Public opinion on climate change in Australia

Chris Riedy
Apr 7, 2017 · 5 min read

What the Australian public thinks about climate change matters. While the work of proactive businesses, governments and activists is important, public opinion ultimately creates the environment in which climate action can occur. Politicians won’t take strong climate action if the public will vote them out for it, businesses won’t take strong climate action unless there are markets for their products and services and activists that don’t bring the public with them risk being marginalised.

So, I’ve compiled a list of the key resources I’m aware of that investigate Australian public opinion on climate change. I will continue to update and add to this over time, so if you are aware of other resources, please get in touch!

Overview

In 2011, Zoe Leviston and colleagues at CSIRO did a review of Australian’s views on climate change for the Garnaut Review. Surveys and polls of public opinion ask questions in different ways, which makes direct comparison between results difficult. Nevertheless, Leviston et al. found a general pattern in the results.

First, a majority of Australians do accept that the climate is changing. The proportion of Australians accepting the reality of a changing climate is typically between 70 and 90% in the different studies they reviewed. In the most recent CSIRO survey in 2014, the proportion was 78% and in Climate Institute polling in 2016 it was 77%.

Second, a smaller majority believes that climate change is mainly caused by humans. This figure varies more widely and was between 45 and 75% in different studies. The pie chart below is from the most recent CSIRO survey, undertaken in 2014. It shows that 46% of Australians think that climate change is happening and that humans are largely causing it. Another 39% think that climate change is happening but is caused by natural fluctuations rather than humans. Almost 8% do not think that the climate is changing and the rest are unsure.

Third, concern about climate change has gone through peaks and troughs over time. This is best illustrated with the following chart from the annual Lowy Institute Poll, which has tracked concern about global warming in Australia over time. In 2006, almost 70% of Australians agreed that global warming was a serious and pressing problem and they showed willingness to take action even if significant costs were involved. The proportion fell over time to a low of less than 40% in 2012, before recovering over the last four years, although not yet to the peaks of 2006.

Below, I provide brief summaries of some of the key resources available on climate opinion in Australia. Sadly, two of these sources are no longer continuing — the CSIRO surveys ended in 2014 and the Climate Institute is shutting its doors due to lack of funds in 2017.

Annual CSIRO Surveys of Australian Attitudes to Climate Change

First conducted in 2010, this annual survey ran for five years, finishing in 2014. CSIRO surveyed a total of 17,493 Australians, including 269 people that completed all five surveys. The survey asked about attitudes to climate change, behaviours, people’s projections about climate change and sense of vulnerability, and what they think others think about climate change. The survey also tracked changes over time. The final report covering the five surveys is available here.

One of the most interesting aspects of this ongoing research is that it reveals the inaccurate views Australians hold about the rest of the public. Fewer than 8% of respondents believed that climate change was not happening at all, but these respondents estimated that almost 50% of the Australian public would share their view. Indeed, there was a general tendency to overestimate the prevalence of the view that climate change is not happening, with Australians on average predicting that 23% would have this view. This may reflect the media’s tendency to present climate change as a matter of debate and conflict rather than settled scientific consensus.

Lowy Institute Poll

The Lowy Institute conducts an annual poll on a range of issues related to Australia’s place in the world. The poll has been running for 12 years and includes a small number of questions about climate change. The poll provides annual data since 2006, showing changes in concern about climate change in the Australian public over time. The polling data shows a clear decline in concern between 2006 and 2012, before a rebound in concern from 2013 to 2016.

In addition to the longitudinal summary provided above, the most recent poll asked about opinions on fossil fuels, as shown below. There are some interesting contradictions in the responses. While 88% of Australians see fossil fuels as being in decline and want investment in alternative energy, 66% of Australians think we should continue to export coal to developing countries and 53% think we should continue to use our abundant supply of fossil fuels. It is difficult to reconcile these views.

Climate of the Nation

The Climate Institute has conducted research on Australian attitudes to climate change, related policies and solutions since 2007. The Climate of the Nation reports have evolved over time to provide a rich multimedia resource on public opinion. I wrote about the 2012 release previously on this site. The report is accompanied by fact sheets, info graphics and VoxPop videos of people on the street talking about climate change.

The most recent report, in 2016, found that 77% of Australians believe climate change is occurring. A chart of these views over time, and a summary of the 2016 findings, are provided below.

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