The Korn Group

  • Government at odds with public on climate change

    • June 20, 2014
    • Neer Korn

    While they offer varying opinions on the causes and effects of global warming, most Australians readily acknowledge it is happening and think we should do something about it. The overwhelming majority believe the government strongly disagrees with them. They have concluded the previous government’s carbon tax was not the answer. All that seemed to do is raise energy prices and do nothing of any substantial value for the environment.

    Climate change is an issue that was mentioned frequently by the Australians (aged 18-70 years) that we spoke to in our recently published study The National Pulse 2014: Issues Australians are Talking About. Prior to the research we asked all our participants to write about three major issues that concern them and three others that may not receive much coverage in the media or come up in conversations but they believe important. Climate change featured in many of those lists.

    There is no question in the minds of Australians that the earth is warming. There are some who are of the view that this is merely part of a natural cycle so there’s nothing much to be done about it.

    The majority view is that regardless of whether it’s naturally caused or not, it’s just not good to pollute the atmosphere any more then we already have and do. And that continuing to do so could, in fact, have very serious ramifications sometime in the future. Most people don’t understand a lot about it. The science gets complicated and the contradictory messages are very confusing.

    Those sceptical about the science of climate change have achieved a great deal in swaying public opinion and questioning the science. Australians are very weary of having the wool pulled over their eyes, so they are naturally cautious. The voices opposing man made climate change have been loud and powerful. While some Australians have adopted this viewpoint almost defensively, most Australians cannot ignore the stream of studies and reports written by scientists with impressive titles and letters after their names.

    Australians overall believe we have to reduce our reliance on polluting energy sources and need to develop sustainable alternatives. They want to see greater efforts to reduce carbon emissions everywhere, and especially in those countries that appear to be the worst offenders like China. The carbon tax didn’t really do it for them. They don’t really get how it works and who pays for it, but they do know that their energy costs keep going up. And they’ve been told over and over the two things are connected.

    There is renewed interest and passion for the climate change issue after a lull for a few years. They got very excited about Kevin Rudd’s passion for the issue in 2007. Between the report written by Ross Garnaut, Al Gore’s power point presentation and Kevin Rudd’s enthusiasm they were keen for Australia to do its bit and, indeed, to lead the world to a better outcome. Our physical environment is, after all, embedded in the Australian national psyche. When asked to articulate how they feel about their country, Australians talk about the natural environment. We see ourselves as custodians of the environment and would like other nationalities to see us that way too.

    Then they were let down badly by Kevin Rudd when he abandoned the plans for an emissions trading scheme. They concluded that he didn’t really believe what he said and promised. It was no longer a pressing issue. Or else the politics of the issue took precedence. Politics also became very hostile, more than they had been accustomed to. It became nasty. So they switched off and put the climate change issue to the back of their head. It was no longer getting as much coverage and out of sight is out of mind.

    But the issue hasn’t gone away and Australians are vocally concerned once more. They would like the government to do something like encouraging renewable energy sources and developing creative solutions. They don’t know enough about the direct action policy, but cannot see how a government that doesn’t seem committed to the issue would do anything of substance.

    Ideally they would like Australia to champion the need for a change on the world stage and to use whatever international influence to encourage the big polluters to come to the party. It’s one thing not to be proactive but it’s quite another to seem to want to discourage other countries from doing the right thing, as it appears to them that Tony Abbott is doing.

    Importantly, there is one topic central to this debate which is seldom mentioned in discussions about climate change – the elephant in the room, if you like. Australia’s reliance on coal exports is an almost taboo subject. While they wish it were not the case, there is a sense that this is what our nation lives on. They’d like it to be cleaner and greener, but they don’t talk about reducing coal exports, which they know is polluting. There is only so much cost they are willing to give up cannot give up a cost when it comes to their personal lifestyle, at least not without more convincing evidence that their sacrifice will be making a real difference.