Australians more concerned about climate change than COVID-19

The top concern for most Australians is the impact of climate change and the environment

Dr Quentin Maire, Dr Eric Fu and Associate Professor Jenny Chesters, University of Melbourne

Dr Quentin MaireAssociate Professor Jenny Chesters

Published 10 March 2022

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is currently one of the most important issues for many Australians, concern for the environment and climate change tops the list for most of us.

This is according to our Life Patterns research, published in the Climate Change and COVID-19 report, which tells us that Australians’ concern for the environment and the impacts of climate change has increased since our first Most Important Issues report, published back in 2018.

Despite the health, social and economic impact of COVID-19, more Australians were concerned about climate change. Picture: Getty Images

The Life Patterns research program has been following two cohorts of Australians from school into their adult lives since the 1990s.

Climate change a major risk

In 2020, we surveyed the two groups of participants about a range of topics including their views on the most important issues we’re facing in Australia.

The Cohort 2 participants (who are now aged in their early 30s) were surveyed in the first half of 2020 and participants in Cohort 1 (now in their late 40s) were surveyed in the second half of the year.

Analysis of the data shows that despite the health, social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people were concerned about the environment and climate change than the disruptions of the pandemic.

This result is all the more significant given that the majority of the participants were living in Victoria and experienced prolonged periods of lockdowns during 2020.

Of the 755 participants, around 90 per cent nominated at least one most important issue and close to 60 per cent provided additional comments.

The social disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic loom large in Australians’ experience of 2020.

The four most important issues by cohort (%). Graphic Supplied

When the participants were given the opportunity to elaborate on their concerns, 58 per cent wrote detailed comments, many linking COVID-19 with their concern over the environment and climate change, public services or the economy.

For example, a male from Cohort 1 who is a development officer living in a capital city commented:

The COVID pandemic will change our lives dramatically in respect to health, lifestyle and increased state/federal debt and economic impact/uncertainty.

A woman in Cohort 2 working as a medical technologist living in a capital city said:

[In] the coming six months to two years, the health of Australians, the economy and education of Australian children will all be impacted, the extent of which we still do not know.

For others, the spectre of a looming environmental crisis overrode any other concerns.

A Cohort 1 female education consultant living in rural Australia commented:

Our warming drying climate is a major risk for bushfires, health, jobs, biodiversity, insurance, water, refugee migration, peace and stability.

And a Cohort 2 female lawyer living in a capital city noted:

What economy is there to bolster (or rescue) if it burns or dies or floods or melts, even disassociating the human cost?

For many, the spectre of a looming environmental crisis overrode any other concerns. Picture: Getty Images

Calls for collective action

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a place alongside long standing economic, environmental and generational issues dividing Australian society.

However, our two cohorts of Australians often chose to talk about the need for collective action rather than just about the issues. Their responses indicated that governments were expected to do better to foster collective wellbeing now and in the future.

One female doctor from Cohort 2 living in a capital city said:

The healthcare system has been put on the back burner for ages… COVID has highlighted our lack of preparation for infectious epidemics/pandemics, despite yearly viral plagues (e.g., influenza) that kill many people.

Another female office manager in Cohort 1 from a country town also called for increased public investment:

There will need to be continued services offered from a financial and also health/well-being point of view to help our country slowly get back on its feet.

With the rise of climate extremes, the collective experience of recent floods, droughts and bushfires gave many respondents a vivid sense of the urgency to respond to climate change. It’s in this area that the action of governments was most severely judged by members of both cohorts.

The action of governments was most severely judged by members of both cohorts. Picture: Getty Images

Another woman in Cohort 1 living in a capital city working in accountancy said:

Climate change and the impact on the environment is one of the biggest issue[s] in Australia, [yet] there is no real plan to combat this.

The action of governments

The adoption of better collective responses to climate change, COVID-19 and economic uncertainties emerged as a common expectation among working-age Australians.

These high levels of concern for the environment and climate change, as well as the consequences of COVID-19, are reinforced by the concerns of younger Australians reported in research from Mission Australia.

These results highlight the intergenerational convergence in views about Australia’s major challenges.

Research like this gives us a snapshot of the real concerns of Australians who have already spent years adapting to a world affected by a global pandemic – and yet remain chiefly concerned about a future affected by climate change.

As one woman in Cohort 2 working as a research scientist living in a capital city said:

Australia has become a world embarrassment on its inaction on climate change. I see no positive future in the current political climate.

Banner: Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


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