Changing behaviour in a changing climate: an empirical study of influences on pro-environmental protective action among key stakeholder groups of the Great Barrier Reef

Goldberg, Jeremy Adam (2016) Changing behaviour in a changing climate: an empirical study of influences on pro-environmental protective action among key stakeholder groups of the Great Barrier Reef. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Hundreds of millions of people rely upon coral reef ecosystems for sustenance, culture, and economic benefits. Unfortunately, severe threats such as climate change are endangering the long-term survival of coral reefs around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Despite its international status as an environmental icon, recognition as a World Heritage Area, and management widely regarded as world's best practice, the long-term outlook for the GBR is poor, and getting worse. This projected decline in the health of the GBR is anticipated to have considerable repercussions for stakeholders who depend upon these ecosystems for recreation and livelihood opportunities. For tourism operators along the GBR, the potential implications are vast: The GBR provides more than 64,000 fulltime jobs and marine tourism contributes $5.2 billion to the economy each year.

The extensive ongoing decline in coral cover, in addition to the recent mass bleaching event along the GBR in early 2016 as well as the increasing severity of climate change and other threats, requires an urgent resource management response in order to secure the health of the GBR into the future. This response necessitates widespread community action, including fundamental changes to the way that economies, industries, and individuals interact with the environment. Importantly, perceptions about the natural world influence how people feel about environmental protection and management. The ways that people connect to the environment can thus affect support for conservation measures, influencing the environmental outcomes that result. Consequently, an enhanced understanding of the connections between people and places may provide valuable insights for those seeking to affect widespread pro-environmental outcomes. The focus of this thesis is to understand the complex interactions between individual attitudes and behaviours of GBR stakeholders, and the extent to which people care about protecting the GBR. Particular attention is given to how a multi-disciplinary understanding of behaviour may contribute to resource management decision-making.

Understanding the human dimension of natural resource systems (or ecosystems) is part of a growing research momentum that attempts to articulate and nuance the complex relationship between people and the environment. It is also a vital component of natural resource management. Without it, environmental managers lack an understanding of what is important to people, the impact that environmental decisions may have, and a means by which to prioritise management effort. An enhanced understanding of key behavioural influences can assist resource managers to minimise threats to the environment and develop solutions that benefit conservation. Furthermore, resource managers can design and discuss interventions that are more likely to sustain the long-term preservation of natural resources if they better understand the reasons that stakeholders actively ignore or proactively address threats to the environment. Documenting the attitudes and beliefs that drive individual behaviours is a pivotal part of this process. For example, research that clarifies why people feel responsible for the environment, and why they choose to take action to protect it, will be critical for resource managers seeking to initiate conservation programs and policies. However, few studies have systematically explored the relationship between individual connection to an environmental icon and the actions taken to protect it. Research that addresses these issues along the GBR is particularly lacking. As a result, resource managers remain unclear about the best way to communicate with the general public about the long-term conservation of the GBR, including the immediate actions required to address crucial environmental threats like climate change.

This thesis attempts to address this knowledge gap. Using three levels of hierarchical sampling (large-scale social surveys conducted throughout Australia, regional surveys of residents and tourists, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with local marine tourism operators in the tourism hotspots of Airlie Beach and Cairns, this thesis shows that a vast majority of people closely connect with the GBR and care deeply about it. It also describes how and why factors like identity and pride drive stakeholders to take responsibility and actions that help to protect the GBR. Specifically, this thesis explains how key stakeholder groups feel about the GBR, and how their differing beliefs affect whether or not they undertake certain pro-environmental behaviours. Such knowledge provides foundational research about the relationship between people and natural resources. This is critically important for resource managers because an enhanced understanding of the people they seek to influence will put them in a better position to create impactful and effective ways of doing so. Understanding the main drivers of behaviour, particularly the influential attitudes and beliefs, is a key first step.

Chapter 2 describes the beginning of the process to understand the linkages between individual attitudes and behaviour of GBR stakeholder groups, summarising a literature review I conducted of the psychological research related to behaviour change, including how behaviours are formed, transformed, and reinforced. The Theory of Planned Behaviour is explored in depth, including its individual constructs of attitudes, social norms, and perceived self-efficacy. This chapter also synthesises key findings from related social science fields such as communication science and marketing. In doing so, it shows that attitudes are crucial drivers of behaviour that can be influenced by strategic messaging and communication outputs, presenting a clear opportunity for creating widespread change. To explore whether these findings have relevance in GBR conservation and management, I conducted a multi-disciplinary study of the attitudes and pro-environmental behaviours of key stakeholders, surveying more than 7,800 people from all across the country using face-to-face, telephone, and online methods. These surveys relied upon a close partnership and considerable support from the CSIRO, including an opportunity for me to join a research team working on the development of a large-scale social and economic long-term monitoring program along the GBR. Chapter 3 summarises this approach and describes how the various surveys were designed and administered.

A key principle in the psychological literature is that individual beliefs play a pivotal role in the establishment and maintenance of attitudes. In turn, attitudes influence actions, including those related to sustainability and conservation of the environment. Unfortunately, how people feel about the natural world around them, i.e., the connection between people and the environment, is rarely quantified. Policymakers thus find it difficult to incorporate the human dimension into decision-making processes related to environmental protection and resource management. I attempt to address this issue in Chapter 4, by quantifying the personal concern and connection that Australians have with the GBR using 10-point scales. Using a nationally-representative online survey of 2,002 Australians, the first ever done about the GBR and part of the 7,923 total surveys completed, the data indicated empirically that the GBR inspires people, promotes a sense of pride, and generates both a personal and collective responsibility to protect it. Thus, I demonstrate that attitudes like inspiration and pride play a pivotal role in the way people associate themselves with natural environments. Further, I reveal that a majority of Australians recognise and acknowledge various anthropogenic impacts to the GBR such as climate change. I also discuss how an increased understanding of the personal connection people have with iconic places may help to enhance public support for protecting climate-sensitive systems within Australia and around the world.

After suggesting that the GBR is a key part of the broader Australian culture, I next compare these findings with an in-depth exploration of how regional stakeholders feel about protecting the GBR. Using principles commonly used by environmental psychologists, I describe in Chapter 5 how and why a sense of individual and collective responsibility to protect the environment relates to the ways people connect to the GBR. Using large-scale face-to-face interviews as well as online surveys, I found that Australians throughout the country (n=2,002), local residents living near the GBR (n=3,181), and tourists visiting the GBR region (n=2,621) perceived responsibility to protect the GBR in significantly different ways. These perceptions were positively correlated with the attitudes people had about the GBR, including the levels of personal identity an individual derives from the GBR, pride in the status of the GBR as a World Heritage Area, optimism about the future of the GBR, and concerns about a decline in the health of the GBR. I conclude by discussing how a more comprehensive consideration of the attitudes that influence responsibility to protect the GBR may contribute to management interventions, increasing stewardship, resilience, and support for conservation activities in linked socio-ecological systems such as the GBR.

Resource managers and policymakers have initiated numerous projects and programs to engage, influence, and encourage stakeholders to behave more sustainably. However, a significant research gap exists concerning how or why the attitudes people have about the GBR influence the pro-environmental behaviours they undertake to protect the natural world around them. In Chapter 6, I address this knowledge gap, using 5,921 face-to-face and telephone surveys to show the attitudes that residents, tourists, and tourism operators have about the GBR are closely tied to the behaviours and actions they take to protect the environment. Specifically, my findings suggest that the responsibility, pride, identity, and optimism that people associate with the GBR are significantly correlated with pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, participation in conservation groups, and climate change mitigation activities. I also show that respondents who felt the strongest connection to the GBR took the most action to protect the environment, carrying implications for resource managers trying to build sustainable communities and industries such as tourism. These implications may include a renewed focus on promoting community stewardship as well as a reassessment of the message frames used to communicate with key stakeholders.

GBR stakeholders like tourism operators have both a considerable interest in protecting coral reefs as well as a pivotal role to play in taking action to ensure the long-term sustainability of these ecosystems. Long-recognised as important stewards of the GBR, tourism operators engage tourists with strategic messaging about marine conservation, informing them about ongoing threats and providing ideas to address these concerns. In Chapter 7, I discuss 119 surveys and 19 in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with tourism operators in Cairns and Airlie Beach, two of the most important tourism centres along the GBR. The surveys were conducted in 2013 and the interviews were done in December, 2014 and January, 2015. I observed that tourism operators recognise the threat of climate change and strongly support increased action to protect the GBR. However, I also use the Theory of Planned Behaviour as a structuring conceptual framework to discuss various barriers and obstacles that prevent tourism operators from taking action despite acknowledging an interest, expertise, and responsibility to do so. Understanding these barriers is an important part of overcoming them, helping resource managers to encourage tourism operators, as well as the tourists who visit the GBR, to take action to protect it.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, synthesises the main findings of the thesis and provides answers to the various research questions explored in each of the previous chapters. Chapter 8 also includes a discussion of how social science data may be operationalised in a resource management context along the GBR. Specifically, I critically analyse various large-scale conservation initiatives currently underway in the GBR region, including the various community engagement approaches proposed and ongoing. In doing so, and with reference to segmentation approaches utilised by marketing professionals as well as key findings from this thesis, I discuss how targeted communication efforts may contribute to the enhancement of local support for conservation as well as the encouragement of pro-environmental behaviours. Finally, I provide an overview of how these engagement strategies may be tailored to particular stakeholder groups such as marine tourism operators. I conclude this thesis by proposing future research topics that build upon the main findings found therein.

Humans are complex beings whose behaviours are influenced by internal beliefs and attitudes. In this thesis, I suggest that a better understanding of the identity, pride, optimism, and responsibility that people associate with the GBR can contribute towards more influential stakeholder engagement, better resource management decision-making, and improved environmental outcomes. Such knowledge can assist resource managers in designing programs that are more personally relevant and effective. I have sought to make modest theoretical, methodological, and empirical contributions to assist with this process. From an applied standpoint, I suggest that using techniques from a multidisciplinary perspective including psychology, marketing, and strategic engagement may contribute to the development of innovative communication outputs in the GBR region, e.g., in the design, implementation and improvement of stewardship programs and community engagement projects. I also demonstrate a novel data collection effort by showing how online market research tools can collect nationally-representative information across geographic regions and with respect to demographic factors such as gender, income, and education. Additionally, I document various empirical findings that quantify the concern and connection that individuals have about the GBR. Together, these findings offer new ways of thinking about the day to day interactions that resource managers have with stakeholders, connecting psychological concepts with the relationship people have with the environment. Specifically, my results identify key attitudes like responsibility and identity that can be integrated into strategic communication outputs that could leverage behaviour change among GBR stakeholders. Whilst there exists considerable potential to incorporate social science data into management decision-making related to the GBR, significant work is needed to operationalise data in a resource management context. In clarifying the links between attitudes and behaviours, as well as quantifying the influential beliefs that drive them, this thesis provides a small yet hopefully valuable step on this journey.

Item ID: 49945
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: climate change, drivers of change, ecosystem services, ecotourism, Great Barrier Reef stakeholders, Great Barrier Reef, human and community well-being, natural resource management, regional stakeholders, resource dependency, social impact assessment, social system, tourism management, tourism
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Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 3: Marshall, N.A., Bohensky, E., Curnock, M., Goldberg, J., Gooch, M., Nicotra, B., Pert, P., Scherl, L.M., Stone-Jovicich, S., and Tobin, R.C. (2016) Advances in monitoring the human dimension of natural resource systems: an example from the Great Barrier Reef. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (11). pp. 1-17.

Chapter 4: Goldberg, Jeremy, Marshall, Nadine, Birtles, Alastair, Case, Peter, Bohensky, Erin, Curnock, Matt, Gooch, Margaret, Parry-Husbands, Howard, Pert, Petina, Tobin, Renae, Villani, Christopher, and Visperas, Bernard (2016) Climate change, the Great Barrier Reef, and the response of Australians. Palgrave Communications, 2. pp. 1-8.

Date Deposited: 24 Aug 2017 04:44
FoR Codes: 15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150606 Tourist Behaviour and Visitor Experience @ 20%
15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150603 Tourism Management @ 30%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050205 Environmental Management @ 50%
SEO Codes: 90 COMMERCIAL SERVICES AND TOURISM > 9003 Tourism > 900302 Socio-Cultural Issues in Tourism @ 30%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9603 Climate and Climate Change > 960301 Climate Change Adaptation Measures @ 60%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9607 Environmental Policy, Legislation and Standards > 960703 Environmental Education and Awareness @ 10%
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