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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 03/06/1998   
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Contents >> People & the Environment >> Attitudes & Actions: People's concerns about environmental problems

Attitudes & Actions: People's concerns about environmental problems

In 1996 younger Australians, and those with higher education qualifications, were the most likely to be concerned about environmental problems and to rank the importance of environmental protection as equal to or greater than economic growth.

People's concerns about environmental problems, and their views about the importance of environmental protection may influence their attitudes and behaviour towards environmental protection policy and programs. For example, people who are concerned about protecting the environment may be more willing to recycle household garbage, to conserve energy and water or to reduce use of private motor vehicles in favour of public transport. They might also be more likely to accept the economic trade-offs many believe are inherent in pursuing national and international policies aimed at protecting the environment and achieving ecologically sustainable development.

A 1996 survey of environmental issues found that 68% of Australians aged 18 years and over were concerned about at least one environmental problem, a decline from 75% in 1992. It could be that people are taking comfort from the perception that these problems are being addressed. On the other hand, matters such as unemployment, crime and health may have displaced environmental issues in people's minds.


Environmental surveys

This review uses data from surveys of environmental issues conducted by the ABS during May 1992, June 1994 and April 1996. Information was collected from people aged 18 and over about a range of issues including:
  • the social issue of most importance to them (1996 only);
  • the relative importance of environmental protection and economic growth;
  • whether or not they were concerned about any environmental problems, and which environmental problems were of most concern;
  • whether they believed the quality of Australia's environment had declined, improved or stayed much the same over the last ten years (1996 only);
  • whether or not they received any information about the environment in the last twelve months, and source of information received (1992 only); and
  • whether or not this information influenced their behaviour or attitudes (1992 only).

Responses to surveys of community opinion are likely to be influenced by circumstances and community perceptions prevailing at the time of the survey. Respondents may have interpreted the terms used in the questions, such as concern, important, environment and problems, differently. No definition or examples of environmental problems were given before the questions were asked. Some people may not have understood what some of the environmental problems are. The surveys did not attempt to measure degree/intensity of concern. Nor did they attempt to measure knowledge or understanding of environmental issues, which may be important determinants of concern.


Environmental problems arousing most concern
In 1996, as in 1992, more Australians were concerned about air pollution, ocean and freshwater pollution, destruction of trees, ecosystems, garbage disposal, the ozone layer and extinction of species than any other environmental problems. However, the proportion of the population concerned about each problem has declined since 1992.

From 1992 to 1996, the proportion of people concerned about the depletion of the ozone layer decreased from 29% to 11%, more than for any other environmental problem. There were also relatively large declines in the proportion of people concerned about toxic waste, the greenhouse effect and extinction of species. Following a decline between 1992 and 1994, there was a resurgence in concern about nuclear issues, such as nuclear testing/weapons and use of radioactive materials, between 1994 and 1996. This may have been in response to nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean several months prior to the 1996 survey. However, the proportion of people concerned about these issues was still lower in 1996 than in 1992.

The focus of people's concerns about the environment varied according to where they lived, and appeared to be related to the types of problems most evident in their locality. For example, people in capital cities - particularly Sydney and Melbourne - were much more likely to be concerned about air pollution (35%) than those living elsewhere (24%). Capital city dwellers were also more likely than others to be concerned about ocean pollution and less likely to be concerned about land degradation.

While air pollution was the most common environmental concern in most States and Territories, more South Australians (31%) were concerned about freshwater pollution than any other environmental problem. This may reflect the relatively poor quality of Adelaide's water supply, high levels of salinity in the lower Murray River, and the low rainfall received in most of the State. Destruction of trees and ecosystems was the most common concern in the Northern Territory (30%) and Tasmania (24%) and the second most common concern, after air pollution, in Queensland (25%). This may be due to the relatively high profile, locally, of conflicts between economic interests and environmental protection in World Heritage areas such as the Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta national parks in the Northern Territory; the Tasmanian wilderness; and the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island and wet tropics of Queensland.


SELECTED ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

(
a) Most people expressed concern for more than one issue.

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia 1996 (cat. no. 4602.0).

PROPORTION OF PEOPLE AGED 18 AND OVER WITH ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS, 1996

State capital cities
Other urban/rural centres(a)
%
%

Air pollution
35.1
23.8
Ocean pollution
25.5
20.9
Freshwater pollution
23.9
23.2
Destruction of trees and ecosystems
23.1
23.7
Garbage disposal
14.3
13.4
Ozone layer
11.1
10.4
Toxic waste
8.5
8.9
Other pollution
9.2
8.1
Extinction of species
8.7
9.5
Nuclear testing/weapons
7.1
8.5
Greenhouse effect
7.1
4.9
Urban development/ overpopulation
5.9
5.7
Land degradation
6.2
10.0
Conservation of resources
6.3
6.4
Mining/use of radioactive materials
5.0
4.9
Use of pesticides
3.5
5.4
Sand mining
1.3
1.4
Other
5.2
5.7
Total concerned(b)
69.2
66.8
No concerns
30.8
33.2

(a) Excludes Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.
(b) Most people expressed concern for more than one issue. Therefore components do not add to total.

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4602.0).


Characteristics of people concerned about the environment
People with higher education qualifications were more likely to be concerned about environmental problems than those with vocational qualifications or no post-school qualifications. In 1996, 91% of people with postgraduate qualifications, and 85% of those with a degree said they were concerned about environmental problems. Full-time students aged 18-24 years, the majority of whom are in higher education, were also highly likely to be concerned about environmental problems (83%).
Reflecting patterns of educational qualifications to some extent, people under 55 years of age (particularly women aged 18-24), people in professional and para-professional occupations, and those with higher incomes were more likely than others to be concerned about environmental problems.

In general, employed people were more likely to be concerned about environmental problems than the unemployed although differences overall were relatively small (73% of employed compared with 71% of unemployed). This may also be a reflection of higher educational qualifications among the employed. On the other hand, it may indicate that those without the economic pressures associated with unemployment were better able to 'afford' to be concerned.

EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT AND CONCERN ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS, 1996

Highest qualification
%

Higher degree
89.2
Postgraduate diploma
91.9
Bachelor degree
84.6
Undergraduate diploma
82.6
Associate diploma
77.8
Skilled vocational qualifications
70.1
Basic vocational qualifications
75.2
No qualifications
60.9
Total concerned
68.4

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4602.0).


Perceived change in the quality of the environment
In 1996, 44% of people aged 18 years and over thought the quality of Australia's environment had declined over the previous ten years. Those groups most likely to be concerned about environmental problems were generally the most likely to have perceived a decline in the quality of the environment. For example, 48% of 18-24 year-olds believed that the quality of Australia's environment had declined, compared to around 40% of people over 55.

On the other hand, 23% of people aged 18 years and over thought the quality of Australia's environment had improved over the previous ten years.

Environmental problems versus other social issues
The majority of Australians considered other social issues to be more important to them than environmental problems. Presented with a range of issues in 1996, only 9% of Australians aged 18 years and over indicated that environmental problems was the issue of most importance to them. People aged 18-24 were more than twice as likely as people aged 55 and over to judge the environment as the most important social issue (13% compared to 6%).

In all age groups, however, higher proportions of people specified crime, health, education or unemployment as the social issue of most importance to them.

MOST IMPORTANT SOCIAL ISSUE, 1996

Social issue
%

Crime
26.0
Health
22.7
Education
14.5
Unemployment
14.0
Environmental problems
8.9
Interest rates
4.4
Poverty
3.7
Immigration
2.5
Trade balance
1.3
Defence
0.6
Other
1.4
Total
100.0

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4602.0).


Environmental protection versus economic growth
In 1996, 19% of people aged 18 years and over, rated environmental protection as more important than economic growth, and 71% rated both issues as equally important. There has been little change, since 1992, in people's views about the relative importance of environmental protection and economic growth, despite the decline in the proportion concerned about environmental problems.

Those groups most likely to be concerned about environmental problems were also the most likely to rate the importance of environmental protection as equal to, or greater than, economic growth. In 1996, 97% of people with postgraduate qualifications gave equal or greater priority to environmental protection compared to 91% with vocational qualifications and 87% of people with no post-school qualifications. A higher proportion of 25-34 year olds (93%) gave equal or greater priority to environmental protection than any other age group.

IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION RANKED EQUAL TO, OR GREATER THAN, ECONOMIC GROWTH, 1996

Highest qualification
%

Higher degree
98.0
Postgraduate diploma
96.3
Bachelor degree
92.1
Undergraduate diploma
93.2
Associate diploma
91.8
Skilled vocational qualifications
90.4
Basic vocational qualifications
91.3
No qualifications
87.3
Total
89.3

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia, 1996 (cat. no. 4602.0).


Environmental information
People's concerns about environmental problems are likely to be affected by the quality, quantity and coverage of environmental information they receive. Most Australians aged 18 years and over (90%) reported having received environmental information in the 12 months prior to May 1992. The most common source of environmental information was television, newspapers and radio (86%), followed by government and local council (42%). These were the two most common sources of information in every age group.

Women were more likely than men to say that the information had influenced their behaviour or attitudes - 66% compared to 58%. Younger people, particularly those aged under 35, were more likely to have been influenced by environmental information than older people. Generally, those groups most likely to be concerned about environmental problems were also the most likely to have received environmental information in the previous 12 months, and to have been influenced by it.

PEOPLE INFLUENCED BY ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION, 1992



Source: Unpublished data, Survey of Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, 1992.

SOURCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION, 1992

Source
%

TV, newspapers or radio
85.8
Government or local council
41.7
Environmental interest group
18.8
A school
17.7
A library
7.1
From anywhere else
5.4
Total(a)
89.9
None received
10.1

(a) Most people received information from more than one source. Therefore, components do not add to total.

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Australia, 1992 (cat. no. 4602.0).



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