Beware of polling during the 'phantom months' Opinion Article

May 05, 2011 - 3:28pm

By John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute

Poll reporting in The Australian and elsewhere, such as the ABC, regarding the latest climate Newspoll could have you believe there is a collapse in support for action on carbon pollution, clean energy and climate change.

There’s no point pretending these aren’t character building times for those supporting effective action.   It is, however, worth looking through the subtle changes over time in Newspoll’s questions and presentation commissioned by The Australian, as well as the reported analysis.

Firstly, unlike in previous Newspoll reports, this time there are no trend results of those who do or don’t “personally believe … that any climate change is currently occurring”.  This poll does add “for any reason” at the end of that question, a slight tautology and one that surely could have been acknowledged in the charts.

The trend, if you are interested, is one of stabilisation at high levels after the “climate-gate” onslaught. In July 2008 those 84% “believed”.  In February 2010, after the now discredited “Climategate”, and disappointing Copenhagen conference this did take a hit so to 73%.  In December last year “belief” had increased again to 77%. In May 2011 that is now 78%.

This moved Tony Windsor to comment: ” what I take from this is that 78 per cent of people believe in climate change and given the Abbott line has really been to denigrate climate change, I'm surprised, given the onslaught.

It should be said that the “belief” formulation is odd as the questions should actually be not one of belief or faith but willingness to take enormous risks on irreversible climate change backed by overwhelming scientific authority.  Nonetheless, the data and trends are indicative of perceptions of science and the background to the policy debate.

Secondly, as usual, Newspoll then went on to ask those who did believe that climate change was currently occurring whether they believed it was partly or entirely caused by human activity. In July 2008, 96% believed it was either partly or entirely caused by human activity.  In February 2010 this was 94%.

However, when we come to the numbers presented in May 2011, Newspoll, despite adding an asterisk saying that they only asked those believing in climate change, reinserted in its table the number of those who in the previous questions said they did not believe in climate change or are uncommitted about climate change.  This now presents as 72% believing climate change is at least partly caused by human activity.

Re-interpreting those numbers from May 2011, it would appear that 92% of those who believe climate change is currently occurring believe it is either partly or entirely caused by human activity.  Down, but still technically not statistically significantly different from the 94% or 96% figures.

Breaking that down though there is a decrease in those believing “entirely caused by human activity” from 32% to 24% to 18% and increase in “partly caused” by 64% to 70% to 74% across that period.

So it is important to acknowledge there is a softening trend here but well over two thirds of Australians “believe” climate change is at least partly caused by human activity.

Turning then to questions of whether people support initiatives to limit and/or price carbon pollution.

In December 2010 and in March 2011 Newspoll asked on behalf of The Australian, the following question:

Under the Federal Government’s plan to put a price on carbon, the price of energy sources such as petrol, electricity and gas may become more expensive.  Would you personally be in favour or against paying more for energy sources such as petrol, electricity and gas if it were to help to slow global warming?

In those two questions, there was a decline of those in favour from 47% to 42% and those against rose from 49% to 53%.

The Australian’s online polling analyst Mumble noted the latest version dropped the “Federal Government’s” plan which he probably correctly concluded helped the numbers!

There was also a subtle change at the end with “help to slow global warming” replaced by “help slow the climate change caused by human activity”.  As noted above while still a very significant majority there are less that believe climate change is happening than those who believe it is caused by human activity and, as noted, this base is softer.

Amidst those confusing currents context those in favour moved to 39% and against to 30%.

This question now also gave people the option of responding that they did not believe climate change was happening, that human activity was causing it or that they were uncommitted about climate change. 28% took this option. It is probably safe to assume that that number would not see a reason to “pay more for energy” so you can assume 58% “against”, up from 53%.  Those in favour moving from 42% to 39%. Barely statistically significant shifts.

Finally from Newspoll in a new question:

Thinking now about the Federal Government’s plan to put a price on carbon, based on what you know about it, are you personally in favour or against the Federal Government‘s current proposal to put a price on carbon?

That there is limited detail on the current proposal is a matter of wide public comment. This open ended question had 30% in favour and 60% against.

Whether there can be any value in such a question with such phantom detail is highly arguable.  The substantial “strongly against” of 39% is illustrative, but it is curiously speculative to link these findings to earlier answers on the previous question or even earlier polls.  In 2008 72% supported the “proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme which aims to limit total carbon emissions by giving businesses a permit to release up to a certain amount of emissions”.  Yes times are challenging but it is somewhat misleading to link these two as we heard on ABC AM.

Those opponents of action rubbing their hands with glee at these numbers should take care. Framing of the message can drive different outcomes as highlighted by Essential Media whose question:

Do you support or oppose the Government’s recent announcement to introduce a carbon pricing scheme from 1 July 2012 which will require industries to pay a tax based on the carbon pollution they emit?

had 48%, 49 and 51% opposing on 7, 14 and 28 March 2011.  However, the last two times Essential Media asked the question:

Would you support or oppose this carbon pricing scheme if the money paid by big polluting industries was used to compensate low and middle income earners and small businesses for increased prices

This different framing boosting support by almost 20% to 54% and 51%.

That’s nothing for supporters of action to relax about, but a genuine package which has a credible plan to reduce pollution, grow cleaner industries as well as supporting low income households has extra virtues not touched even in that question.  Australians know we have an economy overly dependent on carbon pollution, they know we have mostly untapped clean energy resources, they know pollution and climate change is endangering our health and the longer we delay the greater the cost.

Supporters of action need to lift our game but don’t write off Australians willingness to say yes to action on pollution and climate change that so many know humans are contributing to.

John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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