Survey reveals disconnect between Australians and scientists over the urgency for climate action

Cracked earth and dry tree

The second in an annual five-year survey series has highlighted the difference between the Australian public and scientists of the urgency of climate action.

Repeated and increasingly frustrated calls from Australian climate experts are failing to activate the Australian population with the urgency communicated by scientists in Australia and globally.

While most Australians accepted climate change was happening, only a minority thought it was an extremely serious problem.

Survey results showed 71% of Australians reported feeling either “fairly” or “very” concerned about the effects of climate change though this does not translate into demands for urgent action now – as the world’s scientists are demanding.

These results are gathered from the second annual Griffith University’s Climate Action Survey – one of the most ambitious climate change surveys conducted in Australia in terms of sample size, methodological rigour, multidisciplinary input and breadth of coverage – in September-December 2022.

The annual survey, led by Griffith’s Climate Action Beacon team, aimed to highlight what Australians think, feel and do about climate change and related environmental and climatic events, conditions and issues. Comparisons were also made with findings from the corresponding 2021 survey including longitudinal data from a sample of repeat respondents.

While overall Australians reported their support for climate action, including support for government policies, those with natural disaster experience expressed disproportionately high levels of concern and distress about climate change, were more likely to support government action to combat climate change, and were more likely to engage in pro environmental actions.

Exposure to the 2022 floods was a significant factor in prompting more urgency in calls for climate action.

Interestingly, the survey found that Australians relied on their own observations as much as they did commercial media and scientific experts, pointing to the value of personal stories that better communicated local impacts.

“The Climate Action Survey reveals much complexity and conflicting attitudes to climate action – in terms of personal responses and calls for government action. It also reveals points where Australian’s connect on climate changes and a host of possible interventions to assist policy and decision makers in supporting Australians to take climate action,” survey co-lead Associate Professor Kerrie Foxwell-Norton said.

“Obviously, Australia and its environments cannot wait for more people to experience climate-related disasters before increasing their sense of urgency for climate action.”

“This survey, more than any other, charts ways to engage Australians and empower communities – underpinned by climate science.”

As was the case in the 2021 survey, overall, the picture to emerge from the 2022 survey is of a nation that is divided along age, education, party-political, and other demographic lines in its views of and responses to climate change.

The survey team also noted a majority motivated to take climate action of many types and a persistent small group reluctant to accept and act on the realities evident in everyday observation and increasingly revealed by climate science.

2022 Climate Action Survey key findings:

  • 57% believed Australia has already started to feel the effects of climate change;
  • 8% believed the effects would be felt within the next 10 years;
  • 13% believed the effects would be felt within the next 50 years;
  • Young (under 35), students, women, university-educated and inner urban Australians had relatively high levels of understanding and concern about climate change and need for action;
  • More than one-third (37%) of Australians reported having experienced at least one extreme weather or natural disaster event in the preceding year, and 47% prior to the past year;
  • Australians were asked to rate their level of knowledge of climate change. Men rated their knowledge higher than women, but women scored higher on the objectively scored test. While greater climate change knowledge was expected among the more highly educated and among those with lived experiences of climate change impacts, the superior performance of the overseas-born and non- English background Australians was unexpected and warrants further investigation.
  • About one-third (32%) of Australians were directly exposed to flooding in Australia in 2022. These respondents reported disproportionately high levels of environmental/climate change awareness, concern and responsiveness. Compared with their peers who were not flood-exposed, the 18% of the repeat respondent sample who were exposed to floods in 2022 reported greater changes from 2021 to 2022 in a range of climate change variables;
  • Support for numerous pro-environment government policies remained high in 2022. For example, 75% of Australians in 2022 expressed support for setting a national zero carbon emission target by 2050 at the latest, compared to 80% in 2021;
  • Support for new fossil fuel projects and minimising Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in international climate agreements were generally higher for men. Men were more in favour of minimising agreements regarding greenhouse gas emissions (49%) compared with women (40%).
  • Most Australians used their own observations and experiences of the weather, climate and/or environment as one of their main sources of information about climate change (68%). Other popular sources of information were Australian commercial media (67%), scientists (66%) Australian public broadcasting (65%) and the Bureau of Meteorology (63%).

Read more in the Climate Action Survey 2022 here.