Just how many climate sceptics are there?

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It all depends who’s doing the asking – and what the weather’s like when they’re doing it. Studies have revealed just how difficult it can be to get a true picture of the general public’s view on climate change – especially from mainstream media. But all things being equal, it looks like the science is winning.

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When Julia Gillard announced that former Woodside executive and lobbyist Gary Gray was Australia’s new energy and resources minister, questions turned quickly to his position on climate change. Did he accept the science, or was he a denier?

For the record, Gray told journalists that he was a reformed sceptic and now accepted that humans were influencing the climate.

Gray’s publicly stated view puts him with the majority of Australians. But regular readers of The Australian newspaper, News Ltd columnists and even the broader Australian public might think otherwise.

“The media will often report on what the public thinks about climate change – and they are getting it wrong,” says Professor Joseph Reser, of Griffith University’s School of Psychology, who has led one of the most extensive and detailed surveys into Australians’ attitudes to climate change and the underpinning science.

After asking 7,500 Australians about their attitudes to climate change and their acceptance that humans are having something to do with it, Reser says the vast majority of people accept the science – it’s happening and humans have a hand in it.

Several studies have pointed out just how difficult it can be to get a true picture of the general public’s view on climate change. Not to mention how people’s economic views – such as support for the free market – or political views are closely aligned with their views on climate change.

A study earlier this year in the United States found that, not surprisingly, members of the public and the media tend to be more sceptical about global warming if you ask them during a cold snap.

Another US study last year found that asking people about global warming during a hot spell could increase the number of “believers” by almost six percentage points. One study has even found that people were more likely to accept the science on global warming if they were sitting close to dead plants.

How the questions are phrased can also skew the results, an analysis of hundreds of polls found earlier this week.

So what do Australians really think? Or rather, what do various surveys claim they think?

The free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which has long promoted climate science denial, said last year that only one third of Australians thought humans were to blame for global warming.

In 2010, a report in the Herald Sun newspaper also told readers two thirds of Australians were “not convinced” by man made climate change.

The Lowy Institute annually polls people’s opinions about climate change. The number of people saying Australia shouldn’t act “until we are sure that global warming is a problem” rose from seven per cent in 2006 to 18 per cent in 2012.

Surveys by The Climate Institute in 2012 found 69 per cent of people attribute climate change to a combination of natural and human causes – a position on the science relatively close to reality.

Professor Reser’s research for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility uses much larger sample sizes and is set up to ask questions in a variety of ways and to allow for greater uncertainty.

Reser finds some 83 per cent of Australians have the science about right – climate change is happening and humans and natural cycles play a role.

Only a tiny percentage – about 8 per cent or less depending on the criteria – could be considered genuine climate science deniers. Only about 4 per cent of people refused to accept climate change existed regardless of any cause.

“Social science based survey findings show consistently that the majority of Americans, British and Australians accept climate change is happening and they accept the science and they are concerned. And yes, there are seven to 10 per cent of people who are very dismissive.”

Professor Iain Walker is a research leader at CSIRO which has twice surveyed 5000 Australians on their views about climate change and their acceptance of the science.

In those surveys, where people could choose from four statements about climate change and it’s causes, about 40 per cent of Australians accept climate change but say the causes are natural. Half say it’s largely caused by human.

The discrepancy between this survey and Professor Reser’s is most likely down to the methodology, how the questions are framed, how people interpret the words “climate change” and how in the CSIRO study, only four options were given with a yes or no answer.

Prof Walker says when you look across the most substantive surveys around the world and in Australia “the vast majority of people accept it’s happening and humans are involved to some extent or another.”

A study co-authored by Walker and published in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at how accurate people’s own estimates of the views of the rest of the community were.

The research found only about 5 per cent of people thought climate change was not happening. But when this group was asked how many people in the population shared that view, they estimated about half.

People also greatly overestimated how many people they thought didn’t know about causes of climate change. People who say climate change is driven by human activity tended to underestimate slightly how many people in the community thought the same.

The implications of this are obvious. Sceptics are more confident in speaking out because they think they belong to a sizeable group. People who accept the science think they might be outnumbered if they speak out when the evidence strongly suggests they belong to the majority.

Prof Walker says: “The media representation of the climate change debate is one way you can explain why it is that people so grossly overestimate the proportion of contrarians in the population.”

So why, if the media are doing such a bad job of correctly reflecting the public’s view, aren’t there more sceptics? The answer could be that people lend much more credibility to scientists than they do to the media and government.

In Reser’s research, respondents were asked to grade from one to six how much they trusted (six being “completely” and 1 being “not at all” ) scientists, the media and government as sources of information on environmental issues – not on climate change alone.

Some 53 per cent of people gave a score of five or six to the scientists – indicating a high level of trust. On the same measure, the Government rated poorly with just 9.4 per cent of people. The media scored a disastrous 5.1 per cent.

“The media has low credibility with the public” says Reser. “But around the world, the vast majority of scientists – say 97 per cent or more – are worried and accept that climate change is happening. I think the public is aware of that fact.”

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  1. keith williams 7 years ago

    If there was some accountability re false statements in the press, the situation would change dramatically. Newspapers like the Australian deliberately propagate falsehoods and this is not shoddy reporting. It is systematic and highly focused.

    My experience of senior management of the Australian in relation to their reporting concerning wind power, was shocking in that the management was quite brazen about misrepresenting and propagating falsehoods. The attitude was that they can get away with it and therefore they’ll continue to push their agenda against wind power.

    It is shameful that we as a society allow such dishonest behaviour.

    • suthnsun 7 years ago

      Agree entirely about the Australian, truly shameful behaviour on their part and also that as a society they are getting away with it (so far). It is very important that we take the media at their often stated word (paraphrasing) ‘ .. well if people object to our stance they are free to stop buying..’

      Unfortunately, it is now incumbent on us to stop buying (the newspaper) .. no matter what niggling reasons we may have prompting us to buy.

    • Alastair 7 years ago

      That’s why the Murdoch press went into apoplexy when media reforms were ‘debated’ in public. The idea that they actual be held to account on the lies they pedal for vested interest and so run their political agenda seems to be much lower on the Murdoch scale of priorities than ‘holding the Government of the day to account’.

      ‘Hypocritical liars’ pretty much some up the Murdoch press on professional standards and ethics and Fairfax plays similar games. On a positive note, how did a Dutch news site that has yet to publish anything get 15,000 people to donate $1.3 million? http://nie.mn/10Ctp24

  2. Peter 7 years ago

    We need to stop saying 97% and say 99% of scientists etc – see the “There is no such thing as climate change denial” article by John Cook.

    Also, what percentage of the 8% is men over 45?

    • cj 7 years ago

      Don’t know about gender, but I’d wage good money 90% of that 8% are over 45.

    • Alastair 7 years ago

      Yep and it’s 99% of CLIMATE scientist not “scientists” which in MSM means anybody who sat for a BSc. The old 97% comes from historical votes on the IPCC consensus position, I think. Which is not to say that the dissenters are arguing agains AGW per say just that they cannot be coerced into a consensus position. That could be for any number of reasons not to do with their position on AGW.

  3. Concerned 7 years ago

    Everyone is entitled to their view. If you do not like the Australian, here is a hint ,do not read it.
    In any case circulation on latest figures is only 124,000.Really influencing the masses.
    For example the left leaning Courier Mail, has a circulation of 185,000 during the week and 237,000 on the weekend.

    • keith williams 7 years ago

      Of course everyone is entitled to their personal views.

      The question about the press is whether it makes sense to allow a group with considerable reach and influence to deliberately and actively promulgate misleading and deceptive views.

      I remain dismayed that out and out lies and deception in flagrant breach of any reasonable standards is tolerated. The 5.1% trust rating for the press by the survey shows that most people understand the low standards by which some in the press operate.

      • Concerned 7 years ago

        Keith, I believe you actually insult the intelligence of most people who read widely and of various sources. Again, after reading the varied sources they can make up their own mind.
        Strangely, I read the Australian, listen and look at the ABC, Read Fairfax and then for my own opinion.
        Your comments are totally subjective, so let’s leave it at that.

        • keith williams 7 years ago

          Hi Concerned,

          I’m sorry if you feel offended, but I don’t think it is OK for a newspaper like the Australian to report in its news section false information, just because the management have a view that isn’t supported by facts.

          As I’ve said, by all means it would be OK for the editor of the Australian to have a “fairy tales” section where lies and misrepresentations are presented, but it should not be presented as news, which indicates that there is a factual basis to it.

  4. Concerned 7 years ago

    In addition, even though very left wing ,the Courier mail is part of News Limited. Hardly a conspiracy.
    And ,do you really think people are that stupid that they cannot make up their own mind?

    • Kim Grierson 7 years ago

      What on earth is left leaning about the Courier Mail??!

      • Concerned 7 years ago

        Kim,apart from the appalling journalism,if you dare have a read.Try Denis Aitkins et al.

  5. keith williams 7 years ago


    Of course I agree with your approach and it’s a long time since I purchased an Australian.

    However, I’m surprised that some of my (otherwise) intelligent colleagues insist that if The Australian publishes it there must be some truth in the story. That prop should not be allowed if the stories can’t be substantiated.

    On the other hand I would have no problem if The Australian published a section in their newspaper which clearly indicated that the content involved fiction that the management wishes to promote (fairy tales section)!!

    • John Newton 7 years ago

      Keith, sadly The Oz has the best weekend literary pages – and that’s when I buy it, and only read Enquirer to be enraged.

    • Kim Grierson 7 years ago

      Please don’t forget the Daily Telegraph has a massive readership and is also anti climate change and anti wind turbines.
      It is all very well to say don’t buy the papers but very many people do and don’t realise the untruths they are being told.

  6. Liese 7 years ago

    It is great to see comparisons here between different studies. I think public opinion is a large movable feast moving towards a new consensus that will shift as we observe more changes and new extremes. Both slowing emissions and adapting to change will be challenged as the process continues. I like to focus on what people are doing right now to adapt. If you know someone, why not nominate them as a Climate Adaptation Champion (http://goo.gl/dtDXm), open until 19 April? Good to see someone get recognition for action over talk!

    • keith williams 7 years ago

      Adaptation is good AND it is crucial that adaptation efforts are not at the expense of addressing the key problem of making things worse by burning fossil fuels.

      It seems a constant theme in the less well versed press is along the lines of “things are so critical now that we should divert our efforts from climate change mitigation to adaptation.”

      While it is important to put out the fire, it seems pretty obvious that one of the first things you need to do is stop adding fuel to the fire!!

      • Peter Bergs 7 years ago

        Well put

  7. Go green girl 7 years ago

    I have my doubts about the new Energy and Resources Minister. Great article about who thinks/knows what.

  8. John P Morgan 7 years ago

    It doesn’t really matter what the public thinks or what the OZ tells the public to think.
    The politicians of either complexion have no intention of doing anything about climate change because:
    (a) our efforts won’t make a difference and
    (b) anything we do might inhibit our lucrative export trade in fossil fuels!

    • Alastair 7 years ago

      How can you assert that (a) anything we may do will not make a difference. Every small take this country takes towards renewable energy makes a huge difference. To this country and to those countries watching us. You make out as if Australia is the only country that can change it’s energy industry, wake up, all countries are run by people. And all people look to see what everyone else is doing, especially politicians hence the road block on international treaties.

      If Australia were to put a carbon price on coal and gas exports it would send a massive price signal to the international markets about where fossil fuel prices are heading. That’s just one step (just one not so easy step for fossil fuel addicted nation) to take that will make a difference. Getting our own energy sector in shape helps poorer countries to do it by marching the world down the cost curve, just how Germany single handedly did with solarPV.

    • Miles Harding 7 years ago

      and (c) not interfere with the agendas of their commercial masters. (yes, even the labor party!!)

      A recent example is the M.R.R.T. that was completely undermined by a vocal and vitriolic campaign by the miners. The result being a piece of legislation that has failed to deliver and substantial benefit to the nation.

  9. greg 7 years ago

    The best way to formulate a position on warming/climate change is to ask what the consequences are if your position turns out to be wrong.

    If you accept the effect of humans on climate, and structure policy to mitigate the effects , you are taking the prudent course of action. If you are wrong, certainly no harm done, and probably some good.

    On the other hand, if you deny any effect and are wrong, the consequences would be catastrophic. Prudence is always the correct choice.

  10. John 7 years ago

    Meet the New Climate Deniers

    By Rich Lowry – April 2, 2013

    There are few things sadder than the “climate denier.” He ignores the data and neglects the latest science. His rhetoric and policy proposals are dangerously disconnected from reality. He can’t recalibrate to take account of the latest evidence because, well, he’s a denier.

    The new climate deniers are the liberals who, despite their obsession with climate change, have managed to miss the biggest story in climate science, which is that there hasn’t been any global warming for about a decade and a half.

    “Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar,” The Economist writes. “The world added roughly 100 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO2 put there by humanity since 1750.” Yet, no more warming.

    The Economist has been decidedly alarmist on global warming through the years, so it deserves credit for pausing to consider why the warming trend it expected to continue has mysteriously stalled out.

    The deniers feel no such compunction. They speak as if it is still the late 1990s, when measurements of global temperature had been rising for two decades. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said that “we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.” In a passage devoted to global warming, though, he didn’t mention the latest trend in global warming.

    A denier feels the same righteous sense of certitude now, when warming has stopped, as he did a decade ago. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently opined that “sensible people accept the fact of warming” — but apparently not the fact of no-warming. He scorned those “who manipulate the data in transparently bogus ways to claim that warming has halted or even reversed course.” Does he include James Hansen, the famous NASA scientist, among these dastardly manipulators? No one this side of Al Gore has warned as persistently about global warming as Hansen. He nonetheless admits that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”

    None of this means that the Earth didn’t get hotter in the 20th century, or that carbon emissions don’t tend to create a warmer planet, or that warming won’t necessarily begin again. It does mean that we know less about the fantastically complex global climate system than global-warming alarmists have been willing to admit. The Economist notes the work of Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading in Britain. He has found that if global temperatures stay the same for a few more years, they will fall below the range of 20 climate models. In other words, the scientific “consensus” will have been proven wrong.

    Why the stall in warming? According to The Economist, maybe we’ve overestimated the warming impact of clouds. Or maybe some clouds cool instead of warm the planet. Or maybe the oceans are absorbing heat from the atmosphere. Although the surface temperature of the oceans hasn’t been rising, perhaps the warming is happening deep down. James Hansen thinks new coal-fired plants in China and India, releasing so-called aerosols into the atmosphere that act to suppress warming, may be partly responsible for the stasis in temperatures.

    Hansen writes that knowing more about the effect of aerosols on the climate “requires accurate knowledge of changes in aerosol amount, size distribution, absorption and vertical distribution on a global basis — as well as simultaneous data on changes in cloud properties to allow inference of the indirect aerosol forcing via induced cloud changes.” Is that all? He ruefully notes that the launch of a satellite with a sensor to measure all of this failed, with no follow-up mission planned.

    Hey, but don’t worry. The science is all “settled.”

    What is beginning to seem more likely is that the “sensitivity” of the global climate to carbon emissions has been overestimated. If so, the deniers will be the last to admit it.

    • Vic 7 years ago

      John, we must get this information through to the Arctic icecap ASAP!!!

    • Chris 7 years ago

      What to think of being labelled as deniers by a denier himself.

      A pity that people fail to listen to science at the whim of their ideology. Rich Lowry fits the bill as a US Republican, anti-gay rights, anti-gun control, Paul Ryan sycophant.

    • Ken Fabian 7 years ago

      You would think that surface air temperatures are the defining measure of climate change and that if they don’t go up for a decade then warming didn’t happen for a decade. It’s not true; air temperatures are a secondary and highly variable consequence of a warming world and is affected by natural influences like El Nino Southern Oscillation, solar intensity and volcanic aerosols. Adjust for those and the warming rate has not slowed. More direct warming of ocean added something like 10 billion trillion joules of heat to the world over the past decade – enough heat to noticeably warm the enormous mass of the world’s oceans. http://www.skepticalscience.com/new-research-confirms-global-warming-has-accelerated.html

      Warming hasn’t stopped or even slowed in the past decade – and only by ignoring the known natural causes of short term variation can it be made to (falsely) appear to be doing so; recent more la Nina’s that el Nino’s meant more heat going into the oceans than atmosphere. Heat will make it’s way from ocean to atmosphere when we get more el Nino’s than la Nina’s. http://www.skepticalscience.com/foster-and-rahmstorf-measure-global-warming-signal.html

      • Alastair 7 years ago

        It’s great someone such as yourself has the patience to deal with the trolls and the army of paid astrotrufers.

        In the end people say what their self-oriented ideology asks of them (although increasingly unself-orientated as climate change even starts effecting rich white men) They’re puppets to their own strongly enforced world views. It often has a lot to do with their moneymaking aftivities. No amount of civil discussion and rationality will change their outlook. In fact it often just encourages them as they enjoy getting the attention from intelligent people who haven’t been co-opted by the corporate zeitgeist.

        • Concerned 7 years ago

          Alistair,very intellectual indeed.

  11. Jim Wright 7 years ago

    Forty years ago, a scientist working for NASA was trying to establish whether life had ever existed on Mars and other heavenly bodies in the solar system. To do this, he started looking at the biosphere on earth with a view to try and establish what he should look for. He came to the conclusion that the biosphere represented a huge number of natural processes which had interacted over millennia to maintain a life-supporting environment. He continued his research after retirement, financed by a mint of money he made from some clever laboratory equipment. He came to some very interesting conclusions which he set out in a number of books whose titles included the name of the ancient greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. In the end, a lot of his work was disregarded, mainly because hippies thought that the processes were actually controlled by Gaia!
    Today, nearly all of the activists and deniers make their points by cherrypicking the phenomena and their changing values to suit their own prejudices. It is time to go back and take a more global look at the overall picture. For instance, deniers are inclined to say that patterns of temperatures have not changed much if you look over long enough time periods. This might mean that things are still OK, but it can also mean that the negative feedback processes are kicking in. These are not necessarily beneficial. For instance, CO2 absorbed by the oceans helps to keep temperatures down, but at the cost of killing a lot of sea creatures who are often critical to economic wellbeing.
    My own view is that we should press on with amelioration activities purely as a matter of insurance. Nobody can say with absolute certainty that things will eventually reach an equilibrium that is a satisfactory environment for human survival and wellbeing.

  12. Jane R 7 years ago

    Don’t give up the fight against the deliberate misinformation of the Australian. Some of the tiny number who read it are politicians. One of the tricks they often use is to find a scientific abstract which seems to support a denier position and then base an article on the abstract even though if you read the whole scientific paper it actually says the opposite. A year or so ago they used a photo given to them by a scientist showing him standing in the ocean in Sydney. He had provided it to illustrate the risk of storm surges when combined with sea level rise. The Australian used the picture to accompany a front page story falsely claiming his research showed sea level rise was decelerating. It wasnt that difficult to get coverage on Media Watch and if I had my time over I would have made a complaint to the press council as well. It only takes five minutes to make a complaint and on another occasion I had four or five phone calls back from the Australian about the issue. Another thing to try is ringing the switch board at the Australian and asking to speak to the journalist. Just refusing to buy is not a strong enough response to this dangerous misinformation campaign.

  13. David Rossiter 7 years ago

    As Jane R says deliberate misinformation by the Australian can involve the misuse of scientific fact. Tuesday’s Herald Sun had the headline CARBON HIT on the front page explaining on that page that Victorian hospitals had been hit by massive extra carbon charges, but the article was continued on page four and stated that Dept of Health and Aging has estimated carbon costs in the health sector would add around 0.3% to health costs and in fact the costs to Victorian hospitals were of that order. So page one headline reads CARBON HIT but the article tells us about what is effectively a ‘carbon feather’ of 0.3% on page four. This is misuse of financial facts and unbelievably poor journalism.

    Why are Murdoch papers so against carbon did Rupert not listen to his mother at all?

  14. addinall 7 years ago

    CO2 driven AGW is a load of bollocks. Kiddology at best, better described as fraud. Any hypothesis that needs to be changed every week to fit the data is poor indeed. Any hypothesis that needs to manipulate the data to fit the hypothesis is scientific fraud. The scam is over. Find another hobby. It hasn’t warmed any over the last two decades. If you look at long term rural Australia, it hasn’t warmed for a century. Floods have neither increased nor decreased.
    Antarctica hasn’t warmed a bit, apart from one very small area in Western Antarctica that is sitting on a ridge of HUGE brand new submarine (only just) volcanoes.

    Sorry ladies. Show’s over. Find another disaster to keep you occupied.

    • Louise 7 years ago

      “Sorry ladies. Show’s over. Find another disaster to keep you occupied.”

      Well the oligopolies of the worlds biggest environmental terrorists are nearing their end.

      Those who trade in the scarcity of finite dirty fossil fuels are entering their final sprint.

      Infinite energy such as renewable energies are offering an alternative to over priced and polluting energies.

      Polluting energies (fossil fuels) will fail not because they are polluting but because they are very expensive and in more ways than just the purchase price.

      The price of fossil fuels can only go up!
      The price of infinite renewable energy can only become less and less as technology improves and the scale of manufacturing increases!

      Expect at least two of the four biggest power companies in Germany to go under within the next 5 years.
      No company can last long when their market share continuously declines every year by between 3 and 5 percent.

      Does anyone think that it will come differently in Australia?

      • addinall 7 years ago

        “Does anyone think that it will come differently in Australia?”

        Me. I invest heavily in energy stocks. What a few hundred ratbag Greenies think is of no import.

  15. Gary Caganoff 7 years ago

    Professor Stuart Hill, UWS, calls this sort of research, “monitoring our extinction”. Let’s get on with reducing our carbon footprint abd stop wasting money on who thinks what.

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