Climate-change views relative

The factors that influence people's perception of climate change vary widely from country to country, an international study has found.

University of Otago Centre for Sustainability research fellow Debbie Hopkins wrote a commentary article that accompanied the study published by Nature Climate Change yesterday. 

The study was the first time researchers had compared a large sample of countries - 119 countries were looked at - on attitudes relating to climate change.

It examined how certain specific factors, including local geography and beliefs about climate change, affected knowledge of climate change and perception of the risk it posed.

Most of the research on climate change attitudes thus far has focused on individual countries in North America and Europe, Dr Hopkins said, and this research revealed that data from those parts of the world was not necessarily applicable elsewhere.

New Zealand was not included in the research published yesterday, but Dr Hopkins said it would be interesting to use data collected internally and data from the study to make a comparison.

''While we do have a history and connection to Europe, so there are similarities, actually we find quite a lot of difference in terms of what we're experiencing,'' she said.

''And a lot of how we understand climate change is developed by our own experiences.''

It was important to understand people's perception of climate change because that perception would help shape governmental policy, she said.

Recent research in New Zealand showed 53% of people thought climate change was real and caused by humans, but surveys also uncovered a belief that New Zealand did not need to prioritise action on climate change as much as other countries did.

''Whilst [that belief] corresponds with other countries, maybe we have more of that,'' Dr Hopkins said.

''When you're talking about total emissions, it's very easy to overlook how important New Zealand is ... [but] when you look at per capita emissions, we're way up there with the top emissions.

''I completely disagree with any dialogue saying 'we're only small'.''

The greenhouse gas emissions reduction target announced by the Government this month - an 11% reduction on 1990 levels by 2030 - was unambitious, Dr Hopkins said.

And while almost every submitter during the target consultation suggested a more ambitious target, the Government's 11% target may nonetheless reflect the country's attitude towards climate change to a certain extent.

''Potentially, it might reflect the fact that people voted National in again last year, and [National] never said they were going to do anything particularly radical on climate change,'' Dr Hopkins said.

''So you can't really be too surprised.''

And although New Zealand's neighbours in the South Pacific were being wracked by rising sea levels and other side effects of climate change, it was not clear whether that proximity was shaping attitudes here.

''In New Zealand, we're not forecast to experience the more dramatic side of [climate change] impacts,'' Dr Hopkins said.

''That's what people tend to focus on more.''

But, she added, that was only her ''impression'' of the situation - she did not know of any research that had been done examining the question.

''It would be an interesting and important piece of work to see how we connect to the South Pacific, especially given that so many South Pacific people live in New Zealand.''

Dr Hopkins said it was ''quite important that we have national-scale support for taking decisive action'' on climate change.

More research was also necessary on a local, ''sub-national'' level to understand people's views on climate change.

''We have quite a spread of climate, from Northland down to Southland, and a spread of the way that we engage with the climate,'' she said.

''Whilst we know a fair amount about New Zealand in terms of what people think, we haven't gone deep enough into what different areas think.''

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