Concern over climate change heats up Opinion Article

Jun 04, 2014 - 9:00am

This article first appeared in Sydney Morning Herald on 4 June 2014. 

John Connor
CEO, The Climate Institute


Attitudes to climate change are forged by two colliding forces: the role of coal and gas in our economy, which creates well-funded and influential interest groups opposed to any reduction in fossil fuels, and the country’s physical exposure to extreme weather, which is becoming hotter and wilder as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The first of those forces has been more dominant. Presenting a view that can be found on both sides of Parliament, the Prime Minister told the Minerals Council last week that he could think of few things more damaging to our future than to leave Australian coal in the ground. 

But the dangers of record breaking temperatures, longer fire seasons, drought and flood are sinking in. After several years of decline, a Lowy Institute poll shows public concern about climate change is resurgent.

The Lowy Institute and the Climate Institute have both tracked the public’s attitude since it peaked in 2006, after 13 years of drought. This high point was followed by the “world’s first climate change election” in 2007, the financial crisis, the breaking of the drought, the shattering of bipartisan support for laws that price carbon pollution, and the disappointments of the Copenhagen climate conference. 

Through all of this, support for Australian leadership on climate continued to fall. It hit rock bottom during the toxic political battles, debate about “lies” and scare campaigns about price impacts that shrouded the introduction of carbon pricing laws in 2012. 

Lowy Institute’s poll of February this year continues a rise detected last year. Agreement with the fact that global warming is a serious and pressing problem, and that we should be taking steps even if it involves significant costs, has rebounded. For the first time in years climate is a major story coming out of Lowy’s poll of public attitudes to international affairs. Almost two-thirds of Australians think the government should take a leadership role. Only 28 per cent believe we should wait for international consensus – often a proxy for inaction. Just 7 per cent think Australia should do nothing. While Australian views have been evolving, the world has moved on. The US has now announced cuts to carbon pollution from power plants, on top of actions already taken to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020. 

China has launched six carbon markets and is talking of a nationwide scheme in 2018. Both countries are duking it out for first place in renewable energy investment.

Climate change is also increasingly recognised as an issue of national security. Lowy finds Australians see it as a threat to “the vital interests of Australia in the next 10 years”, ranking it well above the development of China as a world power. Meanwhile we’re seeing falling costs for renewable energy and rising gas prices, and the emergence of clean industries – electricity storage, zero-emission vehicles, solar power. And there’s a likely El Nino looming, threatening drier, hotter and more dangerous weather.

All these trends make it increasingly risky for political and business leaders stuck in the battles of past years or dependent on the fossil fuel dominance of the last two centuries.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. 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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