Australians shifting on climate change Opinion Article

Jul 03, 2014 - 11:30am

This article was first published in The Lowy Interpreter on 11 April 2014. 

Erwin Jackson   
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

A month ago my colleague John Connor wrote an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald welcoming the fact that for the first time in years, climate change was a major story coming out of the Lowy Institute's poll of public attitudes to international affairs. Expectation for leadership on the issue was up, and a majority of Australians thought we should act on climate rather than wait for international consensus.

The Climate Institute's own comprehensive annual public opinion poll, released just last week, found similar views, buttressed by a number of additional questions around international action.

Percentage of Australians who want their nation to be a leader in climate solutions, based on Climate of the Nation research.

We found that a growing number of Australians want the nation to lead on finding solutions to climate change. 
In our poll, 56% of respondents felt the federal government has the most responsibility to take a leading role in addressing climate change, followed by global organisations such as the UN (43%). Just 8% think the federal government should take no action on climate change. Yet views on the Government's performance are significantly lower than a year ago, at net differential of -18, from -1 in 2013. Like the Lowy poll, we also found that a growing number of Australians want the nation to lead on finding solutions to climate change.

A total of 61% hold this view this year, the highest result since 2008 (see graph). Women and younger Australians are the most ambitious. Some 64% of women want Australia to be a leader compared to 58% of men, and 64% of Australians under 55 years of age want leadership, compared to 56% of older people.

Views are not just growing stronger on leadership and responsibility, but also on policies and political parties. A majority (57%) think the Abbott Government should take climate change more seriously. Ambition again is strongest among women and Australians under 55, both at 61%.

Deep cynicism permeates the views towards both political parties on their approach to climate change. Only 19% of Australians agree that the Coalition has an effective plan to tackle climate change. A slightly higher 26% agree Labor has an effective plan. These results are unchanged from 2013.  The 'Direct Action' badge does not shift the views of many Australians about the Government's plans on climate change, with only 22% agreeing that the 'Direct Action' policy is credible.

What these views tell us is that no politician is off the hook for addressing climate change, whichever end of the spectrum they represent. Beyond the domestic political impacts of attempts to remove the carbon price and calls for the weakening of the Renewable Energy Target, international processes will also come into play (the Climate Change Authority has just released a paper on key priorities and processes of the international framework to 2020).

Countries ranging from the US, China, Brazil, the EU nations, Mexico and New Zealand are initiating processes to define new emission reduction contributions. Like the recent announcements by President Obama (that his Administration will regulate major emission sources such as power stations and vehicles) when these new and stronger emission targets are announced over the next 12 months it will permeate the Australian debate.

Some in Australia's body politic would like to think that climate change will go away with the axing of carbon tax, but the storm brewing from public expectation and international action will be too strong to leave our political representatives unscathed

Erwin Jackson

Erwin is Deputy CEO of The Climate Institute. With nearly 20 years practical experience in climate change policy and research, Erwin has developed and led many national and international programs aimed at reducing greenhouse pollution. This work has been undertaken in Australia, Europe, North and South America, the Pacific and Antarctica. He has represented non-governmental groups and advised government and business in national, regional and international fora, including being a non-governmental expert reviewer of the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Erwin has written, researched and produced many publications on climate change and energy policy including a number of review papers in scientific journals such as the Medical Journal of Australia.
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