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June 22nd 2009 print

Des Moore

Major changes in views on the environment

Surveys have obvious implications in terms of the all-important US policy position on global warming. Unfortunately, our major political parties seem way behind the ball game in gauging both community attitudes and the fundamental flaws in the science used in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with the results of surveys about attitudes to political, social and economic issues of the day. Even the Australian Statistician undertakes surveys that produce subjective data that has potential implications for government policies.

The state of the environment is a prime survey target as it is now of considerable interest to a high proportion of the community. It is not surprising, then, that last week the Statistician undertook a survey covering environmental views and behaviour. This is the Bureau’s first such survey and I examined it with considerable interest.

That led me to write to the Statistician querying the approach adopted and pointing out the importance of taking the utmost care in surveying present attitudes on the environment. What I had particularly in mind was not only the legislation on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to be debated in the Senate but also the international meeting (in December) in Copenhagen on the mooted global scheme to reduce CO2 emissions.

The attitudes (supposedly) adopted by the Australian public on such issues could have a significant influence on relevant policies adopted by our government and opposition parties. A survey of such attitudes by the normally respected Statistician would assume even greater significance than one by firms involved in the survey business.

The basis of my querying the Statistician is that, while the questions seem largely to fall into the category of having obvious answers, they could be quoted as providing general support for government policies to reduce emissions. The basic survey question was “Are you concerned or not concerned about climate change, water shortage and accumulation of waste”. It was the only question asked relevant to those issues.

Faced with such a question, it would be difficult to imagine a majority “Not concerned” answer. That in fact was the case, with “concern” being expressed by nine out of ten about water shortages, around three-quarters about climate change and nearly seventy per cent about the accumulation of waste.

My letter to the Statistician suggested it would have been more meaningful to adopt the approach of some surveys overseas and attempt to identify a wider range of aspects on which people assess environmental issues For example, in surveying views on global warming, the Gallup poll in the US asks “thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming – [generally exaggerated, generally correct or is it under-estimated]?” Note also that the Gallup survey is about global warming not the meaningless concept of “climate change” used by the Statistician.

The US Gallup poll is of particular interest given the reported “passionate” belief of President Obama that the world faces a serious threat of dangerously high temperatures from increasing emissions and the current consideration by Congress of ETS legislation also. Importantly, the Gallup poll for March recorded a big jump in Americans judging the seriousness of global warming to be exaggerated, up to 41 per cent from 31 in 2005 and 35 last year. Evidently the President’s passion has had little effect so far.

This Gallup polling also produces a rating of seriousness of various environmental issues and, of eight environmental issues (including water supply and water and air pollution), global warming not only ranked last but had fallen by 6 percentage points in extent of concern since last year. Although a general diminution of concern about environmental issues was to be expected given the economic downturn, the continued relatively low ranking for global warming led Gallup to suggest “something unique may be happening with the issue”.

Also of considerable interest is the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. This shows that “Protecting the environment” has dropped from tenth to sixteenth on the priority issues for American voters and global warming was last on the top twenty priority list.

These surveys have obvious implications in terms of the all-important US policy position on global warming– and should also do so for the policy positions of Australia’s political parties too. Unfortunately, our major political parties seem way behind the ball game in gauging both community attitudes and the fundamental flaws in the science used in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Des Moore, formerly Deputy Secretary, Treasury is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise