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.

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