Essential Report

Climate change? Scepticism becomes mainstream

Dec 7, 2010

First Published on The Drum 07/12/2010

It was a year ago today that the hottest gig in global warming opened in Copenhagen, amidst expectations that the world’s leaders would rise above their geographical interests and make a stand for the future.

Twelve months on and the hopes of Copenhagen seem as retro as a Midnight Oil album, the world has opted to sleep even when our beds are burning.

While the lack of political action over the past year has been well documented, this week’s Essential Report picks up another dynamic that is both a response to and a driver for this inertia. For the first time, we have found less than 50 per cent of Australians think climate change is real.

Dec 10 Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Climate change is happening and is caused by human activity 45% 53% 32% 76%
We are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth’s climate 36% 27% 53% 14%
Don’t know 19% 20% 15% 10%

Since we began polling climate change in 2008, this is the first time we have seen acceptance of climate change slip under 50 per cent. In the lead-up to Copenhagen the number was 56 per cent and this was in the wake of Tony Abbott’s ascent to Opposition Leader and his conscious decision to polarise the issue.

Of equal concern to those who put their faith in the vast majority of scientists who say urgent action is needed now, less than one quarter of all Australians rate the issue as ‘very important’.

Q. Compared to other issues that are often raised in politics – like the economy, healthcare, immigration, etc – how important to you personally is the issue of tackling climate change?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Very important 24% 31% 15% 55%
Quite important 37% 42% 35% 32%
Not so important 26% 18% 35% 11%
Not at all important 9% 7% 12% 1%
Don’t know 4% 3% 3%

So how has it come to this? How could an issue that had garnered support from all sides of politics with widespread public acceptance that action was needed, fall apart in such a short period of time.

If you look at the polling and the public debate over the past few years, a few clues emerge:

  • We all got confused by the ETS – Labor spent its first three years in office boring us senseless with a narrow and technocratic debate about the design of a market mechanism. Yes, it was important – but it was not the political debate to harness the public imagination. The big trend we picked up over 2008 and 2009 was the growing number of people who responded ‘Don’t Know‘ to just about any question about climate change.
  • Abbott harnessed the confusion – As long as there was bi-partisan support, the lack of engagement on the ETS didn’t really matter. But once this was the ground for a political contest, confusion was fatal. Abbott nailed the attack line ‘a brand new tax on everything’ and consolidated his leadership on the issue. Thanks to this, climate change is a highly partisan issue.
  • Labor departed the field – Labor’s decision to walk away from an ETS will end up in the political science textbooks. After all the hard policy work, all the public debate and, yes, the Rudd hyperbole, it was simply untenable to turn away from the fight. It was not just about walking away from a fight you had built your leadership around – it went further, it reinforced the idea that there was no need for urgency.
  • No international leadership – the hope that President Obama could harness America into leading the world got swamped in a mire of US domestic politics and resurgent Loony Right. Meanwhile, China plays diplomatic blocker, Europe lives off its nuclear power and nobody pays any attention to Cancun.
  • Sceptics given a platform – the nature of the media is to present balanced news. The difficulty occurs when more than 95 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real and action is needed urgently while a tiny rump of gold-diggers say its overblown hype. Should media give the two sides equal airtime, or weight the time to the relative strength of the scientific cases? Most media outlets, including the ABC, went for the straight ‘two sides to a story’ approach. This had the affect of inflating the deniers’ case and reducing the import of the international consensus.
  • Scientists caught flat-footed – The scientific community was then caught flat-footed, when a handful of minor errors were identified in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report. The science community failed to explain these errors as well as build understanding of the scientific processes of peer review. This means each time an error is identified it becomes a ‘gotcha’ moment, rather than part of the process of building understanding. It created more fuel for the deniers’ fires. By failing to consistently state that the science of climate change is in, science itself was exposed to attack and, along with the impenetrable explanations offered by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, was further undermined by sceptics as being elitist and therefore suspicious.
  • Power prices continued to rise – the counter-point to these debates occurred around the kitchen table, where growing economic insecurity was being identified. When we polled people on economic issues increased power prices emerged as the top issue. This is a phenomenon in most states where bills are going up even without a price on carbon, driven by price-gouging in state’s where power is privatised and the need to upgrade infrastructure in state’s where power remains (for now) in public hands.
  • And the carnival moves on – the political debate does not stand still. Through 2010 climate change slipped down the list of issues important to voters behind the economy, health, education, protection of jobs, even water.

The Prime Minister has marked out climate change as a priority issue for 2011, but the story of the 12 months since Copenhagen hints at what a fraught and complex beast it is. How to engage the public in a long-term change that will cost them now based on a (contested) imperative to care for future generations?

The numbers this week are not fatal to action on climate change, they just show this is no easy task. The moment of Copenhagen has passed. A new one will need to be created.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC


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