Climate change not invisible to voters

The latest Climate of the Nation report finds most Australians want action on climate change even if they are disillusioned and confused by the political debate over the carbon tax.

The last 12 months has been an interesting journey in the climate change and carbon pricing space.

Our research underpinning The Climate Institute’s newly released Climate of the Nation 2013 report has showed there is much confusion, doubt and concern around these issues, which have been gainfully employed by the federal Opposition and others to wage an anti-carbon tax campaign.

Sometimes, it even seemed to voters as if the government was helping the Opposition in its cause. For example, the Household Assistance Package helped to reinforce a widespread perception amongst voters that the carbon laws are for all intents and purposes ‘just another tax’ – one that would increase consumer cost of living even further.

Household assistance both fuelled the anti-carbon tax campaign and complicated the issue; confusing voters’ understanding and appreciation of the scheme. Voter frustration was heightened by a perception that emissions intensive businesses were subsidised for the purchase of carbon credits, allowing them to simply pass on all the costs of carbon pricing to consumers without changing their behaviour.

Our research has also consistently showed that there is a deep cynicism about the motivations of all sides of politics. Not dissimilar to voter views toward most political debate about most issues, voters identified that politicians and parties appeared motivated almost entirely by short-term vote considerations rather than the merits of the issue.

Up until July 2012, the climate change debate narrowed further to focus almost exclusively on the so-called 'carbon tax', to the extent where public positions expressed in support of or opposition to the carbon tax became de-facto indicators of attitudes to climate change.

Mainstream debate in Australia about climate change had become falsely and obsessively focused around the carbon tax.

People were acutely sensitive to the cost of carbon pricing, especially in a vacuum of understanding of any tangible personal or environmental benefits, and amid abounding horror stories of significant electricity price rises and other negative effects, rightly or wrongly attributed to the carbon tax.

Framing of the climate change debate entirely within the prism of ‘the carbon tax’ served to entrench divisions along political lines among voters and elites alike – it became impossible to articulate a middle ground position on climate change that recognised the scientific consensus around its reality, while also giving heed to legitimately extant concerns about carbon pricing’s effectiveness and effect on the economy.

This polarisation hid the truth of Australians’ very real and undiminished concerns about climate change and why, following the introduction of carbon pricing, there is a firm belief that it should be given a chance to work.

It is true that a majority of Australians think they are worse off under a carbon tax, and there is obvious confusion and lack of clarity to the extent, if any, of the benefits of Labor’s scheme. This is compounded by a widespread lack of understanding of the operation of the scheme itself and mistrust of the science behind climate change. It is also true that the priority of climate change as an issue has diminished as both macro and micro economic concerns have increased.

But throughout our research, there has been an underlying acceptance in the reality of climate change amongst a two-thirds majority of Australians, a belief that has in fact not been dented over the last 12 months. Climate change is a concern because it threatens people’s financial security, their health and environment.

For most people there is a heartfelt compulsion to take action on climate change, and at the very least to take actions to mitigate environmental harm. There is an overwhelming sense of responsibility and of the benefit (even if that is a personal benefit) of ‘doing my little bit’.

Whether people believe climate change is man-made or not, there is almost universal concern that humans are doing irreparable damage to our planet through pollution, excessive consumption and overpopulation, and a belief that we should not stand idly by and allow the disaster to unfold unchecked.

People do know that climate change cannot be ignored for much longer and to do so could result in greater risks.

Although scepticism and doubt towards the science of climate change persists, voters broadly acknowledge that climate change will require a dedicated response from Australia, and this should most likely involve some form of carbon pricing, commensurate with the trend of global action.

Reinforcing these perceptions, our research shows that:

-- Of those who believe climate change is happening, approximately nine in 10 (and a majority of all Australians) think that we are experiencing impacts in Australia and believe that humans are partly or wholly the cause – and the proportion who think humans are the cause is on the rise.

-- Most Australians agree that further extreme weather events as a result of climate change will cause cost of living rises in Australia, such as increased food prices and higher insurance premiums.

-- Most Australians think that governments need to do more to address climate change (largely because individually they feel somewhat helpless in the face of such a large issue).

-- Support for carbon pricing rises significantly when people are shown the potential outcomes and benefits, especially if this means increased investment in renewable energy and a measurable reduction in carbon pollution.

-- More Australians are in favour of keeping some form of carbon pricing or trading scheme (46 per cent) than are in favour of abolishing it or seeing the Coalition replace it with its Direct Action plan (36 per cent).

The last point may come as a surprise to many, but it reveals that the underlying concern about climate change is real, and should not be ignored.

Failure to raise awareness, understanding and support for carbon pricing does not override voter desire for action on climate change from governments, global alliances, business and the community.

Voters are largely uninspired and unconvinced by Australia’s current climate action policy, but nor do they see wholesale repeal of carbon pricing and lack of action on climate change as a credible strategy for Australia in the future.

So where to from here?

It is certainly not about going back and fixing misperceptions and misunderstanding. It might sound obvious, but the opportunity lies in the future, not the past.

The research behind Climate of the Nation 2013 shows that what gets lost in the climate change debate is the economic opportunity.

Most Australians agree that tackling climate change creates new jobs and investment in clean energy, and most agree that tackling climate change presents a unique economic opportunity for the development and sale of renewable energy technology.

Importantly, an appreciation of the economic benefits, including job creation, associated with a strong renewable energy industry is not contingent on belief in climate change – or even a belief that humans are responsible; even sceptics can appreciate the opportunity to make a buck.

Given our geopolitical and economic status in the world, voters believe Australia can’t afford to be in a position where we are deliberately ceding the chance to refocus our manufacturing and export industries towards developing and supplying increasing global demand for cleaner, greener technology. Jobs and investment are at stake.

It is Australia’s national aspiration to be the smart country. But Australians believe that regressing on the progress we’ve made on carbon pricing will negatively impact Australia’s opportunity to be an early adopter when it comes to the development of smarter and cleaner technologies for export, and there’s nothing smart about that.

A regressive strategy will likely result in a shift in voter frustration over the lost opportunities to boost economic prosperity while simultaneously acting on voters’ very real concerns about the health, environmental and cost and quality of living impacts of climate change.

The research does support a change to the current carbon pricing policy, but the change requires a more effective policy, not abolishing carbon pricing altogether.

John Scales is Managing Director – Research, JWS Research.

This is the research based conclusion of Climate of the Nation 2013 report, and does not necessarily represent the personal views of any representatives of JWS Research.

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