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Some Aussies Overlook Link Between Climate Change and Drought

Running Numbers by Katherine Stiplosek
dry cracked earth in Australian drought

Australians are more concerned about severe weather events than the climate crisis causing them. But is tackling the former alone just putting out fires?

Australia's Water Supply Problem

Record-breaking drought, farming, deforestation, overgrazing, and an already arid climate have exacerbated water scarcity in Australia in recent years. Coupled with the growing threat posed by climate change, these ongoing issues present a massive water insecurity problem for the country. The Australian government and citizens alike are increasingly aware of the country’s water problems; Sydney has cut its average daily water use by 200 liters per person since 1990, and will likely implement further cutbacks in coming years.

Public Threat Perception

In 2020, the country’s environmental concerns came to a head as Australia suffered devastating bushfires and faced the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 Lowy poll revealed Australians’ concerns about the country’s worsening environmental conditions. Climate change was ranked as the second-highest critical threat to Australia’s vital interests in the next 10 years, with 61 percent of Australians naming it as a critical threat, and 29 percent naming it an important but not critical threat. In the same poll, six in 10 Australians (60%) said that global warming is a serious and pressing problem, and that "we should begin taking steps now, even if this involved significant costs.”

Bar graph showing opinion of threats to Australia's vital interests

Connecting Drought to Climate Change

Despite the close link between climate change and Australia’s environmental issues, the 2020 Lowy poll revealed a gap between those worried about environmental security threats and those worried about climate change specifically. Climate change ranked as the fifth-highest (59%) critical threat to Australia’s vital interests. By comparison, drought and water shortages ranked at the top of the list (77% critical threat). This 18 percent discrepancy is notable, and may imply that a portion of the Australian public view the two issues as separate entities.

The public seem to understand climate change as a separate, broader topic, not necessarily linked to more explicit issues like drought and water shortages. The gap between these two threat perceptions may also imply that the public believes they should be separately addressed.

Regardless of the underlying cause, Australia will need to act fast to secure its water resources if it hopes to avoid the most serious effects of the growing international water shortage.