respondents either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘tended to agree’ as compared with 16% of respondents in 2010.  Extent of disagreement with this statement went from 64% in 2010 to 55% in 2011, suggesting a marked and significant change in the direction of greater trust, though from a low base.

Self perceptions with respect to the environment 

41. Over 50% of respondents in 2010 and 2011 saw themselves as individuals who were very concerned with environmental issues, with 40% of each sample identifying with the aims of environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

42. Most respondents also evidenced a close felt connection and bond to their natural environment, with, for example, 78% of respondents in 2011 reporting some level of agreement with the statement, “I often feel that I am part of nature”.

Responsibility and moral considerations

43. Many respondents made reference to a felt moral responsibility in answering an open-ended question concerning reasons for engaging in pro-environmental behaviours, with responses such as ‘doing my bit’, ‘making a difference’, ‘making a contribution’, and ‘doing the right thing’ constituting the second highest category of self-reported motivations.


44. Self-reported motivation to address climate change was very strong in 2011, with findings being very similar to those in 2010.  Sixty-four percent of respondents in 2010 and 61% of respondents in 2011 either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘tended to agree’ with the statement “I am prepared to greatly reduce my energy use to help tackle climate change”.  

45. Additional motivation items in 2011 revealed that approximately 40% of respondents either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘tended to agree’ with the statements, “I want to change my lifestyle in ways that help to address climate change”, and “I feel a personal obligation to do what I can to prevent climate change”.

46. Felt responsibility to act was also strongly related to behavioural engagement, more so in 2011 than in 2010.

47. In an open-ended survey question in 2010 asking why individuals were engaging in behaviours that would reduce their carbon footprint, the most frequent responses given were associated financial benefit (17%) making a difference/doing my bit (14%), protecting/ helping the environment (11%), normative expectations (6%), and concerns for/caring for the environment (5%).

Political and policy considerations

48. Political party identification was closely associated with climate change beliefs, concerns, and behaviours, with respondents who identified with the Greens and Labor displaying greater acceptance, deeper distress, and more adaptive and mitigating behaviour than did those identifying with the National or Liberal parties.

49. When asked whether and in what way the Labor government’s planned tax on carbon emissions might have changed their voting intention, 8% of respondents indicated that the tax had made them ‘much more likely’ to vote Labor, 8% were ‘slightly more likely’ to vote Labor, 39% reported that their voting intentions were unchanged, 11% were ‘slightly less likely’ to vote Labor, and more than one-third of the sample 35%, were ‘much less likely’ to vote Labor. 

50. The issue of a tax on emissions appeared to have polarised members of the community, rather than having caused substantial numbers to change their voting intention, with the carbon tax-induced swing away from Labor coming primarily from non-Labor voting respondents.

Psychological adaptation

51. Survey findings suggest that Australians are clearly adapting to the threat and perceived environmental impacts of climate change by way of changes in thinking, feelings, risk perceptions and appraisals, motivations, and other psychological and behavioural responses to climate change. 

52. Survey respondents who evidenced high levels of psychological adaptation were more likely than other respondents to accept anthropogenic climate change, believe that Australians are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and have greater objective knowledge about climate change.  These survey respondents also were more likely to have had what they believe to be personal encounters with environmental events or changes associated with climate change, be concerned and distressed by the implications of climate change, be engaged with the topic and issue, and see themselves as more exposed and vulnerable to the anticipated consequences of climate change.

53. Survey findings in 2011 again highlighted the crucial roles played by psychological adaptation to climate change in mediating other core psychological factors and behavioural engagement.   This psychological adaptation was best predicted by climate change-induced distress, indirect media exposure to climate change messages, and felt responsibility to act, and it, in turn, directly predicted behavioural engagement.

54. Research findings strongly suggest that taking action and being engaged with the issue serves important needs with respect to psychological coping and emotion management, in addition to providing environmental benefits. 

Behavioural adaptation and engagement

55. Proportions of respondents who both had the opportunity and reported engaging in carbon reduction behavior varied from 51.9% (recycling) to 12.8% (reduce travel/vacation travel). Relatively high engagement was found for using energy efficient light bulbs (44.9%), conserving water (44.2%) and using less electricity (43.5%), while relatively low proportions were found for reducing air travel (14.6%), carpooling (19.1%), using public transport (20.1%), and buying carbon offsets (20.2%).

56. In the case of all behavior categories a substantial proportion of respondents (8 to 50%) reported engaging in the behavior partly because of climate change.

57. For 2011 respondents, buying organic food, using renewable energy, and reducing air travel were engaged in more than was the case in 2010.  Least favoured in both surveys were carpooling and buying carbon offsets.

Interrelationships between variables and mediating roles

58. Structural equation modeling identified numerous predictors of belief in climate change, with strong linkages from climate change belief through distress and self-efficacy to psychological adaptation, and from there to behavioural engagement.

59. Across multiple models, behavioural engagement was shown to be a joint function of cognitive variables (e.g., risk perception, self-efficacy), affective variables (e.g., concern, distress), motivational variables (e.g., perceived responsibility to act), and social variables (e.g., indirect exposure, normative influences).  

60. Each of these variables represents a potential target for future interventions aimed at increasing environmentally-sustainable behaviours.

Summary statement

When a composite statement of individual survey item findings for 2011 are brought together, the clarity and strength of public views and sentiments becomes clearer.  For example, 74% of respondents personally thought that climate change is occurring, with 69% ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ certain that this was happening, and 50% judged it is already happening in Australia.  In addition 42% reported it being ‘a serious problem right now’, 64% reported being very or fairly concerned about climate change, 43% reported that climate change was an extremely or quite important issue to them personally, and 27% reported that they think about climate change a lot.  Approximately 20% of respondents reported feeling, at times, appreciable distress at the prospects and implications of climate change and its consequences.  Respondents, on the whole, appear to feel that they themselves can and should be addressing this environmental threat (59%), that the Australian government, state governments, and corporate Australia should be doing the same.  Well over one half of respondents (61%) reported being prepared to greatly reduce their energy use to help tackle climate change (61%) and many are psychologically adapting to the threat of climate change and changing their behaviours and lifestyle with respect to reducing their own carbon footprint.

Further information regarding the 2010 and 2011 survey procedures, measures, overall methodology and administration, and associated research program publications can be obtained from Joseph Reser in the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus.

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