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What sort of climate policy do Australians want?

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20 October 2008 14:36

It can sometimes be hard to interpret Australian attitudes towards climate change. Lowy Institute polling over the years suggested most Australians are very concerned about it and want action. The ALP seemed to tap into this sentiment in the lead up to last year’s election when it portrayed itself as more serious about climate issues than the Coalition. Against that backdrop it was a little surprising to see the reaction to a recent spike in petrol prices: public uproar and politicians debating the pros and cons of a few cents per litre price cuts.

With the ongoing onslaught of the credit crisis the task of developing responsible climate policy seems to have been even further complicated. The 2008 Lowy Poll, released a couple of weeks ago, suggests support for taking immediate action to address global warming has softened since 2006 while economic concerns have increased. 

Support for the most activist response — 'global warming is a serious and pressing problem; we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs' — was down from 68% in 2006 to 60% this year. And when Australians were asked to rank a list of ten foreign policy goals the goal of tackling climate change slipped from equal first place last year to equal fifth this year. In its place economic concerns crept up the list. As for addressing the problem by paying extra on their electricity bill, 53% of Australians didn’t want to pay more than $10 extra a month or, by the ubiquitous caffeine gauge, less than a coffee a week.

These results don’t mean Australians think the problem has gone away. Only 4%, for example, said ratification of the Kyoto Protocol had gone a long way to solving the problem of climate change. The majority (64%) said ratification has not solved the problem but was a step in the right direction.

Climate change is also seen as a major threat: three of the four top ranked threats to Australia were climate change-related. And as we saw when it comes to options for taking action, a majority (60%) still chose the most activist approach.

Against this background, it’s interesting to speculate what kind of climate policy Australians expect the government to deliver. Clearly they are deeply concerned about climate change and a majority want to see immediate action to start addressing the problem. So would they accept a modest policy that doesn’t seriously try to reduce emissions? Given the strength of feeling on the issue, it would seem unlikely that a modest approach would meet expectations, or do much to boost confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the issue. A half-way policy would also be tough to tout at the next election.

That seems to leave the government with the option of taking a more aggressive response, but as this can easily be maligned as threatening jobs and hitting working families (especially during a global economic crisis) the government would have to balance the positives of taking a leadership role on climate change versus any backlash from economic concerns.

So, are we just left with Ross Garnaut’s diabolical policy dilemma? Well, not according to Greg Clark the UK Conservative spokesman on climate change. In response to the British Government’s announcement it was raising its long-term emissions target to 80% of 1990 levels he put it nicely: 'The choice between aggressive and ambitious action on carbon reduction and a successful, powerful economy is, in fact, not a choice at all — they are one and the same.'

Ed. note: This post first appeared on Crikey.com.au's new environment blog, Rooted.

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