Since 2007, The Climate Institute has produced the Climate of the Nation report taking the Australian public’s pulse on climate change, its impacts and solutions. The research has shown the ebb and flow of opinions as the nation has weathered the physical impacts of climate change (droughts, floods, fires) and the fallout of an ongoing and fierce political debate.
The low point across a range of public attitude indicators on climate change was clearly 2012, on the eve of the introduction of the carbon laws. Scare mongering campaigns from the Coalition, who were then in Opposition, had Australians thinking that their energy bills would go through the roof. The ending of the millennial drought had also abated climate change concerns, and the issue had evolved from being hot, with the 2007 election of Kevin Rudd becoming known as the world’s first “climate election”, to being a toxic political battle with high personal costs attached.
In 2013, Climate of the Nation found that a year into the carbon laws, sense of making peace with the new legislation was emerging, and concern for climate was resurging, even as cynicism towards the political parties persisted.
This year we’ve seen a more marked departure on some key attitudes. More people think that climate change is real (70%, up 10 points since 2012) and concern has shifted from fears of the personal costs of policies to the costs of physical impacts from unchecked climate change.
For the first time, more Australians support carbon pricing (34%) than oppose it (30%). This change appears to be driven mostly by a realisation that the policy has not been detrimental to the economy or to households’ bottom line.
But what appears to hold back stronger support for carbon pricing is a gap in understanding the benefits – for instance, only 34% agree that carbon pricing is helping reduce emissions, while in reality emissions have been dropping steadily since the policy kicked in. This illustrates what is possibly one of the greatest political communication failures in recent years, and all political parties are to blame for getting caught in toxic 24hour news cycle where nothing is explained beyond a headline and where labels, even if incorrect, stick.
While Australians believe that the Federal government should be responsible for leading the response to climate change, they also think the job is being done poorly. Very few (20%) agree that they trust Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he says he is concerned about addressing climate change, while 53% disagree.
One of the most significant evolutions has been Australians’ desire for the nation to be a leader in climate change solutions. 61% wanted more climate leadership this year, a level not seen since 2008, and almost two-thirds (64%) agree that ignoring climate change is simply not an option.
Ambition for Australia’s 2020 emissions reduction target is up too: 46% now believe that an emissions reduction target of 5% by 2020 is too low (up 14 points since 2012), and a majority (56%) now agree that Australia should participate in a new international agreement like the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global emissions.
Support for renewable energy is also very strong, with solar, wind and hydro topping the list as ideal energy options for three years now. Coal, nuclear and gas continue to be least popular. This resilience of support for renewables is despite the fragmenting of previously bipartisan political support for renewable energy and growing attacks from fossil fuel-based energy utilities.
These are encouraging signs and have gained media attention, as focus turns to the new Senate convening on 7 July, with the vote to repeal carbon pricing as one of the Senate’s first expected acts.
This year’s research is based on a nationally representative online poll of 1,145 Australians over the age of 18, conducted 16-20 May, by JWS Research.
image: spaceXmedia via Flickr (cc)