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Thoughts on the Lowy Institute Poll – Global Warming

October 13, 2009

Today in Sydney the Lowy Institute for International Policy released its fifth annual poll.

In the Executive Summary, it states that

Climate change continues to drop as a priority for Australians.  In 2007, Australians ranked tackling climate change as the equal most important foreign policy goal.  This year it ranked 7th out of ten possible goals, down ten points since last year and 19 points since 2007.  Out of 12 possibilities, global warming ranked as the 4th most critical threat facing Australia, but this was down 14 points since last year.

76% of Australians thought that climate change ‘is a problem’

48% of those polled thought that “global warming is a serious and pressing problem.  We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”

while 39% thought that “the problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost”

Of the 76% that think climate change is a problem, 60% think that obtaining a solution has become more urgent, and 57% think that there has been no change in the likelihood of resolving a solution to the problem of climate change.

While climate change therefore obviously remains an important issue for Australians, it should also come as no surprise that it has declined as an issue relative to others.

First, climate change was a defining issue of the 2007 Federal Election – the year in which climate change as an issue ranked so much higher in the poll than the present.  As an issue at that time, it also included of one of the key policy differences between the two main parties, which was indeed a foreign policy issue relating to climate change:  the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.  As such, climate change as an issue was particularly emphasised as a key election message by the ALP, with the associated rise in prominence of the issue in the media.  Once elected, of course, the policy and media emphasis on climate change was somewhat diluted by the multiple tasks of government.

Second, the issue of dealing with climate change domestically has now somewhat entered the realm of the technocratic.  It should not come as any surprise that perhaps some increased ambivalence might result.

Third, all this of course is in the context of a major global financial downturn – enough to make most people retire to their shells and worry about keeping bread on the table.  That economics and security issues might inch up the polls in priority should therefore not come as a great surprise.

 The findings echoe those results from similar polls elsewhere:  the environment is valued, but more so when people are feeling wealthy.  When there isn’t so much wealth to go around, the environment as an issue suffers.  In environmental economics, it is reflected by something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve – but perhaps exacerbated given the certain amount of altruism required to make sacrifices for little immediate short-term benefit.

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