With the start of the Warsaw climate change talks today, combined with the election of the Abbott Government and its proposed repeal of the Gillard Government's carbon tax regime, climate change is back on the political agenda. There was considerable consternation at the linking of climate change with the recent bushfires in New South Wales, and Environment Minister Greg Hunt stirred the debate by using Wikipedia as a source of scientific evidence. 

So it's a good time to look at the trend of public opinion on climate change.The shift in opinion on climate change has been one of the most dramatic trends the Lowy Institute Poll* has recorded. We began asking Australian adults about climate change in 2006, asking survey participants to select the response which most closely mirrors their point of view: 

  • Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.
  • The problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost.
  • Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs.

The Poll interactive tool illustrates these dramatic results in graphic form. Concern about global warming peaked in 2006, during a period of deep drought and water restrictions in Australia. These results arguably contributed to then Prime Minister John Howard‘s shift to climate change 'realism', as he recounted in his recent speech in London:

... late in 2006 my Government hit a “perfect storm” on the issue. Drought had lingered for several years in many parts of Eastern Australia, leading to severe restrictions on the daily use of water; not for the first or last time the bushfire season started early; the report by Sir Nicholas Stern hit the shelves, with the author himself visiting Australia, and lastly the former US Vice President Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. To put it bluntly “doing something” about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia. 

In 2007, Prime Minister Howard announced that his government would introduce an emissions trading scheme in 2011. Kevin Rudd famously promised action on climate change in the 2007 election, and after a period of policy switches, the Labor Government eventually introduced a carbon tax in 2012. By then, however, and with the drought long broken, the number of Australians who said global warming was a ‘serious and pressing problem’ had dropped to 36%.

An examination of the Poll interactive shows that public sentiment on climate change has shifted direction this year for the first time since 2006. The number of Australians seeing global warming as a 'serious and pressing problem' has increased to 40%, four points up since 2012. While the level remains well below the 68% peak on this response, the shift is noticeable.

Bushfires and heatwaves may well exacerbate this trend. Research from Columbia University in 2011 found that perceptions are influenced by individuals' immediate experiences of weather changes. With the Bureau of Meteorology reporting Australia's warmest 12-month period on record in September, the shift in public opinion may accelerate.

*The Lowy Institute Poll reports the results of its annual nationally-representative telephone survey of approximately 1,000 Australian adults. The most recent Poll was conducted in March 2013.