Canberra, take note: climate change is what terrifies us
- Canberra, take note: climate change is what terrifies us
Peter Hartcher Political Editor
October 3, 2006
THIS year's Lowy Institute poll reveals Australian concern over
global warming to be the big "sleeper" issue of national affairs, a
problem that worries Australians more than Islamic fundamentalism.
Australian public convictions on climate change have crept up on our
political leaders and have now overtaken them. The political party
that can best respond will harness a powerful force.
As the institute's executive director, Allan Gyngell, observes, "this
has become mainstream; it's no longer just an issue for Greens and
people dressed up in koala suits".
The annual Lowy Institute poll exposes three clear Australian
conclusions about climate change. There is no ambiguity or hesitation
on this issue any longer, with the "don't know" responses down to an
unusually low 1 per cent.
First, this is a very big issue: 68 per cent of respondents rate it
as a "critical threat" to Australia's vital interests over the next
This puts it in the top three perceived threats to the country, with
international terrorism at 73 per cent and the danger of hostile
nations acquiring nuclear weapons at 70 per cent, and ahead of
Islamic fundamentalism, at 60 per cent, and competition from low-wage
countries at 34 per cent.
Second, doubt about whether or not global warming is "real" has been
virtually eliminated in the public mind. Only 7 per cent of
respondents want to wait "until we are sure" before taking action to
deal with the problem, even if that action entails costs.
The third and most powerful finding is that Australians are already
braced for the idea that there will be costs involved in finding
Of the three available answers, 68 per cent of respondents chose the
most emphatic and urgent option presented by the pollsters: "Global
warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking
steps now, even if this involves significant costs."
This does not tell us if Australians are prepared to make personal
sacrifices. It does not tell us if we would accept a carbon tax and,
therefore, more expensive power generation.
It does not tell us if, conversely, we will accept costs only if
someone else pays them.
What the poll does tell us, as Gyngell says, is that "people have
moved beyond the rhetorical concern and understand that addressing
this will involve a cost".
This is new information in the evolving Australian grasp of the
issue. It puts public opinion ahead of Howard Government policy,
which has only just conceded that the phenomenon is real and has yet
to admit that the solution may involve any cost.
Otherwise, the Lowy poll confirms that the pre-existing paradox of
Australian attitudes to the world remains in place.
That is, Australians are very suspicious of our only strategically
significant near neighbour, Indonesia, yet we are also very wary of
the country which we would expect to help us in the event of any
conflict, the United States. We trust neither our neighbour nor our
But we have decided we know one thing for sure: the big new threat is
global warming and we are prepared to pay a price to deal with it.