Separating the climate dinosaurs from an evolved citizenry

Climate dinosaurs in politics and business have been supreme across our landscape recently but, optimistically, the majority of Australians are moving in the opposite direction.

Australians are no out-dated dinosaurs when it comes to their views on climate change and its solutions. There has always been majority support for Australian leadership in finding solutions to climate change, and this year we find that 61 per cent of Australians hold this view, the highest level since 2008, backing the findings of Lowy Institute’s recent poll.

This expectation for leadership held true even though attitudes took a savaging during the long political battle from July 2007 when John Howard backed an emissions trading scheme through 2012 when the laws enabling such a scheme began. Even at the 2012 low point in community attitudes, 52 per cent wanted Australia to be a leader in finding solutions to climate change.

Attitudes in 2007 had been forged by years of drought and a growing chorus of international and business voices calling for change. Public attitudes and concern peaked in late 2007, with what was described by commentators as the world’s first climate changed election. Concern dropped after that election at least in part because people thought they had voted in a government that was going to promptly deal with the issue.

In reality what followed were delays in action, the unfolding of a global financial crisis, the breaking of our drought, the shattering of domestic bipartisan support for laws that price and limit carbon pollution, and the disappointments of the Copenhagen international climate talks.

Indicators across views on climate fell throughout those years, and hit rock bottom during the toxic political battles, debate about lies and broken promises, and scare campaigns about price impacts that shrouded the introduction of the carbon laws in July 2012. Since then, views have progressed.

Last year we detected a shift in mood as the scare campaigns confronted the reality of the laws in practice – a reality not as scary as had been touted. We saw the emergence of the issue from behind what was seen as “the carbon tax lie”. The return of Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership and his rhetoric around axing the carbon tax so we could move faster to an emissions trading scheme was damaging. Mostly his comments validated the scare campaigns.

But now Australians are seeing through those scares, and for the first time, only a minority think they are worse off under the carbon laws (43 per cent, with a third thinking they are about the same as before the laws came into place, down from 61 per cent in 2012 just before the laws began).

There is now a growing acceptance that climate change is occurring and an increased understanding that impacts are already hitting Australia. Two third continue to think that climate change is a real, and a growing numbers of them (now 89 per cent) think that we are feeling the impacts already. Women and Australians under the age of 55 are most progressive on their views on climate change and its solutions across the board, while the differences between those living in regional areas and urban centres has fallen away.

Climate of the Nation 2014 captures a lingering confusion around the solutions to climate change that are on offer, but also a declining opposition to carbon pricing. Lack of understanding still shrouds the policy as well as the Abbott Government’s proposed alternative. Importantly, more people now support carbon pricing than “Direct Action”, particularly in the absence of information about that plan. Ultimately, there is deep cynicism about politicians and the climate plans of both major parties.

Only 20 per cent trust Tony Abbott when he says he is concerned about addressing climate change, in contrast to 53 per cent who do not, including 37 per cent who strongly distrust the Prime Minister. Around 31 per cent trust Bill Shorten when he says he is concerned about climate change, while 32 per cent do not trust him.

A majority of 57 per cent think that the Abbott Government should take climate change more seriously.

Support for renewable energy like wind and solar has stayed remarkably resilient. This is the first Climate of the Nation since the fragmenting of what had been solid bipartisan support for renewable energy at the federal level. There have been increasing attacks on renewable energy by state and now federal politicians but also energy companies as their fossil fuel based business models lose market share to clean energy technologies.

This poll was taken just a week after the Treasurer described some wind farms as “utterly offensive”, yet shows barely a blip in support for wind and solar energy. Over three quarters of respondents support planning measures to encourage renewable energy, such as wind farms. And the key focus for attack, the Renewable Energy Target, is resoundingly supported with 60 per cent wanting it above 20 per cent of energy by 2020.

So while climate dinosaurs in politics and business roar across our landscape, the majority of Australians are moving in the opposite direction, backing leadership on climate change and its solutions. This is not to say climate change or climate action is now a tier one vote changer by itself, as it was in 2007. But it is to say that attitudes are evolving and are risky to ignore.

It's OK to like dinosaurs, but it's dangerous to be one. Most Australians are shrewder.

John Connor is chief executive of The Climate Institute.

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