Getting behind the climate change opinion polls

This is a paper based on the findings of my research on lay people’s attitudes towards climate change.  It’s been accepted for publication in the upcoming climate change edition of the Journal of Social Alternatives.

Getting behind the Toxic Tax, the Clean Energy Future and the opinion surveys – lay people’s ideas about climate change

Introduction

In the wake of the Gillard government’s decision to introduce carbon price legislation, climate change, and the question of how to respond to it, featured prominently in the public agenda in Australia throughout 2011.  In the predicted plethora of opinion polls on climate change and carbon pricing (Comitatus, 2011), a common trend was declining public support for the carbon price, commencing in late 2010 with Gillard’s announcement (Davis, 2011).  This decline was apparent over the course of the year, though it leveled off, but against another clear trend, of majority opposition to the scheme (Davis, 2011; Nielsen 2011;  Morgan 2010; 2011).

These trends were apparently confirmed in the mid year release of the annual Lowy Institute poll, which tests Australian public opinion on a range of international political issues.  The poll found a continued sharp decrease in public concern about climate change, down to 41 per cent from the high level of 68 per cent in 2006 (Hanson, 2011 & 2009).  However, there are reasons to believe that these trends are not necessarily an entirely accurate reflection of public thinking about climate change in Australia.

First, these results contrast with other findings, from detailed national studies of the different segments of opinion on climate change within Australia’s general population, which have included data on the various factors that are shaping people’s opinions and knowledge.  These studies, the Griffith University survey (Reser et al 2011), and two recent nationwide surveys on public opinion about climate change published by CSIRO (Leviston and Walker 2011; Leviston et al 2011), all found a consistent, high level of concern about climate change, that has remained steady at between 35 and 60  per cent of the population, and only a very small percentage, between 6 and 12 per cent, of what could be termed ‘denial’ of the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

Second, the findings of various opinion polls, and methods used to deliver these, have attracted a range of explanations and criticism (Reser 2011, Bourke 2011).  Some opposition to the carbon price has been explained as arising from concerns about implementation and particular aspects of the actual scheme, rather than opposition to doing something about climate change (Hanson, 2009; Comitatus, 2011; Reser, 2011).  Reser has also questioned the capacity of telephoned based, multiple-issue surveys – which often ask single questions on each topic, use overseas terminology (the US ‘global warming’ rather than climate change) and ‘flag controversy’ in their questions – to deliver an accurate picture of what Australians are thinking about climate change (Reser 2011).

These problems point to the need for detailed, ‘stand-alone’ studies on public attitudes to climate change, and a number of climate opinion researchers have recommended the incorporation of methods which are better placed to capture the complexity of people’s perceptions and ideas (Whitmarsh 2009):

‘… if we are serious about measuring, monitoring and understanding important changes taking place in the human landscape we need more than the “snapshots in time” based on the several single item tracking indicators that many polls provide’ (Reser 2011).

This paper reports on some key findings of an investigative study, which used in-depth qualitative interviews and analysis to gain detailed understanding of the perspectives of individual Australians on climate change, placing people in the context of their own experiences, of weather, politics and of local community and government responses to climate change, to explore how the experiences and responses of individuals from different communities are being framed by the political, policy and broader social contexts that shape public understandings of climate change in Australia today.

The research project

The study was conducted across four different localities in Victoria during 2010 and 2011, and the findings below report on 40 open-ended, in-depth interviews with individuals and a few couples, who were purposely selected after local publicity and through word of mouth to include a broad range of opinion, and a rough representation of the demographic range in each of the research sites.

Questions ranged from asking people to rank their level of concern about climate change, to recount when and how they first heard about it, to their ideas about what should be done about it.  Demographic questions were also asked, and information was sought on interviewees’ educational backgrounds, religious views, voting and political affiliations, and involvement in their local communities.

The four research sites were:

  • Inner northern Melbourne suburbs located in the Victorian lower house state seat of Northcote District. These suburbs fall within the local government area of Darebin City Council, the first local government body in Victoria to adopt a joint Climate Action and Peak Oil Adaptation Plan (Darebin City Council 2010), and opinion polling conducted prior to last year’s state election found that respondents from Northcote District ranked highest on concern about climate change amongst Victoria’s 88 lower house electorates (Nielsen 2010).
  • The mountain ranges townships located to Melbourne’s north east, which experienced catastrophic bushfires in February 2009;
  • The local government areas (LGAs) of Surfcoast Shire and the Borough of Queenscliffe, located to the south-west of Geelong, on Victoria’s southern coast.  These LGAs were included in Commonwealth government mapping released in 2010, of coastal areas around the nation which are projected to be affected by sea level rise within the next fifty years.
  • The Goulburn Valley LGAs of Campaspe Shire and Greater Shepparton, areas of which experienced severe flooding at the end of 2010, continuing into 2011.

In the District of Northcote, which has one of the highest proportions of Indigenous residents in metropolitan Melbourne, interviewees included three Indigenous people as well as a number of people who live in public housing properties.  This ‘over-sampling’ attempted to ensure the inclusion of perspectives of people who are currently under-represented in the public debate on climate change.

Findings

In terms of the spread of opinion across the sites, the study’s findings were roughly in keeping with those of recent intensive, statistically representative surveys of attitudes towards climate change amongst the Australian public, which have all found a minority opinion of strong scepticism about climate change, ranging between 6 and 18 per cent of the population; a clear majority of people with some level of concern; and another small category of people who are highly concerned about climate change and actively committed in some way to responding to it (Leviston, 2011; Reser 2011; Sustainability Victoria 2009; 2010; 2011; Newton 2010).

Of the overall sample of 40 individuals, eight people could be defined as being sceptical about the existence of human-induced climate change and each of these individuals expressed the view that climate change is related to natural cycles over time; twelve ranked themselves as having an extreme level of concern about climate change (8, 9 or 10 out of 10, and one 12 out of 10), while the largest proportion of the sample (18 individuals) expressed a degree of concern ranging between five and seven out of ten.

In line with the findings of large quantitative surveys, which have identified a clear correlation between political views and attitudes towards climate change (Leviston, 2011a and b; Newton 2010), those sceptical about climate change were generally conservative in their overall political outlook, and those who expressed the greatest concern about climate change were Greens voters. Labor voters generally expressed concern about climate change, but in most cases, ranked themselves lower on concern than Greens voters. (People identifying themselves as Greens voters included two interviewees who described themselves as traditional Labor voters. As one interviewee stated, ‘I’m traditional Labor, only now I’m voting Green’ (male, 51 – 60, Indigenous, Northcote District, Labor-Greens swinging).

The Northcote District sample included the only two participants in the study, both female and both low income earners, who had no clear knowledge of climate change. In one case, the first time the interviewee (female, 41 – 49, Anglo, Northcote District, non voter) had ever heard about climate change was when questioned about her knowledge of it by the researcher:

Interviewee        I don’t know anything about it and I don’t understand it.

Researcher          So do you ever hear about it? On the news maybe?

Interviewee        No … Climate change is the weather, how it changes constantly, is it? ….

Researcher          … can you remember when you first heard about climate change?

Interviewee        Yeah, about 20 minutes ago.

Researcher          From me, okay.

However, this participant, a public housing tenant, went on to say that she has noticed the weather getting hotter over the past few years and that she and her family now run an air cooler, at great expense, during the summer months in their housing commission property, a pre-fabricated concrete house which is without insulation and inadequate to manage either heat or cold.

The other participant who demonstrated no clear understanding of climate change was in her 80s, a long-standing migrant from Italy who stated that she had heard about climate change on SBS television news coverage but did not relate it to any cause or even to the weather at first but rather to social change; later in the interview, she did mention the overuse of motor vehicles as a cause of climate change and also spoke critically about the fast pace and consumerism of modern life.

Interviewees who were sceptical about climate change frequently expressed the view that its promotion as a key concern is a tactic employed by pro-environmental groups or by the Greens to, in turn, promote their interests, or a tax-raising exercise by various governments or political parties.  This perspective was especially prominent amongst conservatively inclined participants in the Northcote District sample, but it also featured in the views of conservative voting interviewees from the rural areas.

In the eyes of some of these people, climate change fits with the underlying ideologies of pro-environment organisations or the Greens political party, but its benefit to these groups extends beyond supporting their commitment to social change and underlying ideology, to its usefulness as a money raising enterprise:

‘Mainly it is Greens …  and other people … who are really influenced by this theory that it [climate change] is actually happening …

“… we have holes in the ozone layer”.  That is how it started.  That was the first thing.  We were all bombarded and now it looks like … more people are trying to make money out of it [climate change’.  It is like a scare tactic; “if you don’t do this, it is a climate disaster.” … [T]hey kind of scare people, “put the rainwater tanks”, and this and that’.

(Female, 41 – 50, 1st generation Indian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal-Labor swinging)

The perception of climate change as a scare tactic was common amongst those sceptical about climate change, and was usually accompanied by statements disclaiming the anthropogenic causes of climate change:

‘Look, I have mixed emotions because sometimes I think it is a big scare tactic, do you know what I mean?  It is there to scare us and I think we’ve only been driving cars and doing certain things for 60 or 70 years.  How much could we possibly have damaged the planet when this technology has only been around in my lifetime or my mum[‘s]? …’

(Female, 30 – 39, 2nd/3rd Italian generation Australian, Northcote District, Liberal)

Well if you look at history, in Australia, we’ve only been here since 1787, so how can we have had these kinds of impacts? … I just see climate change as the latest … unfortunate buzz word, … like, what can we scare the people with now?

(Female, 51 – 60, 2nd generation Dutch Australia, Mountain Ranges, Family First)

This view was often accompanied by a similar scepticism about climate change as a public policy issue available to be employed by a range of political parties as a justification for tax raising:

‘When it was drought they said it is never going to rain, and then they started about the desalination … and now all of a sudden they are spending billions on that and probably won’t even use it. … There is lots of water just going in the ocean.  Why don’t we build dams?  It is a lot cheaper.  It looks like every party, they … want to make money and “okay, my term is over and now it is your turn”.  We just end up paying more taxes’.

(Female, 41 – 50, 1st generation Indian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal-Labor swinging)

‘They’re all [political parties] going to talk about climate change at some stage and what they’re going to do with it, but I think they are using climate change really. … It is just another way of introducing taxes.  I don’t actually think it is actual concern for the environment.  “We’re going to tax your petrol, we’re going to tax this”.  It is like they are just finding ways to use climate change to generate revenue for themselves.

(Female, 31 – 35, 2nd/3rd generation Italian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal)

Despite this cynicism about the motives of environmentalists and climate activists, which was apparent amongst most of the conservative-voting interviewees, and again, in keeping with the findings of intensive quantitative surveys of Australian public opinion on climate change, the majority of interviewees in each of the four research sites were concerned about climate change, and convinced that it is currently occurring.

In some cases, the level of concern about climate change expressed by interviewees was extreme.  For two of the three Indigenous interviewees, the level of concern was amongst the highest.  One of these people felt that cultural practices amongst Indigenous communities in Victoria were already threatened or being currently disrupted by climate change:

‘there are horror stories … there’s a lot talk about the good old days, you know, when we used to catch the big fat ones [eels] … Down in Lake Condah, we built stone huts; we didn’t have to go anywhere … – food everywhere!  But now … [T]hings are changing, very quickly, so how does an Elder pass down cultural things to young people if the environment we’re in is different?  How can someone take me eel fishing and say “this is how we skin them, this is how we do it”, if there’s not an eel to be caught? …  Climate change causes environmental change and that impacts on our capacity for traditional cultural stuff.

(Male, 51 – 60, Indigenous, Northcote District, Labor-Greens swinging)

The same interviewee vividly described what he described as the ‘despair’ and disbelief with which Aboriginal people view the way the advent of climate change in Australia:

‘… for Aboriginal people, this is like the final straw.  We think the place is being poisoned. … we just can’t believe the way that people treat the land, their environment and the earth. … [W]e just can’t believe that’s it’s a tip, and it’s poisoned, and that the things that impact on climate change; so industry … which we would think is the primary impact on our environment, goes unregulated, largely … we just can’t believe that people take it [the environment and climate] for granted.’

This feeling of despair and anger about the finality of climate change as an environmental impact was echoed in the words of another, younger Indigenous interviewee:

‘I just know that they [white Australians/the government] have taken everything away from us, so they are going to do this now.  That is the last thing.  There is nothing else you could take off us or off them [white Australians].’

(Female, 31 – 35, Indigenous, Northcote District, Labor)

Despite the congruence between the internal statistics on different opinion blocks within this qualitative study and mass surveys of public opinion on climate change in Australia, the research did elicit two findings which could be seen as counter-intuitive when analysed against the overall trends of quantitative opinion surveys, even the more accurately reflective intensive surveys such as the CSIRO Baseline Survey and the Griffith University survey.

These surprising results include the finding that, amongst the more concerned participants in this research, a high level of concern and an understanding that climate change is a political issue, which requires government action or political change, have not usually translated into action, certainly not in the sense of political action (as opposed to the adoption of more environmentally sustainable behaviours).  The other unexpected finding was that people who are dismissive of, or hostile towards, the idea of climate change often hold internally contradictory, and certainly, complex, beliefs and perceptions about climate change, and that every single interviewee in this study, even the most stridently determined to deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change, expressed deep concern about the environment and demonstrated pro-environmental behaviours. 

The finding that even very high levels of personal awareness and concern about climate change, and recognition that it is a political matter, are not usually accompanied by involvement in advocacy or activity at a political level, even locally, was particularly pronounced in the Northcote District sample.  This sample had the highest level of overall concern about climate change, with 16 of the 20 interviewees stating that they had high, very high or extreme levels of concern.  However, the vast majority of these concerned and aware interviewees had limited knowledge about the high level of activity on climate change and sustainability in their local community and although four interviewees from the Northcote District sample had taken up a Darebin City Council initiative to reduce carbon emissions, and bought a Council brokered solar hot water heater, not one of them was aware of the Darebin City Council’s Zero Carbon plan.

A number of interviewees mentioned their reticence about political activism in general, whether on climate change or other issues:

‘So yes, I have given thought to that [getting involved in political or community action on climate change] but I am not one of these people who go out there and wave the flag and take the lead and get everyone, “come on, let’s go and fight”.  That is not me.  I don’t feel comfortable with that.  I just think if I can do my own little bit, I will’.

(Female, 51 – 60, Anglo Australian, Surf Coast, Labor-Greens swinging).

Only five of the total sample of concerned and extremely concerned interviewees, across all the different sites, had written letters to politicians or signed petitions, and these people, all women, were inveterate letter writers on a range of issues.  One of these five had spoken to the Prime Minister:

‘Yeah, I have written a few letters and signed a few petitions [on climate change] but I wrote letters … about David Hicks and things like that. … I haven’t really written to Julia Gillard, … I did it personally.  I saw her at a thing recently, [for] the second anniversary of the fires. … [A]ll the big wigs were there, so … I spoke to Julia … and said “Hang in there.  You are doing the right thing [adopting a carbon pricing scheme].” … I don’t march.  I used to march in the seventies.  I gave up marching. I should be marching [on climate change]. … [My husband] says “You should be walking the streets” and I say to him, “Off you go!”

(Female, 61 – 70, Anglo-Australian, Mountain Ranges, Labor-Greens swinging)

Only four interviewees out of the total sample of 40 were involved in local community sustainability or climate change initiatives.  This excludes a larger number of rural based interviewees who were heavily involved in Landcare and regeneration projects.  One Northcote District interviewee was involved with her family in a Sustainability Street group in her immediate neighbourhood, and three rural interviewees were involved in their local climate change or energy action groups.  These four people included one rural-based interviewee who expressed extreme scepticism about climate change, but who was donating money to her local energy group’s carbon bank scheme.   Interestingly, this particular interviewee was not alone in what seems to be a contradictory commitment to involvement in her local community action group on climate change whilst at the same time, expressing strong disbelief in the idea of anthropogenic climate change.  The presence of seemingly contradictory views on climate change was a clear trend amongst those antagonistic towards the concept of anthropogenic climate change.

In fact, there was evidence of complex, if not contradictory, thinking about climate change in the views of most interviewees.  Those people who expressed high or extreme levels of concern about climate change and who were convinced it is currently occurring were in most cases reluctant to attribute particular weather events to climate change.  The following cautious, scientifically respectful approach was typical, even for those people who considered a wide range of extreme weather events were the result of climate change:

‘I don’t think that you can point to one single weather event, and that’s what I’ve heard, over and over again, from the science, that you can’t just isolate it down and say that this happened because of climate change’.

(Female, 41 – 50, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Greens-Labor)

For a few of the extremely concerned interviewees from the Mountain Ranges, this reticence extended itself to their recent experience of the bushfires and contrasted strikingly with their attribution of a wide range of other events to climate change, many of them overseas, and including sea level rise, floods, species extinctions and displacement of human, animal and insect populations and other instances of wildfire:

‘I didn’t exactly attribute it [the 2009 fire] to climate change, … because the fires that have wiped out Kinglake before have followed exactly the same path and Fireguard tells you that weather conditions are so predictable.  If it starts to the east of you it will go along, go along, … and then there will be a southerly change and then it will come racing up the hill.  And the placement of the fire in relation to the hills was just ripe for us to go. … Now climate change would have added to the extremity of it as far as I am concerned’.

Researcher          But it might have happened anyway?

‘Yeah …  I would have said this is ten years of drought and perhaps ten years of drought is part of climate change’.

(Female, 61 – 70, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Labor-Greens swinging)

‘In 1939, there were catastrophic bushfires too. In fact the land that was taken, the land it covered, was a lot bigger … from Wonga Park through to Toolangi, up to Yea and all the way to the Murray river, right through, and then there was all the other [concurrent] fires too. …  So what we had … in 2009, area-wise, was nothing in comparison.  And it was similar conditions, though I think it was possibly, I can’t remember …, I think it was 47 degrees in ’39, 47 point something, it was still pretty hot, and it was after seven years of drought, yes.  So, you can’t blame climate change for it and it’s [fire] something in the cycle’.

(Female, 51 – 60, 2nd generation Dutch Australian, Mountain Ranges, voting undisclosed)

Reluctance to attribute weather events to climate change was obviously much more common amongst those interviewees who had a negative attitude towards climate change.  For these people, the attribution of weather cycles or events to climate change was essentially an arbitrary exercise of ideological convenience:

‘Politics is what drives it, so three years ago, you could talk about climate change, it didn’t matter what article you picked up, in Australia, it was “it’s going to get drier and drier and drier”. You go and get an article now and you’ll find “we’re going to get wetter summers, wetter this and wetter that”, because now we’ve had one wet year, after eight dry years. … It’s whatever happens [in prevailing weather cycles]. Whatever happens, yeah, bring that out, “oh look, that’s ‘cause of climate change”’.

(Male, 41 – 50, Anglo Australian, Campaspe-Goulburn Valley, Liberal-Conservative swinging)

But there was another strand of opinion evident within the more sceptical opinion block of conservative voters across all the catchments, amongst people who saw climate change as a matter of political exploitation rather than scientific fact, but who then expressed some concern that impacts of climate change may in fact be occurring:

‘I wasn’t sure with Melbourne weather if it was a break in the drought or if it is a result of climate change.  … Growing up we used to have these really long, hot summers. …  Now… we either have 42 degrees or miserable.  We don’t have a month of 30 degrees or 33 degrees.  We used to have that as kids. … [T]hings are very unpredictable.  I get very nervous about all these earthquakes.  That makes me very nervous.  I associate that with climate change’.

(Female, 31 – 35, 2nd/3rd generation Italian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal)

It was common for these interviewees to shift their perspectives on whether climate change was occurring and whether they were seeing impacts during the actual interviews and this exchange below was typical of those who were less negative, but still dubious, about climate change:

‘I’m not a sceptic … but I’m not absolutely sure about climate change being caused in the general way it is thought of, like carbon footprint and the like.  Sure it is happening, but whether, if I can just go back from there and say that when you’ve lived for nearly 77 years you’ve seen these cyclic things happen before, bushfires, but there are some more dramatic things that are happening now that is probably a bit unusual for this country …’

(Male, 71 – 80, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Liberal)

Some of these interviewees explicitly stated that they had shifted their views on climate change:

At the beginning, when it all started, I was really like “wow, it is happening.” You know when you hear the news and you think “we have got to do something about it!”  But now eventually over the time, when I listen to the radio and read other views, then I am kind of … [t]hese things have happened before in this pattern.  There are floods and then there is drought and then there is floods.  This is nature.  It is ups and downs.  It is not just climate change.

(Female, 41 – 50, 1st generation Indian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal-Labor swinging)

Notwithstanding what some commentators might perceive as the internal contradiction of their orientation to climate change for sceptical interviewees, there was one area where opinions were remarkably consistent: The single most common theme to emerge from the interviews, shared universally across the opinion blocks on climate change, was of pro-environmentalism. Expressions of this theme ranged from the perspective that we are not giving the environment adequate care or attention, to an underlying critique, again shared by the vast majority of interviewees, and across all the opinion blocks, of industrial, consumerist culture.

The criticisms expressed by interviewees ranged from despair that modern life is now too rushed, to concern, expressed by all but three interviewees, about the economic arrangements underlying industrial and post-industrial lifestyles.

‘Weather, weather, it’s all changing, even the people, they change too.  Before it was more … gentle … and now everybody rush, rush, rush.  It is no good. … We want to run too much.  Life should go straight but low, not very quick. … [We should] try to slow down, …  try to go back to natural’.

(Female, 81 – 90, 1st generation Italian Australian, Northcote District, Labor-Liberal swinging)

There was a general critique of consumerism and a view that present-day life in Australia is unsustainable, and that we are all trapped in a ‘hurdy gurdy of consumerism’ as one interviewee put it:

‘[We] are caught up in this notion of material possessions … on a hurdy gurdy of consumerism and advertising … you have to have the latest and best and most fashionable and all the rest, … instead of making do or not replacing so quickly, or repairing. … We … have to have the house and the family and the possessions and the car and the second car and the holiday and it has to be paid for’.

(Female, 60 – 69, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Greens)

For most interviewees, regardless of political beliefs or concern about climate change, this critique of consumerist industrial or post-industrial lifestyles extended to an explicit understanding that it rests on unsustainable resource consumption and infinite growth:

‘[T]he lifestyles of the first world countries [are] … very extravagant. … [B]uilding houses of incredibly bad design that require massive machines on the top to keep them hot and to keep them cool and they are churning out energy and then they get black-outs.  Is this not a sign that things are not right, that things are out of balance?

(Female, 60 – 69, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Greens)

‘I think it has to be contained in some way or other.  Because … everything is based on annual increments of production.  That is how it is sustained; annual increments of production and profitability. … So the more you increase that, the more demand.’

(Male, 70-79, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Liberal)

And this understanding of consumerism was accompanied by general concern about the environmental impacts, typified by this statement:

‘it is more and more graphically evident that we’re not doing things that are very nice to our quality of living. … Resources are being depleted.  When we finish up with a big hole in the ground, what do we have left?  When we have stripped all the trees out for the houses that we need and the quality of what we need, you can either build it out of clay and it has got to come from a hole in the ground’.

(Male, 70-79, Anglo Australian, Mountain Ranges, Liberal)

The eight interviewees who had the most negative views about anthropogenic climate change were as critical of and concerned about constant, ever increasing economic growth as those interviewees who expressed a high level of concern about climate change.

‘I just think it’s getting out of hand. It’s all unbalanced, it’s like we’ve put the economy ahead of everything else. … Well, you have to respect Mother Earth, you have to leave her a bit of space too’.

(Female, 51 – 60, 2nd generation Dutch Australia, Mountain Ranges, Family First)

This convergence of opinion across the total sample of interviewees extended to general environmental beliefs. A large number of the ‘climate sceptics’, although they didn’t relate it to climate change, were as concerned about deforestation as other interviewees:

‘I really get annoyed when I see timber trucks going down to Geelong with logs on them this big to wood chip to send to Japan to make into paper. … The earth is our nest and we’re crapping on it. … It is so short sighted.  Don’t just think of your own little space’.

(Male, 51-60, 1st generation English Australian, Mountain Ranges, swinging voter)

[Talking of her decisions to buy recycled paper and boycott Palm Oil products]: ‘I’m actually more concerned about the forests than anything else. … [W]hen I drive somewhere and all of a sudden there is a forest missing, that really upsets me’.

(Female, 31 – 35, 2nd/3rd generation Italian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal)

In fact, apart from the discrepancies in people’s views on human-forced climate change and on the public debate about climate change, it is virtually impossible to distinguish those sceptical about climate change from the other interviewees.

This convergence was especially apparent in ideas about policy initiatives and also in actual pro-environmental behaviour amongst the interviewees.

Although most of interviewees who were dubious or antagonistic about the idea of anthropogenic climate change rejected the concept of appropriate or useful policy responses to climate change, they all did suggest ideas and initiatives which would be generally environmentally beneficial and many of their proposals overlapped with those of other interviewees.  The most commonly mentioned initiative was the provision of solar panels and water tanks, and many interviewees advocated for these to be universally installed in housing. There was also a strong emphasis on the need to decentralize energy production, water supply and waste management.

As part of the interviews, the researcher spent time questioning participants about their homes, transport and shopping habits and water and energy use.  In every single case, interviewees were engaged in efforts to adopt sustainable behaviours and reduce their energy or water use.  The climate sceptics I interviewed were taking action to reduce their emissions, in the form of growing their own food, recycling, or installing water tanks or solar panels, pretty much in line with what the most highly concerned interviewees about climate change were doing.

Discussion and Conclusion – what the findings mean

Ideology is currently highly identified as a determining factor in people’s orientation towards climate change (Klein 2011).  The Yale Cultural Cognition Study and similar findings in Australia, including both the CSIRO Baseline study on attitudes towards climate change and the Griffith University study, have found strong correlations between people’s underlying political beliefs and values and their views on climate change (Leviston and Walker, 2010; Reser 2011).

The findings of this qualitative study on climate change superficially validate the importance of ideology and political values in determining people’s attitudes, but this conclusion is undermined by the strong convergence of opinion and behaviour amongst the entire sample, once climate change was not the focus of discussion, and general concern for the environment and sustainability were.

Peter Newton, of Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research, has found in research on public attitudes about the environment and climate change in Melbourne, that actual carbon emissions are similar across all of the opinion segments in the population (Newton, 2009).

In Newton’s typology, those who expressed greatest concern about climate change and the environment in general, an opinion block he describes as ‘The Committed Greens’, demonstrated no significant difference in terms of actual consumption of products, or in carbon emissions, to the other opinion clusters, including the block which Newton terms the ‘Enviro Sceptics’, those people, most commonly residing in outer suburbs, who expressed significant doubts about the science behind climate change (Newton 2009).

Perhaps there are some messages in these findings for the Australian climate action movement, and for political parties and other organisations which might wish to engage with the public on climate change.  It is clear that the general environmental messages of care for the environment and sustainability are reaching all members of the public, and it is clear that most people are making some efforts to change their behaviours, though most of the highly concerned and even some of the climate sceptic interviewees agreed that these were grossly inadequate to the challenge presented either by climate change or environmental degradation generally.

And there does appear to be a large amount of common ground, including a strong shared criticism of some of the problematic and ultimately self-defeating patterns built into what is now a global social and economic structure.

Ideological typologies and analyses which align people’s orientations towards climate change with their political views are further compartmentalising opinion on climate change.  While they may hold some benefit in terms of understanding people’s underlying approaches to questions of causality and response, the findings of this research suggest that perhaps the answer is to move beyond a focus on climate change and look at overall environmental outcomes, such as a cleaner, healthier environment, clean air and water, unpolluted waterways, reinvigorated forests, and happy people.

I first developed this research project in response to my sheer disbelief that, in the face of overwhelming evidence, people could somehow maintain the idea that human-induced climate change was a fiction.  I was desperate to find out what was going on in their thinking; I might uncover some data about missing information, or some mind-set amongst these people, which could be of assistance to the climate action movement.

Instead, I’ve learnt now, that perhaps we’re best not to worry about the processes and the reasons for opinion differences so much, but instead focus on the common ground.

In the words of one of the more dubious interviewees (Female, 41 – 50, 1st generation Indian Australian, Northcote District, Liberal-Labor swinging):

‘We shouldn’t be polluting anyway.  If we can educate people to do that [stop polluting behaviour] instead of just trying to scare like “oh my God look at the rain.  It has never rained before like that”. … That is the answer I think’.

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