In April 2011, not long after Julia Gillard was returned to power in the 2010 federal election, I asked a representative sample of Australians about their attitudes to climate policy.
Climate was a water-cooler issue at the time. The carbon tax legislation had been introduced into Parliament in March, paving the way for a subsequent emissions trading scheme.
That scheme bit the dust in 2014 after becoming a hotly debated issue during the rancorous 2013 election campaign, but carbon policy has not had the same high profile during the current campaign. My colleagues and I decided to repeat our survey and see whether attitudes really have cooled on global warming.
Despite climate policy being something of a sleeper issue in this election, our results suggest that concern about the climate is more widespread now than it was five years ago.
We found that 75% of people surveyed believe it to be an important global issue, and 74% see climate as an important issue for Australia.
As to what we should do about it, we found that 57% of people want Australia to act on climate change irrespective of whether other countries do or not. This is significantly more than in 2011, when 50% of people were in this category.
A further 28% in our new survey think that action should be taken only if there were concerted international policy action, whereas just 15% would prefer that Australia take no action at all. When asked why they did not want to proceed, 34% of them stated that they only wanted to proceed if global action was taken.
These are fairly clear indicators that Australians are not complacent about the need for climate action.
What policies do voters want?
Both of the major political parties have committed to emissions targets: the Liberals have a target of a 26-28% reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030, whereas Labor has pledged a 45% cut over the same time frame. Both are modest in comparison with the Climate Change Authority’s recommended cut of 40-60% by 2030 relative to 2000 levels.
As for the policies needed to meet these targets, Labor has proposed an emissions trading scheme, but some details are still vague. The Liberal Party is persisting with its Direct Action plan to “auction” emissions reduction projects to the cheapest corporate bidders.
Our survey, however, suggests that many voters’ preferred policy is a mixture, potentially including a carbon tax, an emissions trading scheme and other direct action policies. Some 40% of respondents preferred this policy mix, up from 31% in 2011. Support for carbon taxation or emissions trading as standalone policies both fell relative to five years ago.
When divided according to voting intentions, all groups preferred a policy mix to any of the other choices. This preference was strongest for “unsure voters”, who made up nearly a quarter of our respondents. For Labor and Greens voters, the most favoured second-choice option was a carbon tax, while no single policy (not even Direct Action) came a close second among Liberal voters.
The numbers get even more intriguing when we split them by gender, age and income. We found that 82% of females see the issue of climate change as important at a global level, and the same proportion described it as important at a local level; this was 15 and 16 percentage points, respectively, greater than among their male counterparts. There was a similar 15-point gender difference in the desire to proceed on climate policy irrespective of global action.
This desire for climate policy irrespective of global action was the dominant view in every age group, although we found that it declined among older groups. The 55-59 age group was the weakest in its support for climate action and the most likely (at 36%) to select “no policy” as the desired climate response.
In our 2011 study, higher incomes were associated with less desire for climate policy. This was replicated in 2016, as can be seen in the graph below – note the significant increase in support for “no climate action” among those with salaries over A$110,000.
As these stats show, concern about climate change is relatively steady until we get to the highest income bracket, where it drops off significantly. There are several potential explanations, including the suggestion that those with higher incomes will be less adversely affected by climate change because they can afford to ameliorate its impacts.
But if there is a take-home message for politicians in these numbers, I would suggest it is this: even in those groups with the lowest levels of climate concern, a majority is still worried about the issue and wants to see action.
Perhaps, in the midst of the longest election campaign since the 1960s, it might be worth finding a bit more time to acknowledge that.