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Subregional differences in Australian climate risk perceptions: coastal versus agricultural areas of the Hunter Valley, NSW

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‘Environmental cognitive stress’ a hybrid model combining environmental stress and cognitive determinants of pro-environmental behavior is explored among Australians living in contrasting ‘micro’ climates in the same river catchment system. Peoples’ climate risk perceptions are mediated by their connections to local environment, observations of environmental change and personal weather experiences. A longitudinal study randomly sampled 1,162 Hunter Valley coastal and rural residents in New South Wales. Telephone interviewers (2008) recruited lakeside homeowners ‘at risk’ of sea level rise, nearby ‘control’ residents and a comparable farming area group. Follow-up interviews (2011) located 81.5 % of the original sample. Fifty-six items based on the model asked about climate change observations, concerns, impacts and actions. Statistically significant rural–suburban and time differences were found. The rural sample was attuned to conditions affecting agricultural productivity: They worried about drought and heat, saw trees dying and changes to seasons and natural rhythms. They anticipate the impact of water scarcity, conserve water and value protecting plants and animals. Compared to higher elevation residents, lake dwellers observed marine life loss, worry about sea level rise and predict the decline of property values. Across time, all groups’ perceptions of warming indicators declined. Concerns and impacts were high and generally stayed high, as did actions related to energy use. No differences emerged in beliefs about climate warming. Climate change observations, along with concerns and actions, have important implications for the environmental cognitive stress model. Overall, dynamic changes in residents’ understandings are related to a changing policy environment, the vicissitudes of climate debates and weather experiences, including extreme swings from inundation to drought.

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Appreciation is expressed to survey participants from Lake Macquarie and the Upper Hunter LGAs. Our thanks goes to Sonia Freeman for research assistance, Patrick McElduff for statistical consultation and Gina Krone for editorial help. Support from Lake Macquarie City Council, Upper Hunter Shire Council  and Glenn Albrecht is also acknowledged. This research is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP0878089).

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Correspondence to Nick Higginbotham.

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Higginbotham, N., Connor, L.H. & Baker, F. Subregional differences in Australian climate risk perceptions: coastal versus agricultural areas of the Hunter Valley, NSW. Reg Environ Change 14, 699–712 (2014).

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