Roger Pielke Jr is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. He spoke at the Lowy Institute in February on the intersection of science and public policy.
It has been a long time since polls of public opinion on climate change measured anything much to do with climate change. In many places around the world, Australia among them, the issue has become politicised as a touchstone of electoral politics. Writing in 2009, Simon Jackman of the University of Sydney explained that, as is the case in the US, 'climate change is also a wedge issue in Australia' used by one political party to gain favour over another.
Back then Jackman explained that, 'the Labor government's position is favoured by the majority of the electorate. This helps explain why the government is pushing so hard on its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) legislation, in an effort to wedge its centre‐right opponents.' My how times have changed.
The latest Lowy Poll shows that climate change remains a wedge issue in Australian politics, but that the party which has the upper hand is no longer Labor but the Coalition, as the intensity of support for costly action has dropped dramatically. Yet arguably, the latest Lowy poll tells us very little about what people actually think about climate change, and merely echoes broader sentiment about Australian party politics.
The 2012 Lowy Poll shows that only 36% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that 'Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.' Back in 2006, one year before Kevin Rudd elevated the climate issue to national and international prominence, 68% of those surveyed agreed with that same statement, almost twice as many.
But have Australians really gone cold on climate change? The 2012 Lowy Poll shows that 55% surveyed say that their concern about climate change is unchanged since debate on the issue began in Australia, while 38% report being more concerned. Only 7% express a decrease in concern.
How can we reconcile these apparently contradictory positions?
One answer might be that questions about what to do about climate change have become inextricably tied up with Australian public opinion of the political parties and their leaders. Evidence for this can be found in the graph shown above, which shows trends in Australian support for the ALP and the proportion in the Lowy Poll agreeing with the statement reproduced above (ALP support poll data from Roy Morgan).
The graph shows that public support for action on climate change has fallen in step with the loss of support for the ALP generally. The ALP led by Kevin Rudd rode the climate change issue to victory back in 2007, and in the process bound itself to the issue. As the fortunes of the ALP (and first Rudd, then Gillard) have fallen, the climate change issue has gone along for the ride.
Of course, how the ALP has handled climate change is all mixed up in public opinion with support (or not) of the party and its leadership. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard made major political missteps on the politics of this issue, which contributed to a loss of support. But arguably, unpopularity of the prime minister and the party on other issues has contributed to an overall loss of support for any policy connected to the ALP agenda.
Similarly, it would probably be a mistake to see a drop in support for the ALP as an increase in support for the Coalition's approach to climate change. My guess is that if the Coalition wins the next election, the climate change political pendulum will again swing back in favour of the ALP.
The Australian experience is evocative of how the American political scientist VO Key explained the dynamics of public opinion back in 1966:
The voice of the people is but an echo. The output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input. As candidates and parties clamor for attention and vie for popular support, the people's verdict can be no more than a selective reflection from the alternatives and outlooks presented to them.
Those interested in policy action on climate change would be well served by taking a harder look at a wider suite of policy alternatives than those currently in play, and especially ones that appeal across party lines. Progress on climate change will all but certainly come from approaches to policy that appeal broadly to common interests, rather than through the use of the issue as a political wedge by a subset of political parties.