Research from a now defunded Australian adaptation centre has found social barriers are the biggest obstacle to effective action

Talking to a fourth-generation grazier west of Townsville a few years ago, Prof Stephen Williams says he “made the mistake” of mentioning climate change.

“He said it was bullshit, but we kept talking,” the James Cook University ecologist says.

Later the grazier admitted the property was much more difficult to manage than in his great-grandfather’s time because “the weather has gone to shit”.

That chat with the grazier, Williams says, is one example of a “social barrier” that gets in the way of Australians taking action on climate change.

“One side of his personality denied climate change was real, yet he fully recognised the climate had changed.”

Analysis from Australia’s now defunded National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility has ranked research priorities based on their urgency, cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility.

The conclusion is that research into social barriers should be given the highest priority to help save the country’s ecosystems from climate change impacts.

Williams was the co-ordinator of the facility’s natural ecosystem network, covering climate impacts on land, in freshwater systems and in the marine environment.

The analysis, published in the journal Global Change Biology, drew on eight years of consultations with about 2,000 scientists and stakeholders, at more than 50 workshops.

“They all recognised that the only way we were going to get anything important done was to get the whole of society on board,” says Williams, the lead author of the analysis. “Social barriers came out as the most highly ranked question to answer. There are all sorts of social barriers to us adapting to climate change.

“Some are purely the psychological make-up of people that don’t want to acknowledge a problem, some of it is a government more interested in elections every three years, and some is the vested interests of industry that undoubtedly confuse the issues. They are all barriers.

“We are a group of physical scientists and biologists,” Williams says, “but we came up with this reasoning that we need to do some social research.

“We’ve had highest temperatures ever, and the longest and most intense heatwaves geographically, and we’ve had floods happening at the same time as the biggest drought, and have seen rainforests burning.

“What’s the social resistance against something that is so in your face, yet people still want to stick their heads in the sand and deny it? It is the social barriers that are stopping us and it is incredibly frustrating.”

Read more: The Guardian