Australia cooling off on climate, report says

Concern for the environment has dwindled into a ''middling'' issue that many people do not have strong feelings about, a major new study into Australian attitudes towards society, politics and the economy has found.

Food, health, local crime, safety and rights to basic public services - the tangible things that people confront on a daily basis - are dominant national concerns.

''Australians are effectively indifferent to global and societal issues, rating these significantly lower,'' said the report What Matters to Australians, produced by the University of Technology, Sydney and the Melbourne Business School, with the support of the Australian Research Council.

''What we see in these results is a picture of a relatively conservative society concerned with local issues that influence its members' daily lives.''

People's concerns about industrial pollution, climate change, renewable energy and depletion of energy resources plummeted when compared to an identical study carried out in 2007, with only logging and habitat destruction remaining among the top 25 issues of concern to Australians in new research. In 2007, environmental sustainability was the only set of global issues that was ranked as highly important.

When the same questions were repeated last year, no global issues appeared among the nation's top concerns. ''Overall, this reveals a startling decline in the Australian population's concerns about environmental sustainability,'' the researchers wrote.


''It is possible that 2007 was nothing more than an aberration when the debate about environmental sustainability became a matter of ordinary, everyday concern. What we now see in Australia and across Western countries is likely closer to a long-term trend in the value of environmental matters to the general population.''

The study is based on a sample of 1500 adults, weighted to represent the population as a whole, who completed detailed questionnaires that forced them to rate a vast array of issues relative to each other. Rather than just giving a question a numbered score to indicate its importance to them, the subjects had to select a series of different issues that they felt strongly about and gradually exclude the least compelling ones, until only the most important issues remained.

Parallel studies were conducted in the US, Britain and Germany, with Australians exhibiting a similar range of concerns to Americans and Britons. The German responses, however, were markedly different.

Lead author Timothy Devinney, a professor of strategy at the University of Technology, Sydney, said: ''You can pretty much read German history in the German responses.

''They are very concerned about privacy, civil rights, global issues, questions of peace and turmoil. While Australia is globally oriented in some ways, the tyranny of distance means most people aren't actually engaged with global issues as much as some might expect.''

Professor Devinney said the lower priority accorded to environmental concerns may indicate that 2007 was an 'outlier' year in terms of large attention being placed on environment issues, with last year seeing a return to the norm.

The findings also show that Australians are relatively disengaged with party politics. ''More than two-fifths of people in the study were either aligned with an independent political position or did not feel their political values aligned with any of the political representation options available to them through organised party politics,'' it said.

The report will be launched in Melbourne on Thursday and Sydney on Friday.