Have Australians stopped caring about climate change?

The latest annual poll by the Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute, suggests a dramatic fall in concern about climate change. It’s usually a good rule that the more interesting a poll, is the less likely it is to be a good representation of public opinion, and the new Lowry poll has indeed been challenged.

But while some of the criticisms of the poll seem fair, I suggest that dismissing it would be a mistake.

At the heart of the debate is data that appear to suggest that Australians’ concern about climate change has plummeted in recent years. The same question has been used in the annual polls for several years, allowing a comparison of attitudes over time.

The resulting chart is this:

Which immediately suggests a dramatic fall in concern about climate change: from nearly 7 in 10 wanting action even at significant cost in 2006, to only 4 in 10 saying the same now.

The main challenge to the data has been on the basis of the structure of the question. Joseph Reser at Griffith University, has argued both that the length of the questions is a problem, and that the answer choices “contain multiple and emotional button-pressing matters and language”.

The result, he argues, is that the poll fails to measure the public’s understanding or perceptions of risk in an issue as complex as climate change. Significantly, it also appears to show a lower level of concern than is identified in other polls that individually examine different aspects of attitudes to the issue.

All of this seems fair. The question wording is indeed long, and it does contain some emotive language. But I don’t think that makes the result any less interesting or important.

It’s crucial to note that the question was asked in the same way every year: while the question contains some emotive language, that hasn’t changed. Five years ago, a great majority were prepared to see significant costs to tackle climate change; now it’s a minority.

The results may reflect what we’ve seen in other polls: that questions about climate change are increasingly being treated as political identifiers. We saw that even 62% of those in the UK who claimed to think climate change was not yet proven were still pleased to see action taken to tackle it.

So there are those who, on careful reflection and with the right questioning, will say that climate change is a problem; but they will at other times say that it’s a socialist conspiracy and they’ll have no part in tackling it.

This may explain why a poll like this shows results that are so different to those from polls that take more time to ask about climate change in detail. But it’s also why I wouldn’t dismiss its findings.

Most of the time, most of us behave according to our general, top-of-mind opinions about people and issues, however far these may contradict our rational views. We don’t think about the issues most of the time, so it’s not a problem. Many people spend money on things they know they don’t really need, even though they might agree, when pushed, that there are better uses for their money.

Likewise with climate change. If asked to think carefully, most people would say it’s a problem, and then that it requires serious attention. But most of the time, most people think about it in the way it’s usually framed. This is increasingly as a battleground between extremist factions, with politicians using it as an excuse to raise taxes.

This growing view is what the new poll seems to capture, with important consequences for the political debate about climate change.

(HT: Alice Bell)


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