Understanding Emotional Responses to Climate Change

By Leitch, Anne | Ecos, April-May 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding Emotional Responses to Climate Change


Leitch, Anne, Ecos


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Presentation of the facts and figures about a changing climate, even when flanked by relevant images, for instance, of melting glaciers and drowning submerging islands, has left Australians wondering about who and what to believe. We know surprisingly little about people's values and beliefs about climate change, either in Australia or other cultural contexts. Most research on 'attitudes' to date has focused on how people understand the science of climate change, rather than react to it.

A CSIRO synthesis in early 2011 found that Australians largely support the need for action, but are confused about climate change and appropriate policy responses. Commissioned by the Garnaut Review 2011 team, the synthesis looked at 22 recent Australian surveys of climate change attitudes undertaken by universities, CSIRO units and media organisations between 2008 and 2011. While the studies asked a diverse range of questions about climate-related issues, they are clear in showing that most Australians believe the climate is changing--about 75 per cent depending on how the question is framed.

Deeper investigation on the belief in climate change comes from the 2010 CSIRO Baseline Survey which showed that Australians remain divided about the cause of climate change. Initiated and funded by CSIRO's Climate Adaptation Flagship, the survey of 5036 people from across Australia occurred in July and August just prior to the federal election. Administered by the company Online Research Unit it used a representative group of participants who nominate to participate in research surveys.

The most comprehensive survey of Australian climate change attitudes to date, the Baseline Survey found that about half of the 5000-plus respondents believe that humans were causing climate change. Just over 40 per cent considered that the changing climate was due solely to natural causes. On the other hand, less that six per cent said the climate was not changing at all, and less than four per cent were unsure.

Lead author of the report, CSIRO social scientist Ms Zoe Leviston, considers that thinking of climate change as a natural phenomenon may constitute a form of 'interpretive' denial in which the facts themselves are not denied but given a different interpretation. Factual reinterpretation is one of three distinct types of denial conceived by UK sociologist Stanley Cohen. The other types are literal denial--an outright rejection of the facts --and implicatory denial--a rejection of psychological and moral implications which results in a lack of behavioural responses, even when human-induced climate change is accepted.

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Report coauthor and group leader for the CSIRO's Adaptive Behaviours team, Professor Iain Walker has further explored the Baseline Survey responses to understand the role of emotions in people's responses. Emotional responses are critical because of their central role in motivated decision-making and behaviour. Professor Walker's research has shown that people who believe climate change is caused by humans are experiencing different emotions to those who consider climate change is natural or not happening. …

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