Published by ABC’s The Drum.
As climate change advocates start yet another busy year fighting for national climate legislation, new Essential Research polling reveals that the issue is still a low priority for the electorate.
The poor polling performance not only complicates things for those who support measures that address the climate crisis, but also for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has staked her leadership on implementing a carbon price in the next term of government.
A meagre 10 per cent identify climate change as a top tier concern in the first public polling of 2011 to canvass voter priorities. At a time when climate change should be a high priority for Australians, concern for the issue has dropped six points in 12 months and is ranked a woeful tenth out of 13 issues.* Both the Gillard government and the climate movement will want to turn the poor polling around.
The temptation of some climate activists will be to ramp-up the apocalyptic rhetoric, however this tactic risks alienating the public further. Research published by the University of California Berkeley last December argued that “Dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply-held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just” (PDF). In other words, it’s easier for the public to switch off than to engage with climate change when it is presented as an insurmountable problem.
So what’s the alternative? How do we avoid this trap while achieving good outcomes for climate change and renewable energy?
Climate change’s recent poor polling results coupled with the limits of alarmist discourse demonstrates the need to rethink climate change policy. It is ill suited to the typical policy approach. Rather than attempting to rouse the public’s concern about the issue and follow it with a public policy response, advocates must look at advancing policies that both work with the public’s concerns while simultaneously delivering good outcomes for our climate.
Those concerned about our changing climate can reorient their policy recommendations to appeal to voter concerns. Of the top five priorities, ‘managing the economy’ (65 per cent) and ‘Australian jobs and protection of local industries’ (30 per cent) can be aligned with effective climate and energy policies.
The Labor government and climate advocates should reverse the current hierarchy between carbon pricing and investment-centred industry/jobs policy. They can start framing climate change policy as an opportunity for our economy, for industry and for job creation. Some might argue that this approach is ‘spin’, but it isn’t. In fact, merging climate and clean technology policy with economic, jobs and industry policy can deliver guaranteed emissions reductions. Such a focus can set Australia up for decarbonising its economy and lay the groundwork for complementary carbon-pricing measures.
Beyond Zero Emissions Executive Director Matthew Wright successfully demonstrates this approach when making the case for transforming Australia’s automotive sector for electric vehicle production and consumption. Wright recommends a suite of measures that are good for our economy, jobs, and industry. And without mentioning climate change, he recommends initiatives that would lead to significant emissions reductions.
Wright’s argument isn’t the norm. Typically, whenever climate change is packaged as an economic challenge it is argued that the impacts of investing in mitigation efforts will slow GDP growth, and that it’s cheaper to deal with the challenge sooner rather than later. While policy proposals within this framework – namely emissions trading – are presented as ‘economically efficient’, they are a tough political sell. Tony Abbott’s swift demolition of Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme demonstrates just how fragile emissions trading policies are in the political arena.
In contrast, the three-pronged framework of economy-, industry- and jobs-focused climate policies can win the hearts and minds of Australians. Remember, it was Labor who combined these interests in its successful anti-WorkChoices campaign in the lead-up to the 2007 election. It turned an alliance with the unions into a powerful landslide election victory. In a recent speech, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet acknowledged Labor’s proud heritage of industry development that accompanied its economic reform agenda in the 1980s. The Gillard government can achieve progress, but it must broaden its climate agenda to align political interests with good policy outcomes.
The greenhouse mafia, Abbott-aligned Coalition MPs and Ferguson-aligned Labor MPs might argue against public investment in industry development. But by doing so they will position themselves as opposing job creation, new cleantech industries and infrastructure that is critically important for Australia’s future. These status quo forces will find that they will have a tough time arguing against nation-building investments. Indeed, this has been the case with the Labor Government’s National Broadband Network that enjoys popular support in the electorate.
It’s politically easier to achieve action on measures that increase the competitiveness of Australian jobs and industry than it is on climate change and carbon pricing. It remains to be seen whether other leaders in the climate change movement will follow Wright’s lead. My feeing is that if they did, Australia would be heading towards a sustainable and prosperous clean energy economy sooner rather than later.
* One should note that Essential Research do not poll voter concern about pollution—most likely due to the fact that it is mentioned with such low frequency that it’s not worth measuring. Notwithstanding the definitional problems of presenting carbon emissions as a pollutant, the absence of the issue in public polling brings into question the wisdom of communicating climate change as a pollution problem.