Monthly Archives: May 2011

187 – Public attitudes to climate policy

There was a poll on climate change and climate policy conducted by Newspoll for The Australian newspaper over 29 April to 1 May 2011. I discuss the results and the various factors that might be driving them.

Two or three years ago, Australian popular opinion was broadly in favour of the government intervening in a fairly strong way to contribute to climate change mitigation. Indeed, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s failure to follow through on climate policy has been put forward by some commentators as one of the reasons for his ousting. Things have changed, according to this poll.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the number of non-believers. According to the poll, 16 per cent of people don’t believe that any climate change at all is currently occurring, for any reason. This is broadly similar to the poll numbers in most other developed countries. If this belief in no climate change applies generally, not just to the current time, then it is inconsistent with the evidence. No doubt, some of the 16 per cent are staunch conspiracy theorists, and don’t trust the clear evidence of temperature rises over the past century.

On the other hand, perhaps some of them believe that there was change last century, but there is no change occurring right now (which is what the question asked about). They might think there is a temporary stasis in the climate, or that the changes we observed last century were natural and have come to an end. The poll doesn’t help us unpack the 16 per cent, so we can’t tell how many of them think this.

Six per cent of respondents were “uncommitted” on the question of “current” climate change. Perhaps this is not an unreasonable position given the way the question was phrased. One might believe that there was change last century but be unsure about the present. Questions about “current” climate change are actually fairly tricky if you want to rely on statistical evidence. It would be pretty hard to prove one way or the other, unless “current” is defined as a reasonably long time – some number of decades. Perhaps that explains the thinking of some of the uncommitted group.

The poll did further unpack the beliefs of the 78 per cent who believe that there is climate change currently occurring. We learn that 5 per cent out of this group think that climate change is not caused by human activity at all (and 1 per cent are uncommitted).

The remaining 72 per cent who believe in some human influence on climate change were asked whether they’d be prepared to pay “more” (no indication of how much more) for energy, if that would “help slow the climate change caused by human activity”. Surprisingly (to me), 30 of the 72 per cent say “no” (and 3 per cent are uncommitted). That’s pretty striking. Thirty per cent of people believe that climate change is occurring, and that humans are partly or fully responsible for it, but say they aren’t prepared to pay “more” to curtail it.

We can’t tell from the survey what’s behind this. Perhaps they believe in climate change but they don’t think it’s very serious. Perhaps they think humans are partly responsible, but only for a small part of it. Perhaps they are rejecting the premise of the question that paying more would actually slow climate change. Perhaps they are unhappy about just slowing it because they would rather stop it completely. Perhaps they are worried about the vagueness of “more” – after all, “more” could be a lot. Perhaps they are just feeling confused or are answering randomly. Whatever the reasons, it leaves just 39 per cent saying they are prepared to pay “more” for climate change mitigation.

Finally, all respondents were asked about their support for the “Federal Government’s current proposal to put a price on carbon”. There were 30 per cent in favour, 60 per cent against and 10 per cent uncommitted. What’s intriguing about this is that there is so little information available about what the “current proposal” actually is. Few of the details have been released. People must be responding on the basis of their general feeling about the broad policy direction, rather than specific knowledge of the policy. But not even all of the 39 per cent who are prepared to pay are on board! Where has 9 per cent gone? It’s not as if the Government is proposing something whacky. Their signaled broad direction is consistent with what most economists with expertise in the area would recommend (subject to inevitable disagreement about details).

My guess is that they’ve been scared off or confused by the Opposition’s shameless scaremongering. If that’s true, it’s somewhat ironic that the Opposition’s policy is not at all consistent with what most economists with expertise in the area would recommend. Its “direct action” approach would likely cost the country much more to achieve any given level of emissions reduction than an approach built around a price on carbon.

I’d guess that the Opposition’s political strategy is also contributing to the fall in support for paying for climate policy generally. They are probably not the only factor contributing to this, though. Other factors probably include the controversies about climate science in the past couple of years (ClimateGate, the IPCC’s error about glaciers in the Himalayas), the continuing efforts of skeptical blogs, the relatively skeptical positions adopted by parts of the media, the tendency for some advocates to oversell their case, and the difficulty of actually discerning slow climate change within a background of high climate variability.

Where does that leave the Government’s current policy? Not in a good place, clearly. It is not inconceivable that it could pass through the parliament with support from The Greens and the rural independents, but the Government is going to be looking for every opportunity to make it look more appealing and less scary. Polls like this one mean that, if the policy does get up, it’s likely to end up being fairly tokenistic, with a low price and low targets. Maybe if it gets in, people will see that the sky hasn’t fallen in, and that most of them are no worse off after compensation, making tougher targets more feasible.

Either way, I still think that lack of political acceptability is going to mean that relying primarily on a carbon price is not going to work at the global level, making an approach centred on technology development more likely to make a real difference. However, that alternative has no backers at the political level, so it probably won’t happen either.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

p.s. 5 June 2011. I discovered that that last sentence is not totally true. Ross Garnaut, in the update of his report for the Australian Government, is apparently recommending that spending on “innovation” should build up to $2.5 billion per year. He said in a talk in Perth this week that there is support from some backbenchers for this idea, and I’ve heard separately that one of the rural independents in the House of Representatives is supportive, and so is the semi-independent National Party member. Maybe there is some chance for a version of this approach after all.

186 – Submissions to government

There are many opportunities for Australians to attempt to influence government through making submissions to government inquiries and reviews. Relatively few people go to the bother of writing submissions, but I often have a go, especially when it relates to environmental policy. What have I learnt about the process?

As well as being a regular submitter, I have a little bit of experience of being on the other side of the process. I was a member of a four-person Ministerial Taskforce reviewing salinity policy in Western Australia in 2001 (Frost et al., 2001). We took written submissions and held public hearings.

I’ve learnt not to have high expectations that one’s carefully crafted submission will have a noticeable impact on policy.

If what you say is similar to many other submissions, then the fact that you put in a submission will probably not make much difference. Its value is in reinforcing points that others are also making.

On the other hand, if your submission is different to or in opposition to most other submissions, you have more chance of it standing out, but also more chance of it being dismissed as being out of line with popular opinion. It’s not necessarily the case that sound logic and evidence can outweigh the majority view.

Another reason why it might not have much impact is information overload. Whoever has to read the submissions has to get through a huge amount of information very quickly. Any ideas that are a bit challenging risk getting put aside because there isn’t time to give them the thought they would need. There are no rules saying that every submission has to be fairly dealt with and responded to in detail. I suspect that many get only a cursory look.

My feeling is that some inquiries adopt a fairly cynical attitude to submissions, using them selectively to bolster a more-or-less pre-determined position.

Those comments probably seem more negative than is warranted. Many inquiries do make sincere efforts to get to the bottom of things, especially those with a panel that is relatively independent of the thing being inquired into.

The real challenge comes later. Even if your submission does make a substantial difference to the content and recommendations of the inquiry’s report, there is no guarantee that policy makers will respond accordingly. For example, in 2006 the Australian Government’s Senate Committee inquiring into salinity got very enthusiastic about our Salinity Investment Framework III (SIF3). Their report, “Living with salinity – a report on progress” includes a three-page section on SIF3, plus

“Recommendation 22: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government in cooperation with the states and territories keep a watching brief on the development of the Salinity Investment Framework 3 (SIF3), with a view to potentially implementing it (or a modified version of it) across the country. It is recommended that the framework be applied within the context of the new (post-2008) program(s).”

Of course, it didn’t happen. For one thing, salinity was completely dropped from the political agenda in 2008. But even the more general successor to SIF3, the Investment Framework for Environmental Resources (INFFER) has not been applied by the new program, Caring for our Country.

I was initially surprised to learn how easy it is for government to ignore the recommendations of inquiries, even its own inquiries! For example, I am on record as being a strong critic of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (Pannell and Roberts, 2010). In my judgment, it was a very poorly conceived program that spent a lot of public money and achieved very little (PD174). There were four government reviews of the program conducted during its life (two by the Australian National Audit Office, one by a Senate committee and one by a House of Representatives committee), and many of my concerns about the program were raised in one or more of the inquiry reports. But the program continued on with no fundamental changes. The responsible departments were not held to account. They could get away with glib assurances that they would take the recommendations into account, but then continue on as before.

So why bother? There are several reasons why I persist in putting in submissions to almost every inquiry that is related to my research.

The main reason is that, even though change to an existing program seems to be almost impossible (unless there is some sort of public scandal), change can occur on a longer time scale. One can detect that many of the new features of Caring for our Country were attempts to address concerns about previous programs raised by the Australian National Audit Office. Not all concerns were addressed, and some of the new features introduced new concerns, but at least there was some attempt.

Another thing is that it provides another channel for communication. I accept that any particular act of communication is likely to have limited impacts, but over the long term I’m hopeful that lots of communication can add up to something that has an influence.

Finally, it doesn’t cost much time to put in a submission. They have to be pretty brief if you want them to be read, and given the other issues I’ve raised here, it isn’t worth labouring over them too much. So I usually do one, but do it quickly.

These thoughts are on my mind because last Thursday I put in a submission to the current review of the Caring for our Country program.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Frost, F.M., Hamilton, B., Lloyd, M. and Pannell, D.J. (2001). Salinity: A New Balance, The report of the Salinity Taskforce established to review salinity management in Western Australia, Salinity Taskforce, Perth, 78 pp. Full report (732K pdf)

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 54, 437-456. Journal web site here

185 – Problems with environmental project prioritisation

Over the years of working on land and water conservation issues, I’ve become familiar with the decision-making processes used in a number of organisations to prioritise projects in this area. These include national, state and regional bodies. In almost all cases, there were serious problems with the processes used. Also, in many of the decision tools available to managers, some of the same problems are commonly present.

The main problems are as follows.

Missing variables. Simulations I’ve done indicate that leaving out important variables from the analysis of projects can have a a huge effect on the overall benefits from a portfolio of projects (see PD158). It can easily wipe out something like half of the potential net benefits from investment. However, some really important variables very commonly are omitted, including:

  • the effectiveness of the proposed changes in land and water management in bringing about the intended improvements in the natural assets;
  • the likely level of adoption by land and water managers of the proposed management changes;
  • the timing of benefits;
  • the ongoing maintenance costs needed to preserve the benefits generated by the project;
  • the likelihood of the project succeeding, accounting for technical risks, political risks, long-term funding risks, etc.

Badly structured metrics. Most processes use some sort of metric (i.e., a formula to calculate a number) to represent the benefits from improvements to the natural assets. Most benefit metrics in actual use involve weighting each of the variables and adding them up. For some key variables, this is a disaster. It does not accurately reflect how project benefits would vary in response to changes in those variables. For example, if two projects are otherwise similar, but one has double the technical effectiveness of the other, then the environmental benefits are going to be roughly twice as big, but an additive metric cannot give you that result. The same is true, more or less, for the likelihood of project success, for asset value, and for adoption. These key variables need to enter the metric as multipliers, not as additions. Getting this wrong can again result in losses of up to 50% of the potential environmental benefits from investment (PD158), by leading you to projects that are not actually the best ones.

Problems with project cost. Some processes ignore project cost altogether. Others include it in a weighted additive metric. Almost all ignore ongoing maintenance costs. These are all serious problems. If the metric is to be used to rank projects, then it should consist of a measure of expected benefits divided by total costs, including both current project costs and ongoing maintenance costs.

Lack of project specificity. Many project proposals are not very clear and specific about one or more of the following: their goals; which natural assets will be affected; which changes in land and water management are hoped for; and which delivery mechanisms/policy tools will be used to try to generate the management changes. The decision process should require sufficient specificity on these things to allow proper evaluation of the projects (and to facilitate evaluation of them, later on).

Lack of quality assurance. In my view, there should always be some sort of expert review of the numbers provided by project proponents, but especially when there is a competitive funding process. Without that, the risk is that funding will flow to the projects that have been exaggerated the most, rather than to the best projects. A related problem is that there is very often a lack of logical consistency between the numbers presented in a proposal. For example, high levels of adoption are assumed, but the budget to promote adoption is too modest. The best system for building in expert review is likely to vary in different contexts. I have found that it can be useful to include expert review in the project development process, but it could come later. In the former case, decision makers should be asking for evidence about the expert review process that has been used, while in the latter they would receive advice directly from the expert reviewers.

Notably, the problems with the existing systems are not due to lack of effort. The organisations in question sometimes put considerable time and resources into assessing projects. It is just that the processes often miss the mark.

None of this would actually be all that hard to fix. Some of the issues don’t even require any more work — just changes in the way that the numbers are handled. Others do require more effort, to gather additional information, or to strengthen quality assurance. However, the additional effort is not onerous, and easily justified by the benefits that can result.

As far as I’m aware, INFFER is currently the only decision framework or tool for environmental or natural resource projects that deals correctly with all the above issues (except quality assurance, of course, as that requires a separate process). That’s not to say that other tools could not be adapted or extended appropriately — it would be quite feasible.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia