Public understanding of climate change and adaptation in South Australia

TitlePublic understanding of climate change and adaptation in South Australia
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsHanson-Easey, S, Bi, P, Williams, S, Nitschke, M, Saniotis, A, Zhang, Y, Hodgetts, K
Date Published05/2013
InstitutionNational Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility
CityGold Coast
ISBN Number978-1-925039-31-3
Keywordsadaptation choices, adaptation strategies, Adelaide, CATI, climate change events, computer assisted telephone interview, focus groups, risk messages, SA, SEID, Social Economic and Institutional Dimensions, South Australia

This report shows how South Australians construe and rationalise climate change risk and adaptation responses through two interlinked studies with  many seeing it as ‘concern for future generations’.


South Australia is challenged with one of the driest and hottest climates in Australia, and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are expected to seriously exacerbate existing risks from heat waves, water shortages, and inundation. Adaptation to these climate change risks are now broadly accepted as necessary and unavoidable, and although a burgeoning and multidisciplinary research focus has examined public understanding of climate change, little empirical social psychological work has focused on the South Australian context, especially in terms of adaptation understandings. Moreover, scant qualitative research has been conducted that sensitively considers individuals’ own sense making practices: scrutinising participants’ own words, as they frame and make sense of climate change risk and adaptation in reference to personal, social, institutional and material contexts.

This report summarises research conducted by the Discipline of Public Health at The University of Adelaide, augmenting knowledge of how South Australians construe and rationalise climate change risk and adaptation responses. The research project comprises two interlinked studies. First, four semi-structured focus groups were conducted in Adelaide and regional South Australia, which included 22 participants in total. The focus group study’s principle objective was to garner and analyse discursive data to enhance understanding of what constrains or promotes climate change perception and adaptation. Second, a state-wide quantitative/qualitative survey, with a weighted sample of 500 South Australian participants, examined people’s climate change risk domain perceptions, affective imagery, adaptation ‘self-efficacy’, government responsibility, and adaptation knowledge. 

The focus group analysis found that climate was recurrently represented as a risk that was to be chiefly confronted by younger and future generations, and that it lacked salience in an everyday context, especially when contrasted to what are perceived as more urgent concerns, such as employment and income worries. Some participants invoked direct and vicarious experiential ‘evidence’ for climate change, instantiating local weather events as manifestations of how the phenomenon is, or will, impact on their communities. Some participants intuitively understood that resilience to the risks posed by climate change is constrained by socio-economic factors - including income, health and housing discrepancies. 

The survey results strongly suggest that the eight climate change risk domains noted in the survey were perceived as serious threats. However, a majority endorsed a ‘mixed cause’ explanation (natural fluctuation/human induced) to account for what was causing climate change. Resonating with the focus groups findings, a significant proportion of respondents reported believing that climate change would begin in ‘20’ or ‘50’ years and a significant percentage reported ‘concern for future generations’. Climate change held an array of negatively valenced connotative meanings, images and terms, including water shortages, extreme heat, flood/sea-level rise, scepticism and lack of scientific clarity and ideas of catastrophe and extinction. Notably, a moderate proportion of respondents could not give an account of how they would protect themselves from heat waves, inundation, or water shortages, arising from climate change. The present research has important implications for the design and promulgation of climate change risk and adaptation messages that address public engagement in South Australia. It is argued that although public engagement on climate change and adaptation would benefit from myriad approaches, but it is essential that communication efforts be segmented in accord with the interests, social norms, values, knowledge, and material realities of heterogeneous audiences. If the risks posed by climate change are to be effectively addressed, they will need to be shaped in forms that reduce the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change.

Refereed DesignationRefereed