Over the next 12 months, we’ll have more polls on pricing carbon than we can poke a stick at — some more valuable than others —  so it’s probably worth taking a squiz at where public views of carbon pricing sit at the starting gates of what will probably be a bit of a rollercoaster that most of the country will get sick to death of before it ever gets implemented.

The last Nielsen poll taken on February 12  is as good a place as any to start. They asked the basic question:

Do you support or oppose the introduction of a price on Carbon?

Breaking the answers down by age, region, gender and voting intentions we get:

Even though the Nielsen polls run a sample of 1400 (MoE ~2.6%), some of the breakdowns will have quite small subsamples (gender ~4%, age groups ~5%) so treat them as indicative rather than exact.

We see the usual suspects turn up in the demographics — where support starts out high with the young and weakens as we move through into the older cohorts, and where men are both more oppositionalist and more certain in their beliefs than women, by a significant margin. We’ve consistently seen these same patterns before with climate change questions generally (things like do you believe global warming is happening? Do you believe it is man-made? etc), as well as polls on the old proposed CPRS .

What’s also interesting is how Labor and Coalition voters are mirror images of each other (about 60/30), as too are capital city and non-capital city respondents (about40/50).

Another issue worth mentioning is how the strength of opinion plays out across age cohorts. If we compare those with generic positions (simple support and oppose) against those with strong positions (strongly support and strongly oppose), what we see is that position strength increases significantly with age, and a much larger proportion of men than women hold strong positions on carbon pricing.

As we saw with the ETS when it was merely an abstract proposition — something that could happen in the future — support for the policy was always somewhere between a large plurality to a large majority. But once the ETS changed from being a generic concept to a specific one, once the ETS changed from being “Oh yeah, that ETS thing that will help climate change” to “This thing with details and will cost me money”, support for the ETS dropped significantly.

While the public supported the idea of any given ETS, that support collapsed when that “any given” ETS changed into a (and probably any) specific ETS.

We should expect to see the exact same thing happen here with this ETS as well, particularly since the brains trust at ALP Central thought it would be a smashing idea to cede ground on day 1 and effectively admit that over the first three to five years it will be a carbon tax rather than an ETS with a fixed price, letting the meme get away from them.  Nice work guys  — really missing the obvious about the political connotations the word “tax” carries in the real world.

Another issue where we should expect to see some significant change in public opinion is on the broad notion of willingness to pay for any action on climate change.  Last year (as well as in 2008), the Lowy Institute included willingness to pay questions as part of their annual Lowy Poll, specifically in regard to electricity prices. The question asked was:

One suggested way of tackling climate change is to increase the price of electricity. If it helped solve climate change how much extra would you be willing to pay each month on your electricity bill? Please say an amount, rounded off to the nearest 10 dollars.

If we look at the 2008 and 2010 results, as well as the change over that two-year period, this is what we get:

In 2008 when the idea was — again — more abstract than real, only 21% of the population was not prepared to pay anything while 71% was prepared to pay at least one to 10 dollars per month.

In 2010, as the reality of action approached and the partisan politics became strongly polarised, the number of people prepared to pay something dropped 12 points to 59%, boosting the not prepared to pay anything response to  1/3rd of the population. It’s worth noting that the big demographic mover here was the over 60s, increasing the proportion not willing to pay anything from 23 to 43 points.

Expect to see the willingness to pay — which goes to the very core of public support for a carbon price — to contract even further now that it’s crunch time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey