Australian public opinion on global warming since 2006. (Screen capture from the Lowy Institute poll interactive.)
One of the most striking findings from the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll is that Australians are taking climate change seriously.
Since the 2006 poll, concern about climate change had declined (see image above). Last year's rebound has now been reinforced this year with 45% of those polled viewing global warming as a serious and pressing problem, with a further 38% recognising that global warming needs to be addressed. Younger Australians are particularly concerned.
And they are right to be. For no other industrialised country will be impacted as much or as soon by the effects of climate change. It will result in more, and more lethal, natural hazards, whether forest fires or floods; it will reduce agricultural output; it will displace farmers and aboriginal populations; it will result in increasing migration pressure from affected Pacific Islands; and it will impact Australian trade, aid, and military spending. Indeed, respondents to the Lowy Poll placed climate change sixth in a list of 12 threats to Australia's vital interests, well above the development of China as a world power and instability and conflict on the Korean peninsula. On climate change, Australians seem to recognise that climate change is a question of when, not if.
The Australians polled by Lowy are also right not to place much faith in the international community to respond to the challenge of climate change.
Only 28% felt that the Australian Government should wait for an international consensus before acting on global warming and carbon emissions. These must be very patient folk, as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has proved to be a mind-numbingly inefficient process, depending as it does on consensus among some 190 states. Its main pillar is the Kyoto Protocol, which the US has never signed and from which Canada withdrew in 2011. Achieving international consensus is very much a question of if, not when.
But neither should the 63% of those polled who feel that the Australian Government should take a leadership role on global warming and reducing emissions be holding their breath. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has a track record of scepticism on climate change, as do Dick Warburton, his recent pick to review Australia's renewable energy target, and Maurice Newman, his top business adviser. And so far the Prime Minister has resisted growing pressure from the US and EU to elevate climate change on the agenda for the G20 meeting he will chair in Brisbane later this year, even though international forums like G20 provide a more realistic venue than UNFCCC for concrete achievements. Brisbane is the Prime Minister's chance to direct international progress on climate change in Australia's national interests.
The result of the 2014 Lowy Poll accentuates the choice confronting Mr Abbott. Climate change is happening and its effects in Australia are accelerating. Almost two-thirds of Australians polled want the Government to respond even if the costs are significant. Fellow G20 members are primed.
Mr Abbott can listen and lead. Or he can deny the science, dismiss the Poll, and devalue Australia's chairmanship of the G20. The nickname 'tin ear Tony' has a certain ring to it.