April 2008

Changes in Australian attitudes towards global warming

By Scott Power1, Neil Plummer1, Karen Pearce2, David Walland1, Spencer Edwards3, David Jones1, Sara Gipton4, Paul Holper5 and Rohan Whitehead1

Introduction

It has been observed that global warming appears to have been mentioned much more frequently in the media and by politicians over the past couple of years than previously. Is this really the case? If there has been an increase in media and political attention given to climate change, has there also been a corresponding increase in the frequency that people seek out more climate change information, in the use of renewable energy or carbon offsetting options? This note addresses all these issues, and establishes that changes have occurred and that they are remarkably large.

Results

Increased media coverage

The number of articles per year that refer to “global warming”, “climate change” or “the greenhouse effect” in three major Australian metropolitan newspapers (The Australian, The Age and The West Australian) is given in Figure 1. In 1991, only about 20 articles referred to climate change, whereas in 2006 the index had grown to over 2000— a 100-fold increase! Approximately 80 articles per year referred to climate change during 1992-1996. The index jumped to nearly 600 articles in 1997, then dropped to around 220 articles per year over the period 1998-2003. From then on the index grew rapidly to its maximum value in 2006.

figure

Figure 1 — The number of articles in each year making reference to “climate change”, “global warming” or the “greenhouse effect” in The West Australian, The Age or The Australian newspapers (1991-2006)

It is also interesting to note the monthly changes that occurred during 2006 (Figure 2). During January-August the number of articles mentioning climate change was approximately 100 per month. It then grew during September-November, peaking in November at 500 articles and then back to approximately 270 articles in December 2006.

figure

Figure 2 — The number of articles per month making reference to “climate change”, “global warming” or the “greenhouse effect” in The West Australian, The Age or The Australian newspapers during 2006 only (from January 2006-December 2006).

How did the level of coverage given to climate change compare with coverage given to other new stories? The ranking of news stories by the media-tracking company Media Monitors allows us to make this comparison. Ranking is based on the number of times a given issue is mentioned across print, radio and television between July 2006 and 25 May 2007. Articles referring to climate change ranked second highest of all topics covered (15.60 per cent of all stories referred to climate change, see Figure 3). Climate change had become a major issue in Australia.

figure

Figure 3 — The top 10 news stories over the period July 2006-May 2007.

In the period analysed, climate change first entered the “Top-10” media items during 14-20 October 2006 and remained in the “Top-10” for 28 out of the 31 surveyed weeks analysed since then (Figure 4(a)). The fraction of Top 10 stories mentioning climate change is depicted in Figure 4(b). Climate change stories typically comprised 5-15 per cent of all Top 10 news stories, peaking at 25 per cent in October 2006.

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Figure 4 — (a) Rank of articles referring to climate change when such articles made the weekly Top 10 and (b) the percentage of top 10 articles that referred to climate change.

What stories were covered when media coverage increased?

The articles that referred to climate change or global warming that appeared in the “Top-3” (Table 1) were dominated by discussion of the Stern Report (Stern, 2006), Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth and the drought experienced in many parts of the country.

Table 1
The topics covered in articles referring to climate change during weeks when such articles made the Top 3.

Week

Rating

Summary of articles

14-20 October 2006

1st

First sitting of Federal Parliament after the film documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released (in September 2007); On-going drought required extension of Exceptional Circumstances Funding; Nuclear issue (and a statement that Australia could have a nuclear reactor by 2016); David Suzuki in Australia.

21-27 October

1st

Drought being linked to climate change; Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund announcements; Victorian election campaign focus on climate; Pacific Islands Forum.

28 October-3 November

1st

Release of the Stern Report (Stern 2006); Worsening drought; UNFCCC emissions report; Business leaders in support of GHG action.

4-10 November

3rd

Continued coverage and analysis of the Stern Report; Drought and Water Summit; Victorian election campaign; US mid-term elections; Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) backs action on greenhouse gases; Nuclear issue.

11-17 November

2nd

UNFCCC COP 12/Post-Kyoto; US mid-term election analysis; Al Gore in Australia giving lectures; Victorian election campaign; G20 Finance Ministers discuss climate.

3-9 February 2007

1st

IPCC AR4 WG1 SPM released (IPCC 2007); first week of Federal Parliament in 2007; Emissions trading.

Increase in the frequency that climate services were used

Given the marked increase in media attention given to climate change, one might expect an increase in the use of climate services related to climate change. The total number of hits to the Bureau of Meteorology’s climate change Web-pages (http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/) each month over the period July 2005 to December 2007 is given in Figure 5. Early on in July 2005-May 2006 hit rates were around 2 500 per month. Since November 2006, however, this figure has grown to around 25 000 per month—a ten-fold increase.

The Bureau’s climate change Web-pages have been improved through co-investment by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Department of Climate Change, and access to the Web-pages has improved. While this has very likely contributed to the large increase in Figure 5, we strongly suspect that the increased media attention given to climate change over this period has also contributed to the increase evident.

figure

Figure 5 — The number of hits to the Bureau of Meteorology’s climate change Website over the period July 2005-December 2007.

Increased concern over climate change in the community

Data from the Lowy Institute’s surveys (Cook, 2005, 2006; Gyngell, 2007) also suggest that the level of high concern about climate change increased significantly between 2005 and 2007. People were asked “How worried are you about climate change compared with other potential threats from the outside world”? In 2005, climate change ranked second to the perceived threat posed by “unfriendly countries developing nuclear weapons”, whereas in 2007 climate change became the highest ranked perceived threat. The number of people “very worried” by climate change increased from 46 per cent to 55 per cent, the number of people who said they were “fairly worried” increased from 24 per cent to 31 per cent and the number of people who said they were “relatively unworried” about the threat posed by climate change fell from 30 per cent to 14 per cent.

Increased political attention

There was a substantial increase in the number of “questions without notice” asked in both the Australian House of Representatives and the Senate (Figure 6). Only one question was asked in the House of Representatives during 2002-2004, while no questions at all were asked in the Senate. This increased every year during 2005-2007 from 4 to 34 to 54 in the House of Representatives and from 6 to 17 to 19 in the Senate. The majority of the questions relating to climate change (approximately 65 per cent) were asked after 31 October 2006.

 

figure

Figure 6 — The number of “questions asked without notice” in the Australian Federal House of Representatives and the Australian Senate during 2002-2007.

Increased action addressing climate change

The non-government organization Greenfleet plants native trees to offset carbon dioxide emissions and promotes fuel-efficient and low-carbon technologies in order to reduce emissions. The number of new Greenfleet supporters over the period January 2001-December 2006 is given in Figure 7. The largest number of new supporters during this period occurred in October 2006 and remained high for the rest of 2006. In stark contrast, prior to July 2004 the number of new supporters was typically only 10-20 per cent of the October 2006 peak.
figure

Figure 7 — The number of new Greenfleet supporters over the period January 2001-December 2006: monthly values are given, expressed as a percentage of the October 2006 peak monthly value.

The number of customers using alternative energy sources also increased. This is illustrated in changes in the number of customers the company “GreenPower” had during 2004-2007 (Figure 8). GreenPower is is a national accreditation programme that sets stringent environmental and reporting standards for renewable electricity products (see http://www.greenpower.gov.au/home.aspx). From April to June 2005 there were fewer than 20 000 new customers per “season”. This increased to approximately 25 000-50 000 from July-December 2006, but then jumped to nearly 120 000 in January-March 2007, and stayed high (approximately 90 000) during April-June 2007.

figure

Figure 8 — The number of new GreenPower customers during 2004-2007. A value is given for each 3 month block shown.

Discussion

There was a dramatic increase in the media coverage of climate change in Australia during 2006 and 2007. This increase coincided with an increase in the level of concern about climate change amongst Australians (Cook, 2005, 2006; Gyngell, 2007). In 2007, Australians became more worried by climate change than by any other “potential threat from the outside world”. The number of people surveyed who said they were “relatively unworried” about the threat posed by climate change became a small minority (14 per cent).

During this period there was also a huge increase in the number of “questions without notice” asked in both the Australian Federal Parliament and the Senate. During the entire period from 2002 to 2004 only one climate change question was asked in the House of Representatives, while no questions at all were asked in the Senate. By 2007 these figures had increased to 54 questions in the House of Representatives and 19 in the Senate.

The level of action in the community and in the marketplace also soared during this period. Prior to July 2004, the number of new Greenfleet supporters typically varied between only 10-20 per cent of the October 2006 peak value. Similarly, the number of customers using alternative energy sources through GreenPower grew from less than 10 000 per season prior to April 2005, to approximately 100 000 in early 2007.

All the indices presented here that resolve monthly time-scales first exhibited sharp increases around October-November 2006 (number of climate change media stories, number of times the Bureau’s climate change Website received a hit, level of Greenfleet support) or shortly afterwards (number of new GreenPower customers). October-November 2006 then seems to have been a “tipping point” (Gladwell, 2000) in the media coverage and concern about global warming in Australia.

Many of the press articles referring to climate change covered stories on the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” and the 2006/07 Australian drought. These three events were clearly influential in fueling increased media attention. However, they did not occur in isolation from other events. They were, for example, preceded by global and Australian warming trends and record high temperatures— in fact, 2005 was Australia’s warmest year on record. They were also preceded by decades of climate change research which Stern and Al Gore relied upon for scientific credibility.

Warming trends and scientific credibility alone, however, were not enough to make climate change the high profile issue it became. That came after : a drought and the widespread imposition of water restrictions across the country that many came to regard as a possible taste of things to come under further climate change (rightly or wrongly); Gore’s popular film made many more people aware of the evidence for climate change; and the economic implications of climate change became better understood and much more widely appreciated through the release of Stern’s report. The release of IPCC reports and the forthcoming Australian federal election helped to fuel sustained interest in climate change during 2007.

As noted above, the demand for climate services has increased sharply. But will this demand remain at high levels in the future? In early 2008 the new government adopted their long-standing policy and ratified the Kyoto Protocol and this came into affect in March 2008. Emissions targets have been set, an emissions trading scheme will be established and significant funding has been made available to enhance Australia’s ability to adapt to climate. This includes the establishment of a National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. These and other initiatives, together with inevitable further warming and sea-level rise, will maintain a very strong level of interest in global warming and will ensure strong demand for climate change services in coming years. As more people, government departments, agencies and companies develop practical adaptation strategies, we expect that the demand for increasingly more sophisticated services—including the provision of climate change projections data—will grow.

Acknowledgments

We wish to thank John Phan for extracting the NCC Website data and Mark Jenkin for assistance with the media surveying.

References

Cook, I. 2005. The Lowy Institute Poll 2005: Australians speak 2005 - public opinion and foreign policy. Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, NSW.
http://www.lowyinstitute.org/Publication.asp?pid=236

Cook, I. 2006. The Lowy Institute Poll 2006: Australia, Indonesia and the World – public opinion and foreign policy. Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, NSW. http://www.lowyinstitute.org/Publication.asp?pid=470

Gladwell, M. 2000: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little Brown, USA.

Gyngell, A. 2007. The Lowy Institute Poll 2007: Australia and the world: public opinion and foreign policy. Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, NSW.
http://www.lowyinstitute.org/Publication.asp?pid=660

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 996 pp.

Stern, N. 2006: Stern Review on the economics of climate change. H.M. Treasury and Cabinet Office, London, UK.
http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/
stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm

 

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  1. Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne, Australia
  2. formerly 1., now at Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, Australia
  3. formerly Australian Climate Change Science Program, Department of Climate Change; now at Bloom Communication, Dubbo, NSW
  4. Greenfleet, Australia.
  5. CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria, Australia

Corresponding author

Scott B. Power
Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research
Bureau of Meteorology
700 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Phone: +613 9669 4214
Fax: +613 9669 4660

s.power[at]bom.gov.au

 

 

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