Proximity to Coast Is Linked to Climate Change Belief

by Sam Peterson

Despite increasingly contrasting and polarizing environmental beliefs between major political parties in many developed countries, there has been diminishing speculation in recent years regarding the existence of climate change as a scientific consensus builds. Though politicians may argue the merits of recognizing climate change as an immediate problem, the individuals bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change are those in regions that are reliant on specific weather patterns and temperature limitations. To examine how belief in climate change within the populace of developed countries is affected, in 2013, Milfont et. al. analyzed the relationship between indvidual’s physical proximity to coastlines in New Zealand and their belief in climate change. They found that in a national probability sample of 5,815 New Zealanders, people living in closer proximity to shorelines exhibited greater belief in climate change and “greater support for government regulation of carbon dioxide emissions,” and found that the proximity effect “held when adjusting for height above sea level and regional poverty,” in addition to respondent’s sex, age, education, political orientation, and wealth. The authors conclude that proximity to coastlines directly correlates with ones belief in climate change, possibly the direct effects are more “concrete and local.”

Like many other developed nations, New Zealand is split about the cause and existence of climate change:

“53% of the New Zealand public believe climate change is real and caused by humans…10% do not believe in climate change, 7% believe it [climate change] is real but not caused by humans, and a large proportion (31%) remain undecided” (Borick 2003, cited by Milfont 2013).

Many New Zealanders (64%) believe citizens should exert more effort to combat climate change, compared to 68% of citizens in the U.S. (Horizon Poll 2012, Leiserowitz 2012, cited by Milfont 2013). Though a majority of citizens are generally for a more aggressive stance in combatting the sources and effects of climate change, there are evidently attitudes and psychological barriers to perceiving and acting on climate change, such as “uncertainty, skepticism, distrust in information sources, externalizing responsibility and blame, optimism bias, attention to other priorities” in addition to a “reluctance to change lifestyles” (Gifford 2011, Lorenzoni 2007, Pawlik 1991, cited by Milfont 2013). Formulating solutions to these psychological obstacles is one of the most important parts of climate change research.

The authors used data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS), collected in 2009 from roughly 40,500 people, or approximately 1.36% of registered voters, were invited to participate in the study, of which 16.6% responded. The sample of 5,185 people was 60% women, had a mean age of 47.72, and 23.0% had or were studying for a undergraduate degree. These respondents were nested into meshblocks, with an average area of 9.66 km2, whose centroids were used to measure the distance to the nearest coastline. As predicted, there was a significant correlation between the distance from the nearest coastline and belief in climate change and support for government regulation of emissions. This trend held for adjustments in poverty and other variables, including sex, education and wealth. Though the study was unable to determine the causal direction (whether believers in climate change seek out coastal areas, or if other variables are in play), they were able to determine that there is a significant correlation between physical proximity to areas most affected by climate change and belief in the phenomenon, which strongly suggests that a more concrete understanding of climate change comes from constant experience with the occurrence.

Milfont, T. L., et al. (2014). “Proximity to Coast Is Linked to Climate Change Belief.” PLoS ONE 9(7): 1-8.


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