Australian public perception of the greenhouse issue

A. Henderson-Sellers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


During 1987 and 1988 in Australia there have been two national meetings on the greenhouse effect and a campaign designed to increase public awareness. A study of the backgrounds, level of comprehension and attitudes of attendees at two state Greenhouse-88 meetings has been undertaken by means of a questionnaire survey and a set of personal interviews. Two crucial caveats pertain: (1) some of the questions reflect the prejudices of the author who is an atmospheric scientist and much of the interpretation is similarly 'tainted' and (2) the respondents comprise a small, self-selected and probably highly motivated group. All the ensuing results should be viewed in the context of these caveats. Over 97% of the respondents believe that action should be taken now to alleviate or mitigate the effects of increased greenhouse gases. Despite the fact that the majority of the 321 respondents are professional people (73%) and that over 53% have tertiary level educational qualifications, there was a failure to grasp some fundamental issues. For example, only 120 (37%) correctly recognized that N2 is not a greenhouse agent whilst also agreeing that CO2, CH4 and CFCs are greenhouse agents. On the other hand, the respondents generally demanded a relatively low level of confidence (50% to 70% certainty) about the greenhouse issue from scientists before action is taken. Sixty-four percent believe that life will be worse for them and/or their children in Australia in 'Greenhouse 2025' with the youngest age range being the second most pessimistic group about the future. Relatively little interest was shown in the possibility of obtaining more information on topics that interest climatic scientists such as the validity of measured temperature trends and inadequacies/errors in climate models but more information was desired on the social and economic implication and, interestingly, on the scientific background to the issues. Overall, teachers are perceived as trying to increase understanding; whereas politicians, multinational corporations, the media and some extreme environmentalists are perceived as often attempting to deceive intentionally. Scientists are seen as neither especially malevolent nor benign. A possible conclusion which might be drawn is that by attempting to simplify issues for public debate, scientists may significantly reduce, or even remove entirely, any chance of re-association of connected issues by members of the public. Perhaps more importantly, scientists need to recognize and learn to use the knowledge that the public may have the 'right views' for the 'wrong reasons'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-96
Number of pages28
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1990


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