Reading the Climate of the Nation Opinion Article

Jul 31, 2012 - 2:00pm

This article first appeared in  The Conversation  on 31 July 2012.

By Dr Graeme Pearman, Adjunct, Senior Research Fellow, School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University and Board Member, The Climate Institute  

Over the past several decades, scientists have studied the climate of the world and how that is changing. These studies have built on the recognition, made over 150 years ago by John Tindall, that certain gases in the atmosphere help determine global temperatures and climate.

This work has identified, with high probability, that the climate is changing and will continue to do so through this century in response to the emissions into the atmosphere that result, primarily, from human combustion of carbon-based fossil fuels for energy. It has also shown that there are potential impacts on virtually all sectors of the economy.

Climate change has been perceived by some as an “environmental” issue confined to climate science and potential impacts on human and natural systems. More recently it has broadened to include the economics and politics of how we sources and use energy, manage the economy, build employment opportunities and well being, transform the economy to a low-carbon future, and adapt to the inevitability of some climate changes. Indeed, it has broadened to encompass the way we view the future of our society.

The involvement of the community thus far in this broader view of climate change has been marginal: a result of the technical and complex nature of the science, the remaining uncertainties, interface of human and natural systems and array of risk management options.

Yet, the climate change issue has resulted from the way we live, as well as our aspirations, our desires and visions for the future of our children. In turn, how we deal with the issue will depend on us, as individuals and as communities and how we embrace these challenges, prepare for change and seize the opportunities that change can create.

The climate change issue is about us.

It is perhaps surprising therefore, that community understanding of the climate-change issue is poor and commitment to support actions to respond to the climate-change issue is varied.

The Climate of the Nation 2012 report, released last week by the Climate Institute, examined – through discussion groups and polling in late May – just how people view this issue.

It found that almost two-thirds of Australians (64%) agree that the climate is changing, with a fifth (19%) unsure. The community is mixed in its views of causes. Almost half (49%) say climate change is due to a mixture of natural variations and human causes, with only a fifth saying that humans are the main cause.

Yet half of the population (54%) is concerned about climate change. People worry about a more polluted Australia and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef (79% each); more droughts affecting crop production and food supplies (78%); and plant and animal species becoming extinct (75%).

While climate change science is constantly improving the observational and theoretical evidence that change is occurring and that humans are at least in part to blame, these statistics beg a question: “Why are we divided in the way we view this evidence, assess the risk it implies, and respond to our leaders taking action to mitigate further change?”

With heavy politicisation and scare campaigns about costs dominant in mid-2012, the Climate of the Nation 2012 report may not provide deeper insights as to the rationale for these views as those are personal, complex, and often unconscious. But it clearly shows how the cacophony of our lives culminates in positions on whether we accept broad implications of the science, understand the actions of governments and private enterprises, or anticipate future risk and opportunities.

The report shows that two-thirds of Australians (66%) think that there are too many conflicting opinions for the public to be sure about the claims made around climate change. It shows just how destructive the current political wrangling over the carbon price has been. Support for the carbon pricing laws start at 28% (52% opposition) and this rises to 47% (with only 29% opposition) when it is explained that all revenue raised goes to support households, business and development of renewable energy.

Clearly this message has not gotten through, yet Labor (28%) is seen to be twice as credible as the Coalition (14%) on their emissions reduction plans, but both are at low levels. Less than half of the respondents to the survey (44%) thought that the Coalition would repel the carbon laws, if elected.

Despite this cynicism there is a startlingly enduring expectation on the Federal Government to lead on action: over two-thirds (67%) have this expectation with only 11% saying Government should take no action.

With respect to emissions mitigation, renewable energy and energy efficiency are the top choices. The ideal energy mix is seen to be dominated by renewables; with 81% placing solar energy within their top three preferred energy options, followed by wind with 59%. Two-thirds (66%) placed coal in their least preferred three options, slightly more than nuclear at 64%. The opinion on gas as an option was divided, with 28% having it in their top three and 31% in three bottom three.

These statistics provide little indication as to the fundamental characteristics of the human condition that impact on our responses and held views such as propensities to hold on to the systems of the past and the emotions that arise when threats of impacts and change are raised. We use coping mechanisms that are personal and different for each of us. We are challenged by how society is divided into sectors. The interests of one sector may not always be in the interest of the community as a whole, but nevertheless can drive strongly-held views of how climate change is perceived or should be responded to.

We all construct views of the world that are largely based on myths that have been handed to us by our customs, parents, educators, friends and associates. Little of these constructed world views is holistic. Nor are they often underpinned by expert advice. In a busy and complex world a full, balanced, and completely informed view is near impossible.

The real challenge is not so much about the science or the expert advice we might receive about how the economics may be affected or managed. It is more about how we tackle the impost that the issue poses on our respective world views that are themselves being impacted on a daily basis by the myths, belief and self interests of others in the community.

As John F. Kennedy said: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

There are several key messages that the Climate of the Nation 2012 delivers. It shows that in mid-2012 many of us believe that our personal cost of living will be threatened by the placement of a price on carbon, despite the number of expert analyses to the contrary. It shows that we have lost confidence in the advice provided by experts and governments, and that the media has failed to meet our expectations in its presentation of this issue.

These findings reflect the reality of how Australians feel about climate change and provide a clear message about how, as a community, we are progressively coming to grips with climate change but at the same time struggling to deal with what to do next.

Graeme Pearman

Dr Graeme Pearman was elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1988, the Royal Society of Victoria, 1997 and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, 2005. He has been a member and chair of many Australian and international meteorological/global change committees. Graeme was the former head of CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research. He was also a recipient of a United Nation’s Environment Program Global 500 Award in 1989 for his active involvement in a national awareness program on climate change and in 1999 he was awarded the Australian Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to atmospheric science and promotion of the science of climate change to the public.

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