Aug 26, 2009

Change the climate, say Australians, but not at any price

The Australian public wants a healthy environment, jobs and well-priced fuel, writes pollster Ian Woolcott.

In the eyes of policymakers and the environmental lobby, an emissions trading scheme is touted as essential economic structural reform. But terms such as "reform" carry nuances that do not go unnoticed by the public, and especially so during an economic downturn. Perhaps by happy coincidence to some, the debate about the practical implementation of an emissions trading scheme has unfolded at the same time as the global financial crisis. Economic imperatives have meant the lofty ideals around climate change have been called to account. While our research still demonstrates the steadfastness of public opinion on climate change -- in the sense that “something needs to be done” -- public opinion on precisely what needs to be done remains unclear, as does the "price" people are prepared to pay for climate change actions that may not, in the end, provide any real practical benefit. Past survey results have indicated that people are fully supportive of setting targets for reduced carbon emission levels. Some surveys have recorded upwards of 80% of the population favouring initiatives such as emissions targets. But such absolutist sentiment is starting to wane. Woolcott Research has found that while there has been little change in environmental sentimentality, below the surface, public opinion on reducing CO2 and other emissions is increasingly tempered by economic considerations. While people place greatest value on their job, the environment is not that far behind. According to our recent survey of 1360 Australians, 88% of respondents nominated unemployment as their most important concern, followed by climate change (81%) and interest rates (76%). But these results are reasonably predictable. It’s when you ask people what they are prepared to sacrifice to advance their environmental beliefs, that things start to get interesting. Public opinion begins to divide considerably when we drill down into the whys and wherefores of emissions trading. And while debate hasn’t narrowed to one of environment verses jobs, public opinion increasingly recognises that in order for something to be gained, something must be conceded. But what else, besides jobs, to concede? The speed of change, for one. A recent Newspoll highlighted a turnaround in the level of community support for Australia to lead the way, and ‘go early’ on a carbon emissions trading scheme, ahead of December’s Copenhagen climate change conference. In September last year, 61% of those surveyed wanted action taken as soon as possible. But according to the most recent Newspoll survey, that figure has dropped to 41%. The survey also found 45% now want the scheme delayed until after Copenhagen, and another eight per cent oppose the scheme altogether. In terms of concessions, our polling suggests the public is reluctant to accept what they believe will adversely impact the economy. This is demonstrated when we canvass the public’s views on the cost of fuel -- an issue that most people can relate to. They understand higher fuel prices and how it impacts their personal spending. When asked to consider the importance of fuel availability for heavy transport -- the stuff that keeps planes in the air and trucks on the road -- people begin to gauge its economic significance. In fact, 50% agreed it’s more important to maintain the availability of heavy transport fuel than reducing greenhouse emissions. In the same survey, 59% of respondents acknowledge that we will be dependent on oil and diesel for long distance transport until at least 2050. So as much as the community is aspirational for the environment, they are pragmatic as well. Then there’s the issue of "confidence". The general public’s cynicism, it seems, is on full display when it comes to the much lauded emissions trading scheme. While a majority of Australians support the Federal Government’s target of a 60% CO2 emissions reduction by 2050, only 47% believe that will be achieved. Read into that what you will. The global energy landscape is complex and dynamic. It is human nature to protect the things we value -- jobs, economic security, the environment -- in favour of unknown experiments with unknowable consequences. As far as Australians are concerned, the pro-environment verses pro-jobs dynamic no longer flies. They know economic prosperity and environmental advancements are not mutually exclusive. It seems they want the best of both worlds. The veracity of environmental debate in Australia is a good thing. Any emissions trading scheme must stand up to public scrutiny. We will be poorly served by simple solutions. The public understands this. Pollsters are learning this. The next step is to have policy makers understand this dynamic as well. Ian Woolcott is Managing Director of Woolcott Research, one of Australia’s largest independent market research companies which has been working extensively with corporates and Federal and State governments for more than 30 years.

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15 thoughts on “Change the climate, say Australians, but not at any price

  1. Richard Wilson

    The Australian Public is rightfully sceptical of anything that involves taking money from them.
    The alternative energy side of the environmental protection bill has now been passed so let’s get moving on all of those great technologies that mysteriously disappear from the newspapers one day after they have been heralded e.g. the water fueled car, geothermal energy, cold fusion technogy, zero point energy and goodness knows what else that has been put forward without any investor interest. All are totally clean and would save the world if they work. Everyone would support this and in my view probably vote for more financial support to any scientists working on such projects.

    The carbon dioxide trading scheme however known variously as ETS, Cap & Trade and so on is a tax collection scheme and if we are to believe its local champion Ross Garnaut, he favours it being adminstered by the financial sector according to an article he wrote in the Fin Review in February, 2009. The public has a right to be sceptical when the financial sector is collecting taxes for the government. Ultimately they know that no matter who pays the tax initially, it will be their bill ultimately and if that is so, what incentive is there for major polluters to seek out alternatives?

  2. TheOtherMichaelT

    well thank Christ someone is finally asking the (kind of) right questions.

    It’s very easy to say XXX% of Australian people support reducing carbon pollution

    What question i want asked is:

    ‘What percentage of your yearly income would you be prepared to pay to reduce our carbon pollution levels to 25% less than year 2000 levels’

    you know, a real question.

  3. D. John Hunwick

    UNless the poll is accompanied by details of the people’s understanding of climate change then what is its value? The more I understand the Climate change debate the more I am prepared to pay to avoid it. If people are becoming reluctant to pay, fair enough, but what is the reason(s)?n Is it lack of knowledge of what it is all about? Is it distrust of our politicians? Is it that they have no sense of urgency in the issue? Is it that they have been bombarded with so many negatives that any realisation of there being more jobs, more security, and the chances of improved health has been lost? Most polls on these sorts of issues are far too shallow to really mean anything significant – other than more polls need to be conducted – if someone will pay me!

  4. Evan Beaver

    I too thought the questions were a little, ahh, not misleading, but posed an unfair comparison.

    A lot of the questions seem to assume that the ‘do nothing’ scenario has no consequences; eg If we have an ETS living standards will drop; without an ETS, they will continue to increase at the curent rate. I acknowledge that this is difficult to adequately capture in a poll question, but if you can’t capture this in the question there should be a way to describe it in the analysis. Perhaps in uncertainty or MOE?

    I’ve also been wondering about the number of people who would be prepared to pay more to help the climate. A classic example of the old chestnut “what are you going to give up to achieve your goals”. We are somewhat informed by recent Greenpower data; a voluntary scheme where houses pay more for low carbon power. Their latest report shows almost a million customers. Hard to say how many people that is, but it is no insignificant.

    Greenpower’s most recent report can be found here

  5. Richard Wilson

    Yes Evan and their pollution savings were sold off to polluters at their regular prices so why would they bother! Dont you remember the two day scandal?

  6. John Reidy

    I think this shows that opinion polls on complex issues – as compared to “who is the preferred prime minister” need to be created carefully.
    Are there any details on the sample sizes, MOE or the survey type i.e. qualititive or (the other one quantitative..).

    An example the point:
    “In fact, 50% agreed it’s more important to maintain the availability of heavy transport fuel than reducing greenhouse emissions.”

    Heavy transport fuel – at least our cheap supply based on crude oil will run out/get more expensive regardless of greenhouse abatement policies.

    Perhaps a better question might be:
    “Do you support the introduction of renewable energy targets which would (in addition to minimising carbon emissions) extend the supply life of heavy transport fuel .”

  7. kathleen fisher

    I am skeptical of what you can conclude from this sort of research when so much depends on what people (think they) know about the problems and the solutions. For example, what would tom dick or susan know about the necessity (TINA) and length of our reliance on fossil fuels for long distance transport into the future – except for what someone in the media (or the survey) may have told them is or isn’t feasible – a fact which may or may not be reliable. That doesn’t mean people are pragmatic, it just means they believe this to be true.

    Moreover, our opinions can be highly influenced by who and what has been colonising media attention lately. This dependency and contingency is brought home, moreover, by the fact that the very groups who tend to commission or are interested in public opinion research are often the same groups who have designs on shifting that opinion – govts included. So there is little reason to be confident that what you are measuring in these sorts of surveys are some deep-seated values, attitudes, anthropologico-cost-benefit analyses or even ‘human nature’ (whatever that is this week) rather than simply how successful various competing campaigns and issues have been in shaping public opinion in recent times. Hardly profound and everything to do with money, rhetoric, fame and reputation.

    And with the economic crises dominating headlines and the turgid cynical politicking on ETS and Copenhagen sapping the collective goodwill that climate change action relies on we can hardly be surprised that you report significant shifts in less than a year in public opinion about the urgency of action (unless of course that can be put down to unreliable or deliberately leading survey techniques) .

    Oh and i think your political petticoat is showing when you use terms like: ‘asbolutist sentiment’ in reference to support for emissions targets, environmental sentimentality (or its emotion is it, not reason and natural science facts) and the ‘lofty ideals around climate change’ vs the ‘pragmatic’ ‘acknowledgement’ that we cannot avoid being reliant on fossil fuels in heavy transport until 2050.

    Rather an endless surveys and focus groups commissioned by interests group, how about govt supports a whole series of deliberative democracy workshops around Australia on the details of Australia’s eco-environ options and knoweldge. Alternatively we could adopt Al Gore’s model of getting individuals trained up to engage and inform local communities face to face in what is known (and not known) about the details of environ/economic problems and solutions for Australia. Then we could have a proper democratic conversation about trade-offs.

  8. Heathdon McGregor

    I may have misunderstood but I still cannot understand how the opinions of 1380 people are to represent the opinions of over 19 million with any accuracy?

    Who are the people? If 1300 people from Toorak were sampled or 1300 from Braybrook they would be very different, how would these respondants be representative of the thoughts of Sydneysiders?

  9. James Douglas

    It should not be very difficult to work out the reasons why the Australian public seems to be confused and increasingly disillusioned by the prospect of emissions trading and/or dealing effectively with global warming, although Woolcott’s static and reactive interpretations of the poll data on this make very heavy weather of the task, and the comments posted above serve only to demonstrate how easily populist hyperbole replaces even basic understanding on this sort of issue.

    The fact of the matter is that no political group in Australia is effectively putting the case for doing something about global warming. Arguments that Australia “shouldn’t do anything until after Copenhagen” – as if Australia alone had entertained plans to take commitments to the conference (which would come as a large surprise to many European nations) – are not countered. Uninformed commentators in Australia lump in countries such as China and India with developed nations, in termsof commitments they should be expected to make at Copenhagen, when in fact no reasonable participant in the Copenhagen process will expect that. The counterfactual case on acting on climate change – what will happen to countries like Australia if no effective action on warming is taken – is never presented clearly to the public: lobby groups for the coal sector and its allies either ignore this subject or lie about it; green fanatics make up a new horror story on it every day. Analysts such as Nicholas Stern have presented the costs of acting vs the costs of not acting on climate change very simply and clearly, but of course no notice of that is taken by any side in Australia. Not surprisingly, Australia is fast becoming known as the world capital of climate change denial – a position akin to being regarded as the centre of Creationism.

    The Rudd Government does not want to commit to anything close to an effective strategy on climate change, and has abandoned the public discussion on it entirely. Little wonder that the public is becoming increasingly unenthusiastic about acting: that is exactly what Rudd and co. have wanted from the beginning, and that leaves nobody with political clout in the country willing to put the case for action on warming.

  10. Tom McLoughlin

    I heard someone – from the gas energy sector I think – say people won’t really get motivated until they can see climate change. Which is why the first tornado to hit Brisbane will be an unprecedented political event as well as serious tragedy, loss of life and property etc.

    This guy also said by the time people in the broad – like the proverbial Doubting Thomas – do see stuff, it will be too late.


    I don’t expect any serious leadership from paid off major parties. Talk is cheap and it’s their main activity. Look at the Victorian Bushfire tragedy. That firestorm was unstoppable despite all the prep and urgings and worthy inquiries and speeches. Get it? Politicians aren’t going to sort this. Not a chance. Not a snowball in hell.

    They can’t save us now, the momentum is so enormous, and you can’t negotiate a price with physics. The greenocrats and biologists are essentially voyeurs now. It’s over you just don’t know it yet.

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