Australia’s richest think-tank, The Climate Institute, has been carefully following the model set by board member Clive Hamilton’s The Australia Institute. It feeds the media’s love of public opinion surveys, even targeting the current election media frenzy with polling in marginal seats on climate change. It produces attention-grabbing semi-gimmick research, like their latest report which calculates superannuation costs if action on climate change is delayed (a male of my age will be $1,165.46 a year worse off in retirement, it says with all the spurious precision of economic modelling). Despite Clive’s strict insistence on leisure, both his think-tanks take advantage of slow news weekends to release reports on Sundays.
Yet despite all this the Climate Institute’s profile seems modest. The superannuation report had a bit of media coverage, but nothing like the masses of publicity the Australia Institute can often pull, particularly in the Fairfax papers and on the ABC. The Climate Institute is a new think-tank, of course, and it will take time to build a reputation. But I doubt it will ever do as well as The Australia Institute.
The basic problem is summed up in its statement of purpose:
Established in late 2005, The Climate Institute has a five-year goal of raising public awareness and debate about the dangers to Australia of global warming and to motivate the country to take positive action.
Raising public awareness is something I believe think-tanks are well-established to do. They are free of the constituency constraints of interest groups and political parties, and can mix academic credibility with marketing and media skills to get messages across.
The difficulty for The Climate Institute, however, was that the public awareness had already been achieved by the time they started. One of their own reports (big pdf) shows that by 2005 about 70% of people were convinced of climate change and the need to act. This proposition is effectively now orthoxody. It has even attracted heretic hunters determined to suppress dissent.
The debate has now entered a far more complex phase of trying to turn orthodox ideas into policies and practices. As I have argued before, it is far from clear that the public is prepared to accept the sacrifices and compromises needed to reduce greenhouse emissions. The recent Lowy Institute survey found that by far the most popular solutions were wind, solar and geothermal energy, at best all conveniently well into the future as viable large-scale alternatives to coal (though the question did ask the respondents to look ahead over the next 25 years), over existing but controversial technology like nuclear power.
Think-tanks do of course suggest detailed policies, but overall this is probably not their greatest strength in the issue cycle. Getting people to sign up to compromises and trade-offs is where interest groups and political parties can be effective, in using their authority and influence to get their constituencies to sign up to things to which they are unlikely to agree via intellectual persuasion alone.