The Story of Australian Climate Attitudes and the Ongoing Interplay Between Extreme Weather and Cost Concerns

A year ago, one of Australia’s most popular opinion sites, the ABC’s The Drum, asked us to write a piece about how Superstorm Sandy might affect public opinion on climate change.  Twelve months later, American media is asking how the devastating recent bushfires around Sydney might play out.

Does extreme weather, such as record hot weather and very-early-in-the-season bushfires that devastated regions around Sydney over the last couple of weeks change people’s views?

International press carries a lot of stories about the climate change/carbon pricing political back-and-forth in Australia, but it doesn’t capture the story of public opinion.

In short, Australia – as one of the developed countries most vulnerable to climate impacts – saw a decade (2000s) of severe drought and dried-up dams around the nation.  By 2007, when The Climate Institute first started tracking public opinion and attitudes towards climate change, its impacts and solutions, some 87% of Australians wanted action on climate change.

Kevin Rudd and his Labor government came into office late that year, with a first official act of ratifying Kyoto and subsequent focus on getting through a policy that limits and prices carbon emissions.

What followed was a perfect storm of the collapse of bipartisan political support for carbon pricing, significant business rent-seeking and opposition from within our high-carbon economy, and a change of weather – from drought to a very wet period – that saw public opinion cool towards carbon pricing.

An outrageous cost-of-living scare campaign – complete with statements that entire towns and industries would perish under the policy – had people assuming that the carbon price would only hurt them. For most, the policy was just another attempt to squeeze extra tax revenue, a view cemented by the unfortunate and erroneous use of the wording “carbon tax”. (Julia Gillard in her first public appearance after being replaced as Prime Minister referred to this as one of her biggest errors.)

Poor government communication that never set the record straight about the policy’s aim didn’t help.

By the time the carbon laws began in mid-2012, our research found that most Australians were sick of carbon politics, scared about cost-of-living increases, and confused and unconvinced about the policy.

Support for the carbon pricing was at 28% (with 52% opposition), but rising to 47% (with only 29% opposition) when “carbon pricing” was accompanied with an explanation that all the revenue from it was to assist households, business and development of renewable energy.

Ultimately, more people believed that the Labor party had a better policy (28%) than the Coalition (14%).

By mid-2013, those views were pretty much unchanged.

Support for carbon pricing was slightly higher (51%) when the policy was explained. The more significant change was in the opposition, which dropped off faster than support rose. Numerous other polls in the past year also showed that while support for carbon pricing was soft, moving only a point or two at a time, opposition dropped off at twice the rate.

What we heard in many focus groups around the country in mid-2013 –before the September 7th election – was that most people were willing to give carbon pricing and the related policies “a go.” The reason wasn’t because anyone understood the policy any better, but mainly because the cost-of-living scares did not materialise.

Along with polling data, energy market figures came out before the election showing that carbon pricing and related policies were working: emissions were down and renewable energy comprised a larger percentage of the market.

Rationally, this ought to have led to Australia proceeding with its policies and in a year linking up to the European Union carbon market.

But the election has raised a significant hurdle. During the campaign, Labor likely damaged attitudes by bringing back a focus on cost of living just as people seemed to have moved on from that debate.  

And now a Coalition government is in office and has already disbanded various climate bodies, proposed to repeal the carbon price policies, and introduced a replacement policy that by all independent analysis will see emissions go up, rather than down.

The new Senate isn’t in place before July 2014, and the government would need to negotiate with an unpredictable group of Senators from minor parties (such as Motor Enthusiasts) to achieve repeal. The new government has to stand up with other nations at the upcoming climate talks and talk about climate ambition while also saying it will make Australia the first country to dismantle a carbon market. Further pressures will come through the G20, which is hosted by Australia next year, and other events like the UN leaders’ summit.

And the physics might just trump politics.

First, public opinion hasn’t changed enough to support a drastic change, or repeal. Second, the latest IPCC report has gone a long way to remind people what is at stake by not acting on climate, a point further made by the recent devastating fires.

Election day exit polling showed that climate and policies to address it were not key election issues, as the Coalition would have had you believe. The economy and jobs was named key concern (31%), followed by cost of living (15%). Climate change (5%) and the “carbon tax” (3%), ranked lowest.

Even among Coalition voters, carbon pricing was not a priority. Only 3% prioritised “scrapping the carbon tax,” compared to 40% keen on a focus for a strong economy and 24% wanting to end waste and debt.

All poll respondents were asked about preference of focus for the new government and indicated that they cared more about Australia having a stronger emissions reduction target (40%) than repealing the carbon laws (28%).

Throughout all of the turmoil, views on the acceptance of climate change have been resilient, with a consistent two-thirds of Australians agreeing that climate change is happening and that it is at least in part driven by humans.

This year, participants in focus groups began to focus more on the costs of climate inaction (higher insurance premiums, food shortages, climate refugees) than on the potential costs-of-living rises from the carbon price.

Mixed with the fact that 2007 research we released indicates that bushfires across some of Australia’s most populated regions would become four-to-five times more likely, these real life concerns make sense.

Which brings me back to Superstorm Sandy.

The destruction and costs caused by the storm changed where and how people live; it also opened the door for local government to plan and fund resilience and adaptation plans that under other circumstances would be the last items to make a budget. Arguably, it made it easier for President Obama to push forward with a regulatory approach to curbing emissions.  

Public opinion studies in the US shortly after Sandy found a strong connection between weather trends and public and media attitudes towards climate science – that is that skepticism about global warming dips during hot spells but rises during cold snaps. Extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy likely have a similar effect. Even conservative Republicans saw the light, according to Pew Research Center.

It’s too early to tell if the fires will play such a role in Australia. The Prime Minister, as a volunteer fire fighter, went out to battle the flames one day. And on another he snapped at the UNFCCC chief for “talking out of her hat,” when she linked Australia’s bushfires to climate change in a CNN interview.

But there is hope, given that when it comes to climate change, the history of public opinion shows Australians to be more discerning than their leaders.

Kristina Stefanova is communications director of The Climate Institute. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Sascha Grant

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Kristina Stefanova