By Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and Disaster Response, APS National Office
If you read the mainstream news, you might form the impression that climate sceptics in Australia outweigh those with concerns about climate change or that Australians are experiencing ‘climate change fatigue’. However, recent psychological research reveals a decidedly different picture. A nation-wide survey, the Griffith Climate Survey, conducted by APS Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Griffith University, Joseph Reser, and his psychology colleagues, provides an eye-opening account of Australians’ perceptions of climate change.
The national survey of 3,096 Australians stratified geographically and demographically found that 74 per cent of respondents believe that the world’s climate is changing, 90 per cent accept some level of human causal contribution to climate change, and 78 per cent believe that if nothing is done, it will be a serious problem for Australia. Just under half of the people surveyed (45%) think that we have serious problems now (Reser et al., 2011). Comparison studies carried out at the same time in the UK and in similar research in the USA show these concerns are echoed across the world.
What is most noteworthy about this research is that less than six per cent of people surveyed were sceptical about climate change. Similar results were reported in the UK version of the same survey. Indeed, most people (71%) reported that their concerns about climate change had risen over the last two years.
This Griffith survey was conducted in June/July, 2010. Whilst the results might not be picking up the heat of the current public debate about the carbon tax, the results of in-depth surveys are more likely to reflect the underlying and considered attitudes of people, rather than the transient feelings and opinions.
Joe Reser, also a member of the APS Climate Change Reference Group, often talks about the importance of measuring and monitoring changes and impacts taking place in the human landscape of Australia. “Systematic and sensitive surveys of climate change attitudes and beliefs are incredibly important,” says Professor Reser. “They capture where public understandings and concerns are at and give us very useful information about what people are thinking and feeling, and how they perceive environmental threats.”
“Answers to these survey questions not only help us to understand how people are responding to climate change, but also provide information about gaps in people’s understanding about climate risks, and give us important clues about how to motivate people to take action. Importantly too, such ‘readings’ give governments and policy makers valuable information about how voters are thinking about climate change, and what support they might give to climate policies,” he says.
Increasingly, psychologists and other health professionals are recognising that climate change has significant psychological and mental health impacts. It is vital that psychologists develop a better understanding about the full range of psychological and social impacts of climate change and environmental threats. The findings of this recent Australian survey suggest that large numbers of respondents feel personally vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Even though respondents came from diverse geographic locations, more than a third (37%) reported having had direct experience of natural disasters, and 59 per cent believed that their own region was vulnerable to climate change. In addition, 20 per cent of individuals surveyed reported experiencing appreciable distress when viewing media coverage or thinking about the likely consequences of climate change. Psychologists must consider the increasing stress and distress generated by accumulating threats of unmitigated climate change on people's lives and their children’s futures.
The latest edition of American Psychologist is a special issue devoted to examining psychology and global climate change. In one article, Doherty and Clayton (2011) argue that climate change has multiple implications for psychologists’ interventions, policies and research, in addition to the mental health effects. Psychologists need to increase their ecological literacy, and their understanding of anthropogenic causes of climate change and the extent to which human wellbeing is being implicated. Doherty and Clayton conclude, “Psychologists have an ethical responsibility to take immediate steps to minimise the psychological harm associated with climate change, to help to reduce global disparities in climate impacts, and to continually improve their climate-related interventions through coordinated programs of research and practice” (p. 273).
Informing Government and policy makers about significant changes and impacts taking place in the human landscape is also very important, whether these relate to changed understandings or concern levels, or adverse psychological impacts. Policy makers are strongly influenced by the perceived attitudes of their constituents. Results produced by large scale, in-depth, social science surveys – such as that conducted by Reser and colleagues rather than polls measuring political aspects of the debate – provide important information to governments about how concerned the public really are about climate change. It is encouraging for those charged with creating climate policy to know that 78 per cent of Australian respondents agree that “if nothing is done to reduce climate change in the future, it will be a very serious or somewhat serious problem for Australia”.
The Government might be surprised to learn that 68 per cent of these survey respondents are in favour of spending tax payers’ money on Australian projects designed to tackle climate change, and 92 per cent of people said that they would probably or definitely vote in favour of building new wind farms in Australia (compared to only 24 per cent who said they would probably or definitely vote in favour of new coal-fired power stations). Survey respondents believe that responsibility for action against climate change needs to be taken by governments (77 per cent) and big business (74 per cent). Unfortunately however, only 16 per cent of respondents said that they trusted the Australian Government to take appropriate action against climate change.
As this latest survey attests, Australians are clearly saying ‘yes’ to action on climate change. Psychologists need to be part of that action, by using psychological expertise to devise responses and solutions, and by becoming part of the workforce addressing climate change and its impacts.
There have been numerous polls and surveys on climate change attitudes and opinions over the last few years, but with widely variable methodologies and quality. The Griffith Climate Survey, along with its UK and North American versions, stands out from most climate change surveys in terms of sensitivity, validity and generalisability. There are numerous features of the Griffith survey that make the results more representative and true of the population than other run-of-the-mill polls.