Public accepts climate change science – will the government follow? Opinion Article

Aug 11, 2015 - 12:00am

This article first appeared in The Age (print and online) and The Sydney Morning Herald (online) on 11 August 2015.

John Connor   
CEO, The Climate Institute

Australia's carcass-strewn climate policy landscape has given rise to many grisly myths and tales. Amid the carnage, politicians across the spectrum have both misjudged and exploited community concerns about climate science and policy. Yet, community attitudes are not static and the latest research concludes it would be wrong to interpret the political and communication challenges of today through the prism of past years.

Since mid-2012, there have been significant changes. On Tuesday, the Coalition party room will consider cabinet's recommendation on Australia's initial post-2020 climate commitment, which it will share with other countries ahead of negotiations in Paris in December. A final commitment will be needed after Paris.

"Almost two-thirds of Australians think the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously."

Even if you leave aside the booming business opportunities in a world investing more in renewable energy than fossil fuels, are politicians' thoughts on community attitudes up to date? A quick tour of the past decade is in order.

From 2006, a groundswell of community concern with regard to water shortages and drought joined rising business and international voices for action in what was described by John Howard as a political "perfect storm".

Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto protocol but played wedge politics on emissions trading in expectation of success at the 2009 Copenhagen international climate talks. Postponing emissions trading after Copenhagen's disappointments saw a collapse in his standing amid an escalating scare campaign on the costs of action. This campaign spooked Julia Gillard into an, at best, ambiguous position on carbon pricing, which was converted to a "carbon tax lie" when the ALP, independents and a Green brokered a carbon pricing mechanism in 2011.

The breaking of the drought, attacks on the science, cost-of-living scare campaigns and poor communication drove acceptance of science and action to its low point just before the carbon laws came into force in mid-2012. From then, as pollution declined while the economy grew (and as neither industries nor cities were demolished), support for action steadily returned.

The latest Climate Institute Climate of the Nation 2015 research was conducted in July by Galaxy Research. It shows three key trends over recent years.

First, understanding is deepening that current climate change is at least partly driven by human causes. There is growing trust in the science and, perhaps most important, that it is happening now; 70 per cent of Australians accept climate change is happening, up six points from 2012. The proportion of those who don't think it is happening has dropped seven points to 10 per cent in that time.

Second, support for renewable energy and regulating carbon pollution – with polluters, not taxpayers, shouldering responsibility – are all concepts supported by strong majorities of two-thirds or more. The past year has seen the renewable energy target wound back and attacks on wind power. Yet, support for renewables, including wind power, is on the rise.

At the same time, support for both gas and nuclear in a preferred energy mix has slumped seven points to 21 and 13 per cent respectively. Nuclear and coal are now tied for least preferred.

Finally, almost two-thirds of Australians think the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously, rising six points to 63 per cent in the past year.

When it comes to Australia's post-2020 target, a key question is whether we should compare our actions with other countries or focus on the science. Should it be compared with the United States, European countries, China, or a "resource country like Canada"? Canada was seen as relevant by just 11 per cent; other countries received 5 per cent or less support. More than half agreed that science should be the main basis for our target.

The ALP's recent renewables goal and climate announcements appear to better reflect public sentiment, but its policy detail, and communication, will be important. Almost half of Australians think the Labor policies will "just increase electricity prices and not do much about pollution".

There's more pain to be felt across Australia's climate policy landscape before we get action that truly meets the climate challenge. Electricity prices, jobs and the costs of action and inaction will be factors in sensible debate and scare campaigns.

But parties should reflect on these trends, and on increasingly clamorous voices highlighting the costs of delayed or piecemeal action. Countries such as China are investing more in clean energy than in fossil fuels, driving down the costs of cleaner alternatives. And there is slow but steady progress towards a fresh international agreement in Paris in December.

The government's targets decision is a test on multiple fronts: not just climate responsibility and economic competitiveness, but of its ability to listen to the Australian people.

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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