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In science we trust: 78 per cent believe in climate change

Scientific research shows that most Australians are sure about climate change and that those who have a preference for inaction are in the minority.

  • 1 July 2011

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Find out more about What do Australians think about climate change?


Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. In late 2010 CSIRO conducted an interview survey with a random sample of 1602 Australians to understand the current attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and knowledge of the Australian general public about climate change issues, their responses to climate change, and their preferred methods of communication about these issues.

Consistent with earlier research, the results showed 78 per cent of Respondents indicated a belief that climate change is real, with only 7 per cent believing that climate change isn’t happening, while 15 per cent were unsure. 

Joining me on the line from Portland in the United States to discuss it is one of the researchers involved in the survey, CSIRO’s Peta Ashworth. Peta, these were interesting results. Were you surprised by a 78 per cent majority, or were you expecting a little more or less?

Peta Ashworth: Well, actually I wasn’t really surprised. I did expect it would be a majority that was concerned. We do quite a lot of different research and engagement with the general public around the topic of climate, and climate and energy, and climate adaptation, and I think for many years there’s been this common thread that the majority of people are concerned and think that it is occurring. 

I guess the difference that I’ve really noticed is this 15 per cent of people that are unsure, and I think that that’s happened over time through the different discussions that have happened – people that perhaps don’t have as much knowledge on the topic, therefore become a little bit more uncertain.

Glen Paul: OK. So you conducted the survey online – what kind of research method did you use?

Peta Ashworth: Well it was an internet based survey, so we pooled together a range of questions. Some of them we repeated from previous research so we could structure the comparisons over time, and then we actually used a market research company who has a very large population sample on their database, and then they send that out across the country so that we get a representative sample of the Australian population across the States, and pretty much reflective of the age and gender in Australia.

Glen Paul: Hmm. Just on that then, how do you account for bias in the survey? For example, not all Australians have access to the internet.

Peta Ashworth: Well, I mean no one method is perfect, and to be honest I think we’ve tried them all. So we’ve used computer assisted telephones, but again if people don’t have a landline quite often you don’t tend to get the younger people that only use mobiles. Each of the survey methods that you use has limitations. Paper based surveys, obviously if we’re trying to reduce the amount of paper that we use there’s issues around that, and then also it’s less likely that you’re going to get responses.

So I think over time we have tried just about every method, but the internet one allows us to be able to access a large population, and still get the cross section that we need.

Glen Paul: So it was a quantitative survey with open ended questions to garnish more information?

Peta Ashworth: Yeah, it was mainly – there was mainly a range of quantitative response for many of the questions. We actually did have some open ended ones. So for example to start, we asked people to write down the issues that they thought were most important to Australia. But when we asked the question about their beliefs in climate change, we asked them to give us some examples of why they responded in that way. So although that makes for a bit more data analysis and time to bring the responses together, it just gives us a little bit more information about what people are thinking, rather than just them ticking the box to respond.

Glen Paul: Hmm. And what were some of the more interesting questions and responses?

Peta Ashworth: From this perspective I suppose when we asked people around their belief in climate change, the things that they were telling us about why they felt that, was that they were already experiencing adverse weather patterns, or that they’d felt that there’d been some unseasonal changes, changes in temperature over a longer term, which that they felt had changed significantly in their lifetime. And then those that were sort of writing that they felt it was starting to happen, there was some evidence that going forward they felt that there’d be much more dramatic change coming forward over the next 30 years.

Glen Paul: And why do you think there was such variation in describing how much they believed in climate change?

Peta Ashworth: Well there probably wasn’t a huge amount of variation. What we’ve done is we’ve summarised it down.  There seemed to be some very common threads, which I guess is what we reported. You know, we know there’s – and even in this seven per cent that sort of deny that climate change is not happening and they provide those reasons.

Glen Paul: Now I read that when compared to the list of important issues, climate change was rated as the fifth most important behind the cost of living, the economy, employment, and the health system – what conclusion can be drawn from that?

Peta Ashworth: Well I don’t think it’s surprising probably. I mean it’s interesting being here in the United States at the moment, I think the whole issues around economy moving two years or three years on from the global financial crisis, I think it’s something we’re seeing around the world. So when we look at those responses I think that’s perhaps what we’d expect – climate change did come in fifth, but when you look at the tally it was very close to health and employment, those issues as well.

And we did ask the follow-up question around what were the most important environmental issues, and on that one climate change and related topics came into it.

Glen Paul: Now with more recent talk of a carbon tax, do you think if this research were replicated today that the results would be much the same?

Peta Ashworth: It’s probably a little bit hard to say. I think there’s a whole lot of discussion going on at the moment around that, so I guess that would influence how people are thinking, and especially those people in the uncertainty side of things. So I think from the work that we do, with the research in the large group process, and not just in the survey part, where it seems that people are looking for action, and in fact many people in the community are actually taking their own personal actions as well to mitigate behaviours just in their daily lives – thinking about the way that they might use the car, or how they use energy in their day-to-day lives. I guess recycling and those sorts of things. So we are seeing that across society people are taking action. You know from their perspective they see there’s a role for Government, there’s a role for industry, and there’s a role for individuals.

Glen Paul: So how do results from this survey stack up against similar social research on the topic?

Peta Ashworth: Well there was a survey just recently, the results of the survey by Professor Reser from Griffith University that he’d done in collaboration with researchers in the UK, in actual fact the results are very similar in the numbers when we compare them, and really similar again in perhaps the work that was done by some colleagues in CSIRO, Zoe Leviston and Iain Walker, and those results are on the CSIRO website too.

Glen Paul: Now 15 per cent of those surveyed are unsure about climate change. What measures can be taken to better communicate the science to them?

Peta Ashworth: Well it’s interesting, because part of this work we’re helping form the climate change communicators at CSIRO to understand percieving the science and whether they access information. I don’t think it’s always just giving people more information is actually going to answer all their questions, so one of the things that we look at is who do people trust for their sources of information, and CSIRO, and friends and family is very important to them. So it’s where the information’s coming from I thinks important. 

I think also now that there’s so many different forms of communication that we can use, so some people they strongly like to get their information from documentary and TV programs, whereas others are prepared to go off and do internet searches. So I think it’s actually having a range of options where people can access information to help overcome their uncertainties. There are some people that when they’ve got the information that they’ll need, and then they’re less likely to go and seek more information.

Glen Paul: And are there any plans for follow-up research into this?

Peta Ashworth: Absolutely. We’ve got quite an extensive research program around the topic of climate energy, climate adaptation, and at the moment we are doing some research to understand public perception to the range of energy technologies for climate mitigation. And we do try to replicate some of the questions so that we can start to look at public perceptions over time and how they are changing. 

So I think it will be very interesting to look at those results, and we’ve also got a program going on with New South Wales Department of Climate Change, it’s called EnergyMark, which is looking at helping people change behaviours around their household energy use. And part of that work is that we actually give some information around the climate change science, around climate science, links to energy, and we also through that do some surveys to try and understand what do they think and know around the topic, as opposed to sort of interacting with friends and family, and accessing information change, so knowledge and attitudes.

Glen Paul: Hmm, OK. Well, look it seems like there’s some good work in getting the message through, and even with the muddying of waters from some quarters it seems to be working. Enjoy your stay there in the United States, Peta. Thank you very much for talking to me about the survey today.

Peta Ashworth: My pleasure. Thanks for your time.

Glen Paul: Peta Ashworth from CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship. For more information find us online at, and you can also like us on Facebook.