Gillard can still win the carbon tax debate

A major report released by The Climate Institute today suggests Australians can still be convinced on the carbon tax and there is overwhelming community support for renewable energy. But with climate change concern waning, there's much work to do on educating the public.

Since 2007, The Climate Institute has conducted comprehensive on ground research into Australian attitudes to climate change and related policies. We have published a number of Climate of the Nation reports and aim to publish annual mid-year reports to track evolving attitudes and actions.

Attitudes will develop against a backdrop of volatile climate politics, economic uncertainties, carbon pricing realities, low-carbon technological advances, global developments and shifting perceptions of prosperity and quality of life.

In 2012, Australians are uncertain about the science and unconvinced by the carbon laws, but are open to be convinced on both.

For the majority concern about climate change is moderate, but greater concern regarding associated impacts and minimal support for inaction suggests a deeper level of worry. This disparity may be due to climate change, once considered a scientific and ecological issue, becoming a highly politicised discourse being played out in the media.

The high level of concern for the impacts of climate change on society and the environment, coupled with a large degree of scepticism, suggests that there is a large segment of the population with a latent concern for climate change and its associated implications that are not quite yet convinced of a need for action. This segment is likely to be available to be ‘won’ by any side of the debate.

Australians are prepared to do their bit so long as government and business shoulder responsibility and perform better. Business performance gets a far stronger net performance disapproval rating than the federal government. Only the media’s performance is rated worse than business.

Attitudes have, however, been overwhelmingly impacted by the bitterly partisan public policy debates and eroding trust in political parties and institutions.

Twice as many Australians agree that Labor has a more effective emissions reduction plan than support the Coalition’s, but both need to convince a third to half of Australians to get majority support. Less than half of Australians – 44 per cent – think that the Coalition will repeal the carbon laws.

Household cost of living concerns also dominate attitudes in 2012. Here and abroad understandings of climate issues are affected by a complex array of social, psychological and economic filters. Trust in the science is impacted by both opposing voices and the personal experiences of changing seasons and weather extremes.

The carbon pricing laws are unpopular, but support grows when the laws are explained. This suggests that a significant proportion of Australians who are uncertain about the laws are open to be convinced.

What is clear is that Australians overwhelmingly support renewable energy, particularly solar power, and greater energy efficiency for industry and households. Coal trails nuclear in the preferred energy mix, which is dominated by renewables: solar, wind and hydro.

Source: Climate Institute – Climate of the Nation report.

Majority support for Australian leadership on climate solutions is there, but this is down from the bipartisan highs of February 2009.

Australians have a growing literacy on energy and carbon issues that is layering on experiences in waste and recycling as well as on water conservation. Greater energy conservation policies and practices appear to have contributed to a drop in overall energy demand in Australia in recent years.

Environmental and economic reforms often come with exaggerated perceptions of their cost, perhaps none more than with these recent reforms. Whether Australians follow past practice here and overseas and grow to accept these reforms will depend on a number of factors. These range from perceptions of personal cost to the effectiveness of reforms in changing business behaviour and pollution reduction.

Narrow interpretations of limited poll questions can lead to analysis pleasing to all parts of the spectrum on this debate.

The collapse of bipartisan support for carbon pricing, cost of living concerns and contradictory scientific opinions have had an impact on climate change concern and support for solutions.

However, the evidence suggests deeper levels of concern and potential for rebound as the reality of carbon price impacts emerge and with early evidence that the carbon price is changing business behaviour. Personal experiences and understanding of seasonal changes and extreme weather events will also be influential.

How these mix with underlying values, views of prosperity and trust in messengers will determine the climate of the nation in coming months and years.

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute.

This is the executive summary of the latest Climate of the Nation report from The Climate Institute.

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