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We asked rural residents “What’s your biggest concern about climate change?” – Here’s what you said

Date: April 3, 2020
Author: EMMA AUSTIN, PhD Researcher, Centre for Water, Climate and Land, University of Newcastle

You may have heard about the Australian Rural Mental Health Study (or ARMHS for short)? It is a unique, extensive study that was administered by the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH). The ARMHS was a longitudinal study with four waves of surveys from 2007 to 2013. The main objective of the ARMHS was to investigate the determinants of mental health in rural NSW. The first three waves of the study occurred during the Millennium Drought, and by the third wave it was obvious people were severely affected by the drought. The figures below show the varying drought conditions in NSW during the ARMHS.

Timing of the ARMHS data collection, location of participants, annual (January to December) rainfall anomalies (1900-2017) and coinciding hydrometeorological conditions in NSW. Annual rainfall anomalies expressed as percentages are calculated using gridded rainfall from the Australian Water Availability Project (Jones et al., 2009)


Some research suggests that there may be changes in the duration, frequency and magnitude of drought in the future as a result of climate change – but lots of research also shows that large uncertainties also exist around if/how/where/when drought could change. For this reason, the survey at the third wave of the ARMHS asked the question “What is your biggest concern about climate change?”. The ARMHS researchers were interested in finding out if climate change, and specifically if impacts such as drought, flood, and bushfires, were of concern to rural residents and how these concerns might impact their mental health. We recently published a paper that summarises the responses from this question, and groups the key concerns experienced into four themes, which are summarised below.

The study population included 823 participants from non-metropolitan NSW who wrote an answer to the question “What is your biggest concern about climate change?” The spatial distribution of participants is shown in the below figure.

NSW remoteness by postcode

Location of study population in New South Wales according to postcode and remoteness area (ABS, 2006)


The four key themes and example quotes that demonstrate the themes are shown in the below table.

survey themes and quotes

Theme 1 – Suffering under climate change – A primary concern for participants was the suffering caused by climate change in terms of financial, environmental, health and social impacts. Typically, participants felt that climate change impacts were either already happening, were imminent or that incipient impacts will worsen. Many participants wrote about specific suffering as a result of extreme weather events and related financial impacts.

Participants commented that “farm and rural communities are harmed”, connecting suffering to rural identity and increased vulnerability as a result of location. Issues in rural communities are exacerbated by financial concerns, which were dominant across all themes, and the flow-on effects of these were apparent.

Theme 2 – Causes of climate change – When asked to describe their concerns about climate change, many participants referred to their beliefs related to the causes of climate change. Three broad beliefs emerged. Firstly, the majority of participants believed climate change to be “a natural process”. Secondly, a minority of participants made comments about renewable energy technologies and carbon reduction which could be interpreted as attributing climate change to human causes. Thirdly, there were concerns that climate change was “misunderstood” and that “no one can agree if it will happen or not” and that it is a “very debatable issue”. Although there were participants who accepted the existence of anthropogenic climate change and believed the climate science, “people are not listening to the scientists who have been saying climate change”. A reoccurring contextual theme linked a belief in climate change as a natural process with a lack of trust in government and scientists.

Theme 3 – Water-related extremes of climate change – Participants expressed concerns related to the extreme events associated with the impacts of climate change, such as (not ranked) drought, flood, storms and sea-level rise. When responses to the question included references to weather and climate-related impacts, most participants’ concerns were connected to water.

Theme 4 – Leadership and action to address climate change – A dominant concern for many participants was the federal and state governments’ responses (or lack thereof) to climate change. There was a paradox of opinions where participants were either angry about policies to mitigate anthropogenic climate change which they felt were costly or unnecessary (“It’s an excuse for politicians to raise more taxes”), or conversely, that there was “not enough government incentive for change”, for example, in relation to renewable energies and research. Concerns about suffering because of climate change were expressed together with concerns about suffering being exacerbated by politics and government, and that rural communities would suffer most.

So, to wrap up, climate change impacts mental health and wellbeing. People in rural communities experience a range of concerns and levels of worry in relation to climate impacts. Understanding specific issues that concern (or not) rural community members helps to inform community-based approaches that support and improve wellbeing and mental health in rural communities.

What’s next? In late 2018 – early 2019, we conducted an online survey in NSW that focused on peoples’ experiences of the current drought. In the survey, we asked the same question “What is your biggest concern about climate change?” We are currently analysing the responses to this question and will be publishing a follow-up paper soon. The second paper will again identify rural residents’ main concerns about climate change but will also examine change over time and how the concerns from 2010 – 2011 have changed (or not) compared to more recent concerns.

If you have any questions or would like to provide feedback please get in touch at

If you are interested in other outcomes from the ARMHS you can access all the papers published using ARMHS data here.



ABS. 2006. Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) Remoteness Structure (RA) Digital Boundaries, Australia, 2006. cat. no. 1259.0.30.004. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 July 2014].

BOM. 2017. Drought archive [Online]. Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). Available: [Accessed 20 June 2017].

JONES, D. A., WANG, W. & FAWCETT, R. 2009. High-quality spatial climate data-sets for Australia. Aust. Meteorol. Oceanogr. J., 58, 233–248


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