One of the surprising results in this year's Lowy Poll was the change in perceptions about climate change. Just as parliament gears up for discussions on an ETS and world leaders prepare to gather in Copenhagen for negotiations on reducing carbon emissions, concern about global warming seems to be dropping in Australia.
Given a choice between three options for dealing with global warming that range from the pro-climate to the more skeptical a decreasing number of Australians are opting for the most pro-climate position.
Panel members at the launch of the 2009 Lowy Institute Poll
In 2006, 68% of Australians said 'global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs'. Since then support for this position has dropped by 20 points with 48% of Australians now feeling this way, while support for the more intermediate response 'we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost' has risen.
So what explains this shift in opinion? One explanation could be that as we enter the nitty gritty end of discussions on addressing climate change people are beginning to seriously consider the costs of taking action.
Our poll last year asked people about their willingness to pay to help solve climate change. We found (see chart below) that most people were only prepared to pay $10 or less a month extra on their electricity bill if it would help solve climate change. Not that much.
Another explanation might be that Australians see a trade off between their jobs/the economy and action on climate change. When the economy is booming taking on modest costs to address climate change is easier than in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression and this year protecting jobs and strengthening the Australian economy remained top foreign policy goals.
One other possibility might be a growing desensitisation to reports on the overwhelming costs of inaction on climate change. This type of response seems to be reflected in another question in this year's poll. Since 2006 fewer and fewer people see 'AIDS, avian flu and other potential epidemics ' as a critical threat to Australia. 58% of Australians said this was a critical threat in 2006, this year only 43% did, despite the swine flu outbreak.
Although concern has slipped, climate change has by no means disappeared from the Australian consciousness. 76% of Australians said climate change was a problem and just over half the population still saw it as a critical threat to our interests. As Arthur Sinodinos said at the poll launch, the government might need to do more to explain its climate change policy if it wants to keep the Australian population on board. Environmental groups might have to do the same too.