Essay: Communicating the science of climate change in a sceptical world

This is an excerpt from Dr Carmen Lawrence’s paper from the ASC Hot Air symposium in Perth, presented 24 March 2009.

Communicating the science of climate change in a sceptical world: Opportunities for shaping individual behaviours through communicating the science of climate change

In Australia, 75% of voters believe that climate change is a major problem and support government action to introduce energy efficiency, clean electricity generation and motor vehicle emissions reductions. Generally speaking, however, in most of the world climate change is rated as a lesser priority than other, more personally relevant issues. The Lowy Institute poll of 2007 found that Australians rated tackling climate change after improving education and health as the most important goals for Australia.

A recent Australian survey showed very little awareness among the public of what emissions trading is all about – more than half said they had have “no idea” what an emissions trading scheme is and 17% had never heard of the concept. A whopping 93% indicated that they know either little or nothing about the proposed changes. This may have improved since the introduction of the CPRS, although I doubt it, given the level of abstraction at which the debate is conducted and the absence of any systematic public education.

It has been suggested that the lack of information and the existence of basic misperceptions are likely to “inhibit the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in democratic discussions of the issue, to understand how their own actions affect the climate and to fully and accurately appreciate how climate change will affect our future” (p 261). Recommendations for behaviour and policy change which do not account of these limitations are likely to founder. Policy makers need to reinforce accurate beliefs and correct inaccurate ones while linking effective solutions to the explicitly stated causes.

But is should also be understood that even if people generally come to view climate change as a problem and recognise that human actions are the cause, they will not necessarily change their behaviour to any extent. The assumption that educating and informing people will change their attitudes and beliefs – and hence their behaviour – is simply wrong, although it is a surprisingly common prescription for solving social problems. While information is essential to such change, it is rarely sufficient, especially when there are barriers – personal, social and economic – which prevent pro-environmental attitudes being expressed in action; the so-called “attitude-behaviour gap”.

About the author:

Dr Carmen Lawrence retired from politics in 2007 after being the first woman Premier in Australia as Premier of Western Australia, a Federal MP and President of the Australian Labour Party. She is currently a Professorial Fellow in the Institute of Advanced Studies at The University of Western Australia where she is establishing a research centre focussing on social change. One topic of concentration for the centre will be climate change.

Download the full paper as a PDF

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