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. Andrew… yep, you probably got it right when you people are “moving on”… because Rudd and company are successfully selling their actions as decisive. (I’ll give Turnbull full marks for staying consistently concerned!)

    But there is the more general question: What factors make public opinion go one way, while the near-universal opinion of experts in the field goes the other? (And it doesn’t matter whether you are talking changed estimates to threat from climate change, changing condom usage, or even the desire for lower interest rates)

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  2. Dave – The common factor in the examples you give is personal advantage, though perhaps the more interesting public opinion fact is that most people are prepared to sacrifice something on the climate change issue, even though our ETS will in itself lead to gains that are somewhere between non-existent and negligible for most Australians without the major polluters cooperating.

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  3. Rajat – There is a discussion of the nuclear issue at Pollytics blog. I haven’t analysed this issue carefully yet, but there is an obvious potential question wording issue in the poll reported today:

    “The introduction of nuclear power has been suggested as one means to address climate change. Do you support or oppose the Federal Government considering the introduction of nuclear power in Australia?”

    Emphasis added. It’s easier to support considering something than doing something.

    I’m not sure that the logic entirely works the way you suggest either. If people are less concerned about climate change, it reduces the need for any mitigation options, including nuclear.

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  4. But if the falling pain threshold effect dominates the falling concern over global warming effect, one could expect to see a net increase in support for nuclear.

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  5. Exageration of the effects and suspicion of environmental scientists makes people wonder. The Grauniad ran a piece suggesting that climate change causes earthquakes recently.

    Even some AGW believer scientists are on record about the risks of overstatement. Mick Hulme is one.

    There are quite a few areas where experts agree that the risks are neglible but public opinion goes the other way. There is near universal agreement by geneticists that GMOs pose no health risks. Yet Greenpeace raises lots of money out of scaring people. When will Larvetus Prodeo come out in favour of the scientific consensus on GMOs?

    In health sciences people happily go to Naturapaths, Kinesiologists and umpteen other types of nonsensical therapists and spend billions on ‘treatments’.

    The other point you (Andrew) make about negligible effects without international cooperation is also important. China is the world’s largest emitter. Their emissions growth is slightly lower than their economic growth, i.e 5-6% per year. At that rate China’s increase every year is greater than Australia’s total emissions. Within 3-4 years it is bigger than a 15% cut by the US. The Chinese have said they will decrease their Greenhouse Gas emissions intensity per unit of GDP. But that means that they just promise to get richer faster than raising emissions. The Indians have said no limits for them up to 2020.

    Climate change is being sold in an interesting way too, when people say it will only cost 1-2% of global GDP few go on to say that is 500Bn to 1 trillion dollars globally. What politician has said it will cost 10-20 Bn per year?

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  6. Andrew, you’d give a a more convincing impression of detached neutrality if you used a term other than “sceptics” for those who reject mainstream science on this issue and a term other than “alarmists” for those who accept it.

    I understand that you are taking the postmodernist line now dominant on the right that there are multiple truths on matters of this kind. But your choice of labels indicates your allegiance to the “truth” preferred by your own tribe.

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  7. John – While I think, based on the weight of expert opinon, that the ‘alarmist’ perspective is likely to be closer to the truth, there are some cases where I found the style of people I think have right conclusions so irritating that I take them much less seriously than they take themselves. The vigilante pursuit of ‘denialists’, down to this kind of reading-between-the-lines attack, is not a healthy development in public debate, and on the evidence of the Lowy poll possibly even a counter-productive strategy. That’s the trouble when people self-righteously believe they are right: they often end up denouncing people they disagree with, rather than trying to persuade them.

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  8. Andrew, you continue to treat this as an issue to be addressed in terms of rhetoric. Either mainstream science is correct or it is not, and the fact that some supporters of mainstream science push your cultural hot buttons should be neither here nor there. But, for the right, this issue is not one of fact but a front in the culture wars.

    But even if I was willing to play down the truth in the interests of persuasion, I don’t thinki it would work. I spent quite a few years trying reasoned argument on sceptics and will still do it in the rare cases where I think someone is genuinely trying to discern the truth. But for the vast majority of participants in public debate on the “sceptic” side, this is not the case. They have taken a position on cultural/tribal grounds, that position is continually reinforced by their parallel universe of quasi-scientists, thinktanks and so on, and they uncritically accept any talking point that supports their side.

    Looking at the Lowy Institute data, the explanation that strikes me is that the Liberal party has switched sides again (despite Turnbull’s attempts to hold the line), and some of its supporters have followed.

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  9. John – Science isn’t about rhetoric, but politics is to a significant extent. I’ve never given the science more than a passing reference because I don’t have the expertise to add anything useful, while I do know a reasonable amount about public opinion. As in this post, I have tried to discuss it without expressing views on the science, both because it is not relevant to the point I want to make, and because I know mentioning it will cause my comments thread to be hijacked into yet another repeat of arguments we’ve heard hundreds of times before.

    While I expect Liberal supporters would be more open to both science and policy scepticism, in the relevant time period the Liberal Party leadership has gone from a science and policy sceptic (Howard) to someone who is a policy sceptic only (Turnbull). This poll was also taken in July, before the recent flare up.

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  10. If we accept that most people don’t have a hope of understanding the science, it really boils down to a trust issue. Do you trust what most scientists say? Or do you trust the politicians, academics and commentators who support and assert a position? Does self interest make you more likely to believe what is convenient for you?

    The trouble with assessing political parties stances on climate change is that they have strong vested interests in advocating an interpretation that reinforces their existing predisposition.

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  11. Thanks Johno. Given what I’ve seen from you, I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t appal you.

    Andrew, the obvious political issue is that any gain in ground by the “sceptics” is likely to encourage the rejectionists in the Liberal Party (they already have the Nationals) to take a stand that will prove electorally suicidal.

    On a more general point, it seems to me as I’ve been reading pundits noting a decline in concern about environmental issues ever since the 1970s. I’d suggest the best interpretation is fluctuation about a long-term rising trend.

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  12. One explanation for the change in polling results which I haven’t yet seen discussedin the commentary is that some voters may have downgraded their concern because the government appears to be “doing something about it” in the form of the ETS policy. Anecdotally, I’ve heard some people express this view.

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  13. I think it’s worthwhile drawing a distinction between the mainstream scientific position, and the alarmist fringe. The mainstream position is not particularly scary. The alarmist position has as much credibility as the extreme denialist position.

    Don’t let the extremists like Quiggin or Bird get in the way of the sensible middle.

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  14. Tim – If the questions had been of the ‘tell us which issues you think the government should be doing something about’ variety I think that explanation would be persuasive. The economy almost disappeard from the results of such surveys during the boom, for example. But to downgrade it as a foreign affairs goal just before a vital international conference? That the government is acting is an explanation, but the concern is that it will be too personally costly.

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  15. If Quiggin just promoted mainstream science, I would not think of him as an extremist. But he creates a false dichotomy between two extremes and when he shows “delusionists” to be wrong he assumes the other extreme must be right.

    The CIS hasn’t taken a position on climate change science, and has limited itself to discussing the policy “tax v trading” debate.

    Speaking for myself, given current evidence I think humans are contributing to climate change. Most people, skeptical & mainstream, accept this.

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  16. “when he shows “delusionists” to be wrong he assumes the other extreme must be right.”

    On the contrary, I’ve taken a sceptical view of the claim that Hansen’s projections of long-term climate damage justify a radical shift away from the current mainstream policy position.

    http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2009/09/05/hansen-on-climate-change-over-centuries/

    Your position only makes sense if by “extreme” you mean, in scientific terms, the consensus position represented by the IPCC, and in policy terms, the stated goals of most governments, including the last two Australian governments.

    Where I have been extreme is in not extending a charitable assumption of good faith to the arguments of people like Milloy, Singer, Seitz and others from the tobacco/Exxon/rightwing noise machine. It’s this, and not my position on the issues that annoys you, I think.

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  17. The CIS promotes greenhouse denial and delay, most recently with Pat Michaels at their Big Ideas Forum. The CIS has never published anything that accepts the mainstream science position. (See the IPCC reports if you are unfamiliar with what that is.)

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  18. JQ — Perhaps. You have been quite rude, which has stopped me from reading your blog, and so I’m sure I’ve missed lots of nuance in your position. I don’t consider the IPCC summary to be extreme. You are quite right to dismiss the extremist denialism, but your silence about extremist alarmism and constant mockery of anybody who disagrees with you (including reasonable skeptics) seems to imply an alarmist bent.

    TL — Michaels is not a denialist, and you know this. I don’t believe you are interested in honest debate.

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  19. Pat Michaels continually downplays the significance of AGW and the efficacy of measures to mitigate AGW.

    Michaels has a history of taking extreme positions well outside the scientific mainstream, for example he argued against the Montreal Protocol because he believed CFCs were no threat to the ozone layer.

    Humphreys, old boy, you forfeited any right to be taken seriously when you said the US Govt caused the GFC in large part because it ought to have known the American Fed should have been run by a coven of Austrians rather than mainstream free market economists trained in mainstream free market universities.

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  20. I take it that John Quiggin is a strong support of GM crops then. Him being so keen on mainstream science and all.

    I seem to remember eugenics was pretty mainstream science for a while too. So was phlogiston. There was a period when plate tectonics was way outside the mainstream. And so on.

    Does economics count as a science? If so, does JQ support all aspects of mainstream economics?

    Mainstream science does have some presumption of reliability, of course. It is just not a talisman of perfection.

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  21. Michael – Yes, there is evidence for the environment dipping in the early 1990s recession in both the AES (forced choice) and Newspoll (no forced choice) issue importance surveys.

    The question in my mind, relevant to my theories about the tax and spend cycle, is whether we really had much of a recession this time, psychologically speaking.

    In this survey, economic optimism for the next 5 years was running at 86% of respondents, which covers the period when an ETS will start to seriously bite.

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  22. “I take it that John Quiggin is a strong support of GM crops then. Him being so keen on mainstream science and all.”

    He can speak for himself, of course, but search the archives of his blog and you will find that he does.

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  23. Andrew:

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to moderate Tim Lambert (USNW) as he seems extremely “emotionalized” about you and the CIS.

    Other sites have begun to moderate him in the same way they moderate or ban Bird from commenting there.

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  24. “I take it that John Quiggin is a strong support of GM crops then. Him being so keen on mainstream science and all.”

    As SOTR points out, I have written quite a few times on this. To save Michael the trouble of searching the archives, here’s the best link

    http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2007/11/28/gm-canola/

    It’s true as Michael implies that you can find cases where the left has not accepted the results of mainstream science, though much more rarely these days than in the past. But that doesn’t, as he seems to suggest, justify the wholesale repudiation of science by the right on a wide range of issues (not just AGW, but the DDT ban myth, the ozone layer, passive smoking, Milloy-style attacks on epidemiology, claims about stem cells, the breast cancer abortion-flap, and of course, in the US and some Australian circles such as Quadrant, creationism).

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  25. Mel — the position of Pat Michaels is not denialism. You say he “downplays” the problem, he (and I) think others over-play the problem. That is where the sensible debate is at the moment.

    JQ — the DDT issue (let’s not get caught up on semantics about an official “ban”) was and is quite real. I’m not sure what has been said about passive smoking in the past, but it is certainly true that some people have over-played the danger. I doubt you’ll find many people questioning the science on these issue… but rather (like with AGW) they are questioning the way the issue comes through in popular media with exaggerated hype.

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  26. Odd. Humphreys labels Quiggin as an extremist even though Quiggin accepts the IPCC position. Pat Michaels rejects the IPCC position and claims that Kyoto would destroy the US economy, but somehow avoids getting labelled as extremist by Humphreys.

    I criticize alarmists on both sides.

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  27. Tim says:

    I criticize alarmists on both sides.

    Tim you know that to be entirely untrue. You don’t “criticize alarmists on both sides”. You have criticized one, James Lovelock in all the years of Deltoid. And you criticized him because it was safe for you to do so, seeing James Annan did so before you. Lovelock’s position was also worth criticizing by someone with your views (on the need to take action on AGW) because Locklock’s position was one of…

    ” nothing we will do can change the fact that we’ve hit the tipping point”.

    Lovelock’s position would be diametrically opposite to your desire to see action on the AGW front as Lovelock’s doesn’t think anything will change things.

    So sorry that’s a Clayton’s claim that just won’t carry the hunt.

    if you were indeed honest in making this astonishing claim you would be linking to some alarmist that does in fact want action, however the Deltoid cupboard for that would be indeed bare, right?

    This also reminds me of the other jawdropping position you have claimed recently in that you said you have been favorably disposed towards nuclear energy since the late 80’s (after Barry B has come out strongly and courageously in favor). You supported that with some link to a usenet discussion you participated in at the time.

    This of course is totally different to a discussion you and I had only last year when i finally got out you, your preference for alternative source to coal energy.

    Your reply… ” wind power.”

    You certainly haven’t been what i would call courageous in your stands and the Locklock criticism (which was really Annan’s anyway) all along is a another howler.

    If you want I’ll try and dig up the “wind power” comment out of Catallaxy which you made before you were moderated out of there.

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  28. “Mel — the position of Pat Michaels is not denialism. ”

    Pat Michaels’ rhetoric changes with the prevailing winds but the upshot is always the same: it doesn’t matter and nothing should be done. This places him well outside the mainstream tent and thus his position can only be described as extreme.

    John H, may I suggest you read a good book on the history of scientific discovery, like Gribbins “Science: A History”. If you take my advice you will see the same theme occur with monotonous regularity, that being scientific breakthroughs are made by the young (under 30) and they are opposed by the old. I’ll revisit my view that AGW is “more likely than not” a serious issue when and if the best and brightest climate scientists under the age of 30 start to question the theory. But while almost all the denialists are over the age of 60 and either retired or semi-retired I’ll continue to assume what we are witnessing today is the same old historical pattern repeating itself.

    And John, old boy, I can’t help but notice the irony of libertarians, the supposed progressive young men of the right, almost invariably supporting the grumpy old men of reaction against the best and brightest young scientific minds.

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  29. Mel:

    Your middle sentence is a perfectly reasonable position to have by the way. I’m not sure that it’s entirely true that the younger a better but I’ll take your word for it.

    However it’s a lot different to people like James Hansen saying things like… to paraphrase ” denialists ought to be charged with crimes against humanity” and other assorted crap.

    I’m even not entirely sure that you would completely disagree with say Lomborg’s positions and his skepticism about our current actions.

    Look at how a decent scientist treated Ian Plimer’s book. Barry Brook didn’t demonize him, didn’t try to make fun of him, he simply went for what he thought was wrong with the contents of the book. In other words he treated the person decently and criticized his book. Now compare and contrast that with say… errr you know who and he isn’t even a scientist like Barry.

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  30. It doesn’t make sense to talk of “accepting the IPCC position”. There are many scenarios, and there are many issues covered.

    Anybody who endorses the idea that we’re facing a catastrophe, or that we’re going to get poorer because of AGW, is an extremist in the same category as Bird.

    I’ve asked Lambert several times if he endorses those views (frequently made in comments on his blog) but as far as I know he hasn’t given a clear answer.

    Mel — the only reason to call Pat Michaels extreme is to avoid honest debate.

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  31. “Mel — the only reason to call Pat Michaels extreme is to avoid honest debate.”

    John H, Pat Michaels’ position is seen as extreme by his mainstream peers. Who am I to disagree?

    Just for the record, I also think the small numbers of geneticists who want to ban all GMOs are extreme and I think the same about the small number of biologists etc who think intelligent design is a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory.

    As you can see, I apply the exact same set of heuristics in each and every case. Conversely you pick and choose what science to believe based on your ideological preferences and that, dear sir, is a most unprincipled method of adjudicating the truth.

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  32. “Anybody who endorses the idea that we’re facing a catastrophe, or that we’re going to get poorer because of AGW, is an extremist in the same category as Bird”
    .
    Perhaps you should ask someone in, say, Bangladesh that question (or perhaps all the people that worry about tiddly numbers of boat people). Personally, all one has to do is imagine the distribution of outcomes and what happens on the not especially small right hand tail, and there is reason to worry.

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  33. “Anybody who endorses the idea that we’re facing a catastrophe, or that we’re going to get poorer because of AGW, is an extremist in the same category as Bird.”

    I’ve never used the word catastrophe.

    As to your claim that only an extremist could think AGW will be a net economic cost I must ask you to provide your reasons.

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  34. Mel, Conrad.

    The American environmental movement basically stopped the advancement of nuclear power in the US dead in its tracks after Three Mile Island. They stopped it through a concerted effort of disinformation and distortions. By some estimates the US could have been 75% nuclear and the advancement of technology much higher than it is now by multiples.

    Seeing the US accounts for around 25% odd of global emissions and energy output there accounts for 66% of those emissions think about the effect the American environmental movement has had on AGW.

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  35. John Humphreys: The IPCC prepare these nice assessment reports on what the science says. You don’t have to accept what they do, but if you don’t accept them, please do not pretend you are with the mainstream.

    The IPCC WG2 AR4 SPM report says that 4 degrees of warming will reduce global GDP by 1-5%. So it seems that you believe that they are extremists just like the LDP candidate for Dobell.

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  36. JC: “stopped the advancement of nuclear power”
    .
    JC, I’d be happy to see nuclear power if it’s cheaper than other alternatives. As far as I’m aware, it works well, it’s cheap, you don’t buy it from people that you’d rather not give the money to, and most of the old problems are gone. Personally, if we’d plonked three big reactors down instead of giving people (and companies) all these silly hand-outs, Australia’s greenhouse problems would have been gone for the foreseeable future.
    .
    JH: I’ll say “catastrophe”, which is what the right-hand tail of the distribution predicts. Personally, I insure my house against burning down etc. (which would be a catastrophe for me), even though that isn’t likely (as do most people), so I’m not sure what your fuss is with the word. Are you trying to say there is no probability of events happening on the right-tail of the distribution? or is you mind stuck on the mean outcome, versus the distribution which it should be?

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  37. The jury is still out on whether nuclear is cost-competitive either with coal+carbon tax or with alternatives such as wind. The US has been trying for some time to get the industry restarted with mixed results (ditto Finland).

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  38. Tim Lambert:
    You know this to be untrue and a totally dishonest statement.

    I criticize alarmists on both sides.

    Please apologize to John Humprheys for your lying and dishonesty. Trying to skirt around to another assertion will not work for you.

    Apologize now please.

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  39. Here is a presentation by the Australian Energy Market Operator in which it says that based on a study on wind power in SA, only 3% of wind rated capacity can be relied upon to meet peak summer demand. I think you can draw your own conclusions about what that means for the ability of wind to substitute for coal or nuclear (no page numbers but its a bit over 3/4 the way down):

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  40. Tim, conrad & mel — economic growth between now and 2100 will be more than 1-5%. There is no study (including Stern & Garnaut, including their economic denialist time-value) that shows the world being poorer in the future because of AGW.

    conrad — the catastrophe outcomes are extremely unlikely. And yet these are the ones that we hear constantly repeated in the media and we have taught to our children. Humans like fear more than we like facts. Don’t be scared.

    But even if you want to be scared, check the economic analysis done that includes a cost of potential “catastrophe” (arbitrarily doubled for “vibe”) done by Nordhaus. We’re still all much better off in the future. Not much of a catastrophe.

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  41. John H,

    Now that is feeble, John. Of course overall economic growth will continue but it will not be even growth, there will be many losers and those losers will be in poorer countries with dysfunctional/ corrupt governments and no capacity to adapt.

    Moreover overall growth will be lower than it otherwise would have been if AGW isn’t dealt with through environmental policy. We know this because the environmental economist Eban Goodstein has demonstrated with numerous examples how environmental policy usually costs less than half what industry and government CBAs suggest while after the event mitigation policies usually cost much more than CBAs suggest.

    Another point- now that you agree the future looks bright I guess you must also agree that the program of wholesale changes proposed by libertarians are unnecessary: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it 🙂

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  42. Mel:

    Here’s the figure you need to play with. Global GDP seems to have a long term accelerating growth trajectory of around 4%. It’s been a little higher for the past decade but lets work on that.

    If GDP is currently $75 billion and growing at a compound rate of 4% global GDP in 2100 would be $2,66 trillion. Lower the rate to 3% as the long term abatement molested GDP is 1% lower and see what happens. GDP in 2100 will be $1,105 trillion. So the abatement guys are suggesting that the cost of AGW will be 2661-1105 = $1.656 trillion.

    Anything less than that will mean we should leave things alone. I’d take a bet that AGW would not cost that much.

    I used 4% as the rate as I believe the growth rate trajectory is actually increasing and has been at a quick rate since the industrial revolution.

    Compound rates over oceans of time really matter. They matter a lot.

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  43. Even in a recession year- 2008.Global GDP rose by 3.2%, which shows the extraordinary strength of the trajectory and the 4% estimate may be too low as we accelerate.

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