The cooling of climate change

As the media have been reporting today, the annual Lowy Institute public opinion survey shows that whatever is happening to the planet, climate change as an issue is cooling.

There were signs of this in an August Morgan poll, but its finding that the proportion of respondents believing that climate concerns were exaggerated had doubled since 2006 was ambiguous. As I suggested at the time, this could be a reaction to the relentless and seemingly hyperbolic predictions of doom over that time, rather than showing any real gains by the sceptics.

One of the Lowy questions does however suggest that the sceptics, while still being a small minority, are gaining ground. The proportion of respondents agreeing with the proposition that until we are sure climate change is a problem we should not take costly actions has nearly doubled, from 7% to 13%.

Despite passionate debates about climate science among activists (please don’t re-run them in comments), this isn’t the main political issue. Rather, that is how much pain the electorate is prepared to suffer to solve a problem that an overwhelming majority (76% in the latest Lowy survey) say is real.

Several Lowy questions suggest that their pain threshold is going down. The proportion agreeing with the proposition that we should start acting now even with significant costs has dropped 20 percentage points since 2006, to 48%. The proportion saying that tackling climate change is a very important foreign policy goal is down 19 percentage points to 56% (this wasn’t a question requiring trade-offs; respondents could nominate all ten issues are ‘very important’ if they wanted to). And the proportion saying that climate change is an ‘critical’ threat to Australia’s national interests over the next ten years is at 52% 16 percentage points lower than in 2006.

What’s driving these changes?

Partly there seem to be altered beliefs about what’s happening. The responses on whether it is a definite problem and whether it is a critical threat seem consistent with that conclusion.

But my main hypothesis is that as we get closer to an ETS, and as more people make the move from thinking about climate change reduction policy as a long-term ‘sounds sensible’ policy to thinking about it as someting that will affect their lives soon, there is a stronger focus on the negatives.

I argued in a series of posts last year that the sacrifices people were prepared to make to reduce carbon emissions were well below what was actually planned (and massively below what the climate change alarmists believe is necessary). These polls and the latest Lowy survey are political signs of what might happen when it comes time to pay for the ETS.

63 thoughts on “The cooling of climate change

  1. Mel — if you think my point is so obviously correct, then you shouldn’t have disagreed with it in the first place. There are people out there who believe that AGW will make us poorer than now. They are wrong. Thanks for agreeing. As for the relative costs of AGW & AGW policy, that’s an open debate… though the weight of evidence I’ve seen suggests that AGW policy will end up more costly (unless done perfectly… cough cough).

    My view on the long term viability of comparative polities needs more space than here. But I think “social democracy” (as we have today) is one of the best systems possible. I can only think of many worse systems, and only two better.

    Tim — yes. I think the costs of both AGW & AGW policy are being over-blown. Fear works in politics. Some on the left (including yourself) are ramping up the fear about AGW well beyond the position of mainstream science & economics. And some on the right are ramping up the fear about AGW policy well beyond the position of mainstream economics.

    I think many people on both sides know that they are over-cooking the fear… and while the may not personally be saying the worst exaggerations, they are happy to let an exaggerated fear permeate the political debate.

    The current ETS is dumb, a bit costly and pointless. But it’s not a disaster. A revenue-neutral carbon tax would be less dumb & less costly.

    Now a question for you — do you think that anybody who disagrees with any part of the IPCC report is outside the mainstream? And does that include people involved in the IPCC process?

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  2. John: The problem with a carbon tax is that it invokes fear in those who make the decisions. Howard came close to losing when he put forward a tax that most of treasury and most economists thought was a good idea and that Keating had tried to get up.

    How would you go at an election if you said ‘vote for me and you get a new tax’ and then skeptics ran a scare campaign based on the damage that a tax would do.

    As you say, fear works.

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  3. John H,

    I NEVER disagreed with the proposition in the first place. “We” (comfy white folk) will most likely be fine come what may but this is unlikely for the poor brown and black folk in poorer countries. For them it is reasonably likely that an inability to adapt will result in death and suffering on a grand scale.

    “I think the costs of both AGW & AGW policy are being over-blown. ”

    It doesn’t matter what you or I think. What matters is the evidence, and the weight of the available is as per Goodstein as I explained above.

    Also note how CO2 related ocean acidification isn’t factored into AGW costings:

    “More than 150 leading marine scientists from 26 countries are calling for immediate action by policy-makers to sharply reduce CO2 emissions so as to avoid widespread and severe damage to marine ecosystems from ocean acidification.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090201124553.htm

    The collapse of marine ecosystems would hit hardest poor countries that rely on the ocean for food and exports.

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  4. There are 2 reasons why public belief in AGW seems to have started waning.

    Firstly; there has been no upward trend in temperature over the past decade, despite ever increasing atmospheric CO2 and emissions. This Inconvenient Truth is becoming more widely known.
    Secondly; advertising campaigns can become so ubiquitious and hyperbolic that they start actually having a negative effect, not just a diminishing marginal effect.

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  5. Mel — the “poor brown and black folk” will also be better off in the future. The most important thing for them is economic growth, not stopping climate change. Strangely, I don’t hear the green-left getting worried about economic growth, and thinking of ways to increase it. The weight of economic evidence is that AGW policy is likely to have more costs than benefits.

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  6. Pedro… I agree with your analysis of why a tax option hasn’t been taken. But I think a reasonable case can be made. First, nearly every economist will come out and say a tax is more efficient. Second, link it to income tax cuts. Third, point out that the ETS is just like a tax anyway, but worse.

    I can’t see what the Liberal party has to lose. Their vote can’t go lower. A carbon tax (mixed with income tax cuts) would let them “out-economy” the ALP, and also potentially “out-green” them. And if it was Liberal policy, the main opposition wouldn’t be coming from skeptics… but from AGW fear-mongers.

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  7. Monthly, since James Lovelock on Jan. 16 2006 stated that, as the result of the increase of CO2 by the end of this century, the increase of temperature would be 8 degrees C in temperate zones and 5 degrees C in tropical zones such that the only habitable ares for humans will be north of the Artic Circle, I have googled a request for a critique of that prognosis and have yet to read a critique of that dire predicion anywhere. Everyone else seems to go off on their own tangents. Bruce MacGibbon

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