At the beginning of 2020, Australia’s national conversation was dominated by the catastrophic bushfires raging throughout the country. The fires killed at least 34 people, burned through more than 11 million hectares and destroyed nearly 6000 buildings. In March, the first scientific assessment of the role of climate change found that global warming increased the risk of hot dry weather, raising the risk of bushfires by at least 30%.

Some analysts – myself included – wondered whether the particularly intense bushfire season might present the kind of national crisis that Australia needs to shake it from its climate malaise. The Liberal-National Coalition government found its credibility and authority under challenge as it struggled to craft a coherent and effective response to the fires.  

Australians are more likely to view environmental threats as more critical than “traditional” security issues such as military conflict between great powers and foreign interference in Australian politics.

Then came the novel coronavirus. The federal government’s handling of the pandemic saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison regain his lead as preferred prime minister ahead of Labor leader Anthony Albanese, and the new national and global emergency turned Australia’s attention away from the bushfires.

The 2020 Lowy Poll, which was conducted just as states began going into lockdown, highlights the ways in which environmental issues have been hijacked by Covid-19 and its global economic implications, at least in the short term.

The poll results highlight that environmental threats continue to concern Australians. Three of the top five critical threats to Australia’s vital interests related to the environment, and – consistent with the past five years of Lowy polling – 9 out of 10 participants accepted the need for Australians to act on climate change. At the top of the list of perceived critical threats was drought and water shortages, with 3 of 4 people (77%).

Yet, the coronavirus and other potential epidemics (76%) and a severe downturn in the global economy (71%) were ranked more highly as critical threats than environmental disasters such as bushfires and floods (67%). In the 2019 Lowy Poll, only 51% of respondents saw global economic downturn as a cause for concern, and pandemics did not even feature.

The results again shed light on one of the biggest conundrums for modern Australian governments: how to “act” on climate change without incurring significant costs. Importantly, Covid-19 appears to have played a role here, as the percentage of people who viewed global warming as a serious and pressing problem, and that steps should be taken even if it involves significant costs, fell five points from 2019 to 56% in 2020. While this is still 20 points higher than it was in 2012, what was a favourable trend towards substantial climate action is now in retreat. The numbers of people who want global change addressed gradually increased from 28% to 34%, while people who argue that no economic costs should be born remained stagnant at 10%.  

There is a gap between those worried about environmental security threats and those concerned about climate change specifically. Climate change only ranked the fifth highest (59%) critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, compared with 77% for drought and water shortages – a difference of nearly 20%. This suggests that a segment of the Australian community concerned about environmental security issues do not view climate change as a major contributor to drought, water shortages and environmental disasters such as bushfires and floods. When next summer approaches, bushfires will be back on the minds of people, particularly those who live in susceptible landscapes – although the poll finds only 50% of Australia’s regional and remote population saw global warming as a serious and pressing problem, reflecting a rural/urban divide in political attitudes.

There were also some surprising results regarding climate change action and international reputation. While only 19% of respondents approved of the Trump administration withdrawing the US from international climate change agreements, less than half of respondents saw Australia’s lacklustre climate policies as having an adverse effect on its global reputation. Curiously, a decent proportion considered Australia’s reputation to be positively enhanced by its responses to climate change, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

The prioritisation of Covid-19 as a pressing security issue may be temporary. In mid-April, an Essential Report poll found 45% of surveyed respondents were “very concerned” about Covid-19, which two months later had dropped to only 28%. The silver lining is that Australians are more likely to view environmental threats as more critical than “traditional” security issues such as military conflict between great powers and foreign interference in Australian politics. These public attitudes are not adequately reflected in dominant debates and discussions about Australian security among elite government and defence circles. For example, despite public narratives over the past year highlighting deepening suspicions of the influence of People’s Republic of China in Australia, this has not necessarily resonated with the electorate. The numbers of surveyed participants who viewed “foreign interference in Australian politics” as a critical threat dropped seven points from last year to 42%, considerably lower than “non-traditional” environmental security threats.