Public want more solar, wind and action on climate - are politicians listening? Opinion Article

Aug 10, 2015 - 3:30pm

This article first appeared in Climate Spectator on 10 August 2015.

John Connor   
CEO, The Climate Institute

Since 2007, The Climate Institute has produced Climate of the Nation research capturing the nation’s pulse on climate change, its impacts and solutions. This year’s results show an increasing awareness about the cause and impacts of climate change, strengthening support for renewable energy and carbon pollution regulation, and a greater call for government action.

The 2015 results confirm the trend of strengthening attitudes from the low point of mid-2012 when the political battle was the most toxic and scare campaigns around the carbon laws untested. The results highlight the magnitude of the mistake it would be to look at the political and communication challenges of today through the prism of those in 2010-12.

Research underpinning this edition of Climate of the Nation was conducted by Galaxy Research between 27-29 July.

The findings highlight a growing disconnect between the Abbott government and public sentiment on climate action, renewables and pollution regulation. Government decisions around pollution regulation and the forthcoming Paris climate change negotiations provide opportunities to better reflect this public sentiment, as well as growing business and international concerns.

There is a clear message in this report: “the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously”, with 63 per cent of this view, up 6 points from last year. Another 59 per cent agree that the seriousness of climate change is under-estimated by government.

A growing number, 69 per cent of Australians, now agree that ignoring climate change is simply not an answer, as it increases the risk of the situation getting worse, up 5 points from last year.

Acceptance that climate change is occurring is the same as last year, with 70 per cent of this view. But this is up six points from the 2012. And more of that cohort now think that Australia is already feeling the impacts, 93 per cent up 4 points from last year. This is not a future issue.

In addition, more now think that humans are at least partly the cause for climate change, 89 per cent compared to 84 per cent last year. 41 per cent think that humans are the main cause, up 6 points from 2014.

Another sign of the deepening of understanding around the causes of climate change is the finding that 57 per cent of Australians now trust the science that suggests that climate change is changing due to human activities, up 6 points from last year, and up 11 points from 2012.

Acceptance of the science and causation are important to sustain the challenging pollution reduction and economic transformation task ahead. Achieving a resilient zero carbon economy will require more than switching to clean and renewable energy - a big task itself.

When it comes to renewable energy, despite targets being wound back and anti-wind energy campaigns, Australians are even more supportive of solar and wind than last year. Most (84 per cent, up 2 points) prefer solar amongst their ideal energy mix of three sources, followed by wind (69 per cent, up 5 points). Gas and nuclear have both crashed 7 points to 21 and 13 per cent respectively, with nuclear and coal now tied as least preferred.

Similarly, 65 per cent, think that reducing the investment in wind farms and householder solar power is the opposite of what is needed. Overall 39 per cent strongly agree with this statement and only 11 per cent disagree.

Reinforcing coal power’s deep unpopularity is the finding that nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of the electorate agree that it is inevitable that Australia’s current coal fired generation will need to be replaced. A similarly large majority (72 per cent) agree that “governments need a plan to ensure the orderly closure of old coal plants and their replacement with clean energy”. Only 7 per cent disagree.

Support for regulating and limiting carbon pollution is very strong with two in three (67 per cent) agreeing governments need to regulate carbon pollution with only 9 per cent disagreeing.

The core element of the government’s Direct Action plan, the taxpayer-backed Emissions Reduction Fund, is unpopular with over three quarters (76 per cent) agreeing that policy should shift responsibility for pollution reduction to the polluters, not taxpayers.

The ALP’s recent renewables goal and climate announcements appear to better reflect public sentiment. But the policy detail and its communication will be important as there are questions. Almost half, (47 per cent) agree that ALP policies will “just increase electricity prices and not do much about pollution”.

Finally, as we head to the Paris climate negotiations at the end of 2015, the research found that just over half of Australians think that Australia’s post-2020 pollution reduction targets should be based on the science and not what other nations do, with a quarter uncertain. Countries like Canada, the US, UK and China were not substantial reference points.

This research demonstrates that some politicians and business leaders are increasingly out of touch with strengthening public attitudes on climate change and its solutions. The outcome for them, the climate, the economy and the community is less clear.

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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