The intensely warm start to autumn across the eastern states appears to have prompted a rise in belief in climate change and the need for Australia to do something about it — one that might catch out a government that appears to be doubling down on the Abbott government’s wilful inaction on the issue.

With an unseasonable autumn heatwave across much of eastern Australia in recent weeks, 63% of voters agree that “climate change is happening and is caused by human activity” in today’s Essential Report — the highest level since Essential began asking the question in 2009. That’s up from 56% in November — the biggest jump ever. Belief that “we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the Earth’s climate” is down to 27%, from 32% in November and the lowest level ever. While there’s no ostensible connection between short-term weather outcomes and climate change, a global spike in temperatures in February caused alarm when it was revealed on the weekend by NASA.

Traditionally, Coalition voters tend not to accept climate change, but now belief in climate change has even overtaken scepticism among conservatives, 46%-42%.

The shift in voter sentiment is happening at a bad time for the Turnbull government, which remains wedded to the Abbott government’s climate denialist policies, including its commitment to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s bizarre Emissions Reduction Fund, which hands out huge grants to big polluters for energy efficiency measures they would have taken anyway. Hunt also talks about the government’s 2030 emissions reduction target of 26% on 2005 levels; which equates to only a 19.5% cut on the current base year we use, 2000, and a fraction of the 40-60% reduction on 2000 levels recommended by the Climate Change Authority.

Hunt might believe in climate change, but he is a dedicated denialist on the basic issue of whether his industry handout program can get Australia to even the paltry targets the Abbott government signed up to, let alone the ones required to meaningfully contribute to concerted international action to halt what increasingly looks like runaway climate change.

Absurdly, this morning Hunt was boasting on the ABC of “one of the most comprehensive plans in the world to reduce emissions” — a view no expert, and no one outside the government, holds. Even traditional government supporters like the Australian Industry Group have said that to meet the government’s low targets will cost $100 billion to $250 billion. Hunt this morning repeatedly insisted Australia’s emissions had peaked in 2005-06, despite all evidence to the contrary. In short, when it comes to climate change, everything is hunky-dory and nothing else needs to be done.

Unfortunately for Hunt, voters disagree. Essential also shows a jump in the number of voters who think Australia is failing to do enough on climate change. That’s up four points to 57% since August 2015, while the number of voters who think we’re “doing enough” has fallen from 24% to 21%. And more Coalition voters now think we’re not doing enough (38%) than doing enough (36%) — though 12% think we’re doing “too much”.

This is potentially fruitful territory for Labor, which has already committed to a return to stronger emissions targets, an emissions trading scheme and a much higher “goal” for renewable energy — but said virtually nothing in the way of hard detail. But its relentless narrative is that Turnbull has been a “disappointment” and that he is hamstrung by the far right of his party and by the Nationals under Barnaby Joyce — one of the strongest climate denialists in the Coalition. When Turnbull became Prime Minister there was considerable speculation about how he might navigate the climate action issue to achieve an effective policy that didn’t send the denialists into a frenzy. But since then, the issue has simply dropped off the agenda.

All Turnbull now has is a delusional Environment Minister and a dud policy. Voters clearly want much more. And more voters want it than ever before.

Peter Fray

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