climate change attitudes part two

climate change attitudes part two

Encouraged by responses to my blog post last week on the role of ideology in driving opinions on climate change, I feel the need to follow up with another post based on the release of Lowy polling over the weekend. Why does community concern about climate changed appeared to have softened in Australia?

The annual Lowy Institute Polls on public opinion are useful background information. In the 2007 poll, Australians ranked tackling climate change as the equal most important foreign policy goal. In the same poll in 2009, it ranked seventh out of ten possible goals.  In the 2011 poll, released this week, 39% of Australians were not prepared to spend a cent on global warming, with the numbers prepared to take action even with “significant cost” falling from 60% (2008), to 41% (2011). What’s happened?

Remember the Howard Government’s plans to commence an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2007? Despite differences of opinion around the edges, there appeared to be general bipartisan recognition of the issues and the need to act through a market based mechanism. It was carried forward by Rudd and Turnbull in their respective leadership roles. What has changed? In my view, it’s mostly to do with politics and communication.

Although climate change remains a complex and challenging issue around the world, in Australia and to a certain extent in the USA, the debate has been politicised and people’s inner worldview, and the opinions of their peer groups has prevailed. Apart from some of independent thought, people have now tended to line up along traditional conservative and progressive lines. The other driver of confusion, indifference and resistance has been the inability of the Rudd and Gillard Governments to adequately articulate the issues and the case for action – a disappointing lost opportunity for the Government and Australia.

Why have things become more politicised in recent times? In my blog post last week, I discussed the reasons why many conservatives may push back from acceptance of, and the need to act on, Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).The theme I didn’t develop is the disproportionate influence of the religious right, many of whom adopt literal interpretations of the bible such as, “the world will end when God is ready”. It underpins the mindsets of many in the Tea Party in the USA and conservatives in Australia with strong influence. It is proving to be a significant contributor to the polarisation and politicisation of the issue.

Other contributors are some of the positions offered by the “dark greens”, who tend to crusade on issues rather than see them in the context of a dynamic and finely balanced economy. This causes reactions, push back and further polarisation. We need to understand the respective positions, debate the issues, play the ball not the man and work together with open minds. Failure to do so will cause more and more people to switch off altogether.

Of course it’s hard for people to give things up to fight a cause which is difficult to see and understand. AGW is a global issue and there are now more than 30 countries with an ETS or some form of carbon tax and many more without such measures. While there is a majority belief that action needs to be taken by Australia on climate change (latest CSIRO survey), this belief seems tempered by the respondents’ key concerns about the cost of living and financial hardship.

Perhaps the essential challenge for society is to clarify the relatively minor costs of acting now compared to those of acting later. We need to find a path forward that proactively addresses the needs of individuals while encouraging action on climate change.

In Australia, the polarisation and politicisation of AGW is disappointing and short sighted. Both sides of politics are guilty and should lead the chorus of apologies to our children for our collective inability to lead, build consensus and act. The apologies will be all too late when decision makers “get it” in 20 years; when people can actually see that the melting of the polar ice caps has caused devastation to hundreds of millions of human beings; when they can ultimately see before them the outcomes that the ostriches said wouldn’t happen in 2011.

Sadly, by then it may well be too late to save this planet from irreversible damage. Sometimes it is necessary to lead rather than look in the rear vision mirror and ask people what they think. To reinforce the point, watch James Hansen talking with David Letterman in an entertaining yet disturbing treatment of the subject.

Seduced by the prospect of power at the next election, both sides of Australian politics have dropped the ball. The Government has done a lousy job in building consensus and articulating why they feel the need to act. The Opposition has passed up a once in a generation chance to show bipartisan leadership on an issue which will affect the planet, and the lives of all future generations.


  1. Ken,
    I used to wonder about this issue, and came up with the same sort of things you have here BUT these are really world wide not just Australian. What is really strange about Australia is that we no longer want to lead in anything. We don’t even have that attitude towards sport any longer although it takes a long time for the strength of the past to dissappear.
    In recent years I have personally come up with many ideas that are particularly relevant to Australia, will be economically extremely positive, and are technically sound. I have top energy experts in the USA, UK, and Europe endorse the ideas but say that they are politically too hard to implement against vested interests. In Australia I can’t even get the technical people to look at them, and all the political people just ask if they have been done elsewhere!!!!!!!!
    So now I am working on the brain. I have top people from USA who are collaborating, but when I talk to people in Australia, they first ask has it been done elsewhere?? The things I am doing could eventually effect 1/3 of the health bill in all developed countries===say 5% of GDP or in Australia alone $50 Billion a year. Apart from the money, ADHD, chronic pain, dementia,depression and suicide are human tragedies. I see a trend developing: we become a mine for the world, and all our brainy young people go overseas to work because, they want to do “it” first, they want to be in on the “next new new thing”. When my grandkids go, I will follow. Cheers Ken, you don’t have to post this, as I find people don’t like to be told that Australia has lost the will to lead—-whatever it takes.

    • Noel. I value your comments and perspective enormously (in the last two posts) and share your frustration about inertia in breaking free of the zone of comfort in this country. Many societies in the western world are on the way down, being overtaken by hungry, energetic nations like China, Vietnam and India. See this article from the latest McKinsey Quarterly as evidence:
      Perhaps our remaining hope is to create a truly knowledge based export business, riding the growth in emerging markets, and using our brains to do some of the exciting things that you have articluated in our home markets as well. See the vision from Julian Cribb of what this could look like in 2050 –
      Cheers Noel and keep up inspiring and leading. You are a legend!!

  2. Ken,
    First thanks for the compliments, I would not be human if I didn’t enjoy them!!!!
    The article by Julian Cribb was very good. I guess I tend to be an optimists and think that every silver lining has a cloud rather than the other way around. At the heart of that optimism, is the fact that a knowledge based economy can be a growth economy without the same resource and environmental limits to growth that currently exist.
    The cloud of course is the chance of trashing the environment before we make the transition. This is not just about climate change: habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and in particular the problems with the oceans, over population, poverty, and weapons of mass destruction, and the real possibility of pandemics are each overwhelmingly difficult problems.
    But it is fun to try and find solutions to these problems: solutions that are simple and “almost right” even though they are going to take a lot of effort to implement. And fun, as well as love, is what makes the world a tolerable place to live in. Personally, I think the “mascot” of this thinking is Wikipedia: it distributes, to every person in the world, all of mankinds knowledge at a tiny fraction of the price that had to be paid for it ten years ago. And when my six year old grandson looks up the size, weight, and length of all dangerous animals, and comes to the conclussion that humans are by far the most dangerous, I thank Wikipedia, for being that shining light of what can be done, for even a six year old who found reading impossible such a short time ago.
    But even Wikipedia is only valuable to those who are not afraid====fear generates fight or flight, our evolutionary inheritance I’m afraid. Cheers, Noel


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