Public understandings, risk perceptions, and responses to climate change and associated natural disasters- ARGP Project

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Professor Joseph Reser
Griffith University

Executive summary from final report

What follows is a distillation and summary of more noteworthy findings of the Australian national survey undertaken by Griffith University researchers between 6 June and 6 July, 2010, as part of a joint cross-national survey exercise with Cardiff University’s Understanding Risk Research Centre in Britain.  The respective national survey sample sizes were 3096 for Australia and 1822 for Britain, with these samples being geographically and demographically representative.  The Australian sample was further stratified by regional exposure to projected climate change impacts, extreme weather vulnerability, and gender. This final report follows an interim report released on 1 June, 2011, and constitutes a more comprehensive and detailed research report and monograph, including many Australiaspecific findings, broader comparison data, methodological and statistical details and background information, and a particular focus and emphasis on descriptive, quantitative, and comparative research findings and their interpretation. A selection and discussion of more qualitative research findings are also included. 

The researchers from Australia and Britain are all applied psychologists and social and behavioural 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 report is quite diverse, including fellow climate change researchers, our funding bodies, federal and state level government policy advisers, the Pacific region authors of the next IPCC Report, multiple organisational end users, interested individuals, and an international research community.  We have attempted to write a report and monograph which will be accessible and meaningful across this wide spectrum of interest, and have provided a selective glossary of terms in those cases where terms or phrases might not be familiar to some readers and where there exist problems of language use and meaning across disciplinary boundaries, and with respect to both historical and emergent cultures of use.


Findings from this collaborative research were striking in a number of respects: 

1. Despite dramatic differences in geographic regions, climate, climate change exposure, and recent histories of extreme weather events, the findings from Australia and Great Britain across most risk perception, belief, and concern domains were remarkably similar.

2. Belief and acceptance of climate change among respondents was very high, with this acceptance including acknowledgment of some level of human causality for the vast majority of respondents.

3. Public concern levels with respect to the threat and perceived impacts of climate change were also very high.

4. Australian respondents viewed climate change as a more immediate, proximal, and certain threat to their local region and nation than was the case for British respondents, for whom the problem was perceived to be more distant, uncertain, and less familiar in terms of anticipated consequences.

5. A distinctive minority of Australian respondents, approximately 6.5%, could be characterised as being disbelievers or strong sceptics with respect to the reality of current climate change and/or the causal role of human activities and environmental impacts. The comparable figure for British respondents who could be characterised as being disbelievers or strong sceptics was 4.0%.

6. Research findings for Australian respondents 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 anticipations, which reflect understandings of climate change in terms of extreme weather events and natural disaster manifestations and consequences.

7. Extent of prior direct experience with extreme weather events and natural disasters for Australian respondents showed consistent but modest positive relationships with climate change-related psychological variables such as belief, concern, psychological adaptation, psychological distress, and behavioural engagement.

8. Direct experience with salient environmental changes or events which respondents attributed to climate change evidenced much stronger positive relationships across all psychological measures than was the case for prior disaster and extreme weather event experience.

9. 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. 

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


11. Seventy-four percent of Australian respondents and 78% of British respondents reported believing ‘that the world’s climate is changing’, with 8% in both countriesreporting ‘not knowing’.

12. Seventy-one percent of Australian respondents either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘tended to agree’ with the statement, “I am certain that climate change is really happening”.

13. Ninety percent of Australian respondents and 89% of British respondents believed that human activities were playing a causal role in climate change.

14. Fifty-four percent of Australian respondents and 41% of British respondents believed that they were already experiencing the effects of climate change.  In open-ended survey items Australian respondents provided many examples of direct encounters with what they viewed as evidence of climate change.

15. Sixty-six per cent of Australian respondents and 71% of British respondents reported that they were ‘very concerned’ or ‘fairly concerned’ about climate change, with an additional 22% and 19% respectively, i.e., totals of 88% and 90% respectively, indicating some level of concern.

16. Australian and British respondents reported being only slightly less concerned with respect to the personal impacts of climate change, with 62% of Australian and 60% of British respondents reporting that they were either ‘very concerned’ or ‘fairly concerned’. 

17. Survey findings suggest that the majority of both Australian and British respondents feel that despite clear difficulties and challenges, their actions can make a difference, and that the issue of climate change is serious, urgent, and personally relevant. 

Taken as a whole, these Australia/Great Britain comparison findings indicate striking similarities, high levels of climate change concern, and strong belief in both national survey samples that human activities are in part responsible for current global climate change.  These findings also suggest that media coverage of public perceptions and responses to the threat of climate change is often very wide of the mark, and that reported declines over the past several years in public acceptance and concern about climate change and its relative importance as an environmental issue and threat have been overstated.  


Belief and concern about climate change and other environmental risks

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

19. Seventy-one percent of Australian respondents reported that their level of concern about climate change had increased over the preceding two years.

20. 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.

21. Seventy-eight percent of Australian respondents agreed that, “If nothing is done to reduce climate change in the future, it will be a ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ problem for Australia”.

22. When asked, “How serious a problem do you think climate change is right now?” 45% of Australian respondents reported that it was a serious problem.

23. Twenty-seven percent of respondents reported thinking about the issue of climate change either ‘a great deal’ or very often.

24. Forty-eight percent of Australian respondents reported that the issue of climate change was ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important to them personally.  

25. The relative concern ranking of climate change as compared with other environmental threats for Australian respondents nation-wide was eighth out of a provided list of 13 environmental risks, with water scarcity, drought, and threatened environmental quality and sustainability coming first, second, and third in this rank ordering of mean concern ratings.  All environmental risks, however, including climate change, received high mean concern ratings.

26. Water scarcity and drought were the most salient and often-mentioned environmental threats in response to open-ended survey questions.  However, all natural disaster and environmental threats appeared to be of high salience and concern for the majority of respondents.

27. Relative concern levels respecting differing environmental risks nonetheless reflected regional exposure and experience. In cyclone-prone northern coastal communities, for example, respondents’ highest concern levels were given to cyclones, severe storm activity, and species extinctions, with threatened environmental quality and sustainability coming fourth.

Knowledge of climate change

28. 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.

29. Respondent understandings of climate change were both distinct from and more than objective knowledge of climate change science explanations for climate change.  These understandings included important emotional responses; responsibility, human agency, and moral dimensions; personal experiential understandings of environmental change and extreme weather events; and cultural and symbolic associations. 


30. In response to the question, “How much do you trust what different sources say about the environment?” 50% of respondents answered ‘completely’ or very substantially in the case of ‘scientists’.  Comparison figures for the media and for government for complete or substantial trust were only 5% and 8% respectively.


31. Many respondents made reference to a felt moral responsibility in answering an openended 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.

Political affiliation comparisons

32. Political affiliation, as measured by voting intention ‘if there was a Federal election tomorrow’, was an important consideration across many key variables for Australian respondents.  While 73.6% of Labor preference respondents were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ concerned about climate change, comparison figures for Liberal, National, and Green preference respondents were 53.9%, 48.6% and 87.9 % respectively.  Similarly, with respect to acceptance of some level of human causality with respect to climate change, acceptance level for Labor preference voters was 92.5%, with the respective acceptance levels for Liberal, National, and Green preference respondents being 86.6%, 85.5%, and 96.8%. 

Psychological impacts associated with climate change

33. An important and neglected domain in climate change surveys relates to possible psychological impacts of the threat and perceived consequences of climate change.  In addition to the 88% of respondents reporting some level of concern about climate change, 20% of Australian respondents reported feeling, at times, appreciable distress at the prospect and implications of climate change and its consequences.

34. 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.

Psychological adaptation to climate change

35. Australian survey respondents appear to be actively adapting to the threat of climate change, both psychologically and behaviourally.

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

37. Psychological adaptation to climate change (changes in thoughts, feelings, and understandings about climate change) was the most immediate and principal mediator of pro-environmental behavioural engagement. 

Experience of natural disasters and perceived climate change events and changes

38. Thirty-seven percent of Australian respondents reported having had direct personal experience with differing natural disaster events, with many respondents having experienced events such as cyclones, floods, bushfires, and drought, five times or more. 

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

40. Overall, public risk perceptions and understandings of the threat of climate change in Australia appear to be strongly influenced and informed by direct and indirect exposure to and experience with both acute and chronic natural disasters within the Australian environment.

41. Seventy-one percent of Australian respondents reported believing that climate change was influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (e.g., floods, cyclones, drought, bushfires).

42. Fifty-nine percent of Australian respondents thought that the region where they lived was vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with two thirds of these respondents indicating that their location was ‘very’ or reasonably vulnerable.

43. Forty-five percent of Australian respondents reported having directly experienced noteworthy changes or events which they thought might be due to climate change.

44. 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.

State and regional comparisons

45. A number of State, Territory, and regional comparisons of survey responses are included in this report.  Mean climate change concern levels, for example, were highest in Victoria and Western Australia, and lowest in Queensland and New South Wales, though mean concern levels were high across all states.

46. Differences between urban and rural Australian respondents were not as marked as might be expected.  Rural respondents did report significantly greater residential and lifestyle exposure to and direct experience of natural disasters and extreme weather events.  Further significant - though very modest – differences found across key measures for urban versus rural residents were with respect to belief in climate change, climate change concern, and trust in government. Rural respondents reported slightly lower acceptance of and expressed concern about climate change, and slightly less trust in government.  No appreciable or significant differences were found with respect to other key variables such as climate change distress, self-efficacy, psychological adaptation, or behavioural engagement.

When a composite statement of individual survey item  findings  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 71% ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ certain that this was happening, and 54% judged it is  already happening in Australia.  In addition 45% reported it being ‘a serious problem right now’, 66% reported being  very or fairly concerned about climate change, 48% 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.  Australian 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 (77%, 63%, 75%), they are prepared to greatly reduce their energy use to help tackle climate change (64%) 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.

These summary findings cannot do justice to the extensive and rich Australian data set provided by our survey respondents.  The report which follows can only attempt to more selectively capture and  present what constitutes an initial and quite comprehensive set of research findings, covering a particular point in time.  A subsequent  Griffith University research program national survey was undertaken in July and August of 2011 to provide both longitudinal and repeated cross-sectional data and comparisons over time (samples of  n = 1037 repeat respondents and  n  = 4347 new respondents), and to incorporate a number of additional psychological and situational parameters of particular interest and importance.  The results of this 2011 survey are currently being finalised and will form the basis of a 2011 survey report to be released later this year.  Further information regarding the 2010 and 2011 survey procedures, measures, overall methodology and administration, and associated research program publications can be obtained through either Michelle Ellul or Joseph Reser in the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus. 

Queries relating to this report and research program can be directed to Michelle Ellul or Joseph Reser