Improving Scientific Literacy In Australia

by Diana Tung (ELP 2018) | Graduate Student, Australia National University, Australia

In a 2013 survey, over 1,500 Australians were quizzed on their basic science knowledge. For the question “What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered with fresh water?” only nine percent of respondents chose the correct answer of three percent.

This low response rate is particularly worrying given that Australia had just recently emerged from the Millennium drought, which was considered to be the worst drought in the nation since European settlement in the late 18th century. The 2013 results are also disconcerting given that respondents performed worse on the survey than previously in 2010. If Australians do not understand the scarcity of our planet’s most precious resources, how can we respond to environmental challenges in an informed and responsible way?

This lack of awareness can also be seen in our energy consumption patterns. Australia has one of the highest rates of per capita CO2 emissions in the world and relies heavily on fossil fuels. Seventy-three percent of our electricity is generated by coal and 13 percent from natural gas. Instead of following a business-as-usual model for our energy consumption patterns, Australia could easily move toward harnessing one of our most abundant resources: the sun.

Our nation is privileged to have the highest average rates of solar radiation per square meter in the world, and investment now in solar and other renewable energies will be crucial to meeting our Paris Agreement commitments. Australia has committed to reducing our carbon emissions by up to 28 percent by 2030, but if current trends continue we will instead be exceeding our targets by 30 percent.

Australians are notorious for having an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and for being averse to change – just look to the current resistance over the supermarket plastic bag ban. Yet Australians have pragmatically pioneered and adopted major inventions that have changed the world for the better. Penicillin, the bionic ear, and Wi-Fi were all invented in Australia, and have improved quality of life for millions of people around the globe.

Current attitudes toward the environment and consumption patterns speak to the urgent need for scientific literacy in Australia, yet also represents an opportunity for Australia to become an effective environmental leader both regionally and globally. As one of the ten OECD nations with the highest rates of per capita GDP, Australia has ample resources and innovative spirit to achieve not just lower carbon emissions, but a major paradigm shift in how we think and value our natural environment. 

Further reading:

“Forget Paris: Australia needs to stop pretending we're tackling climate change,” ABC.


Climate Institute Factsheet. (

“Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction,” The Conversation.


Energy in Australia.


War on Waste.