Remember climate change? While the issue might have dropped to the farthest reaches of the political radar, the fact remains that climate change remains and at some stage Australia will have to deal with it.
So this week we rekindled the debate with a ‘Climate of the Nation’ event at Ogilvy House.
With John Connor, the CEO of The Climate Institute, presiding over a panel featuring renowned climate change scientist Dr Graeme Pearman, John Scales, the founder and MD of JWs Research, and Essential Media director Peter Lewis, an 80-strong crowd was informed about the seemingly endless saga of public and political engagement and disengagement in one of mankind’s great challenges.
Lewis said that public support for action on climate change reached its zenith in 2007, when there was bipartisan backing for a price on carbon action, but since that point ‘the number of don’t knows’ in his research climbed from the 10s to the 20s and then to the 30s.
He sheeted the blame for the drop-off in support to the paucity of the government’s explanation of the case for climate change action. Scales agreed, citing the fact the government changed its position on a number of occasions.
Pearman, the Australian Academy of Science fellow, said that ‘science tells us more strongly than ever before’ that there was a risk which needed to be managed. In contrast, public belief in man-made climate change had dropped to just 51 per cent, with 35 per cent putting the changing climate down to the natural weather cycle.
He said he believed people had rejected the science ‘because they don’t want their world view to be challenged’.
When asked by Connor whether the coming Federal Election could be accurately depicted as ‘a referendum on the carbon tax’, all panellists disagreed, with Lewis saying research showed it was a referendum on the economy and on the Labor government.
You can check the pollute-o-meter below to see how our political parties rank.
Lewis also said polling showed that one of the legacies of the past few years had been a marked drop in support for all civic institutions.
Scales believed that in the aftermath of the coming election climate-concerned organisations like The Climate Institute needed to stop and rethink the way they tried to deliver the message about the urgent need for action. ‘We need a new look, a new way,’ he said, citing problems with inconsistent and fragmented messaging from climate change groups in the past.
Pearman questioned the basis of the much-publicised target of a maximum of 2 degrees warming, saying that would cause severe water shortages and problems with the coastal plains, while the effect of such an increase on other areas of the natural environment were limited.
For Lewis, public demand for action would only be forced by catastrophic climate events over the next decades, while Connor said he believed the push to renewable energy would be led from outside Australia, through countries no longer wanting buy Australian coal.
Yianni Konstantopoulos, the group managing director of Social@Ogilvy, spoke about the potential benefits and possible pitfalls of social media campaigns on such issues.
Climate change, he said, had become a polarising issue. Social media could help to garner support for action but organisations needed to establish just who their supporters were and just what the organisation wanted them to do before enlisting them.
Connors spoke of the Vital Few campaign which The Climate Institute was currently running. With superannuation being such a source of investment wealth, he said there was a fiduciary duty between superannuation trustees and their members which meant that the trustee had to respond to members’ requests for information.
The focus of the campaign was for members to contact their trustee and request information on the fund’s exposure to investments like coal, which, he said, could carry substantial investment risk because of an expected drop-off in demand through international action to combat climate change. Through that, the Institute hope to pressure superannuation funds to no longer invest in such companies.
Ogilvy Public Relations is a supporter of The Climate Institute.
In 1962, mixed-up confusion was killing Bob Dylan. His head was full of questions, and his temperature rising fast. Forty years later, amid other rising temperatures, mixed-up confusion is confounding Australia’s efforts to respond to climate change.
One the one hand, the case for action seems straightforward. The debate over whether or not anthropogenic climate change is real is over, at least in the scientific community. Treasury modeling of
the potential impacts of climate change makes it clear that taking action on climate change is in Australia’s national interest. Much of corporate Australia agrees with this. And all major political parties advocate taking action on climate change.
So why, according to figures just released in the Climate Institute’s annual survey of Australian attitudes towards climate change, Climate of the Nation, do 65 per cent of Australians believe that there are too many conflicting opinions for the public to be sure about the claims made about climate change? Where does all this confusion come from?
It certainly does not come from a lack of information. If Bob Dylan had a cent for every media mention of climate change, he would probably never have got the tombstone blues, the freight train blues or even the subterranean homesick blues. Australians have had climate change shoved down their throat. Thousands of views have been canvassed, thousands of views have been offered.
Amongst this discordant cacophony, no one has been able to make their message resonate – not the government, not the opposition, not scientists, not climate science ‘deniers’, not NGOs, not community activists, not the private sector.
This has confused the population, and clouded their response to carbon pricing. Only 28 per cent of respondents in the Climate Institute poll (carried out by John Scales for JWS) said they supported the government’s scheme. However, when basic aspects of the legislation are explained, the number jumps to almost 50 per cent. This is not to make a comment on the merits or otherwise of the government’s particular scheme – it rather illustrates the point that people don’t support things they don’t understand. And they don’t understand carbon pricing.
This is fair enough. As public policy goes, it is complex and nuanced. Even the policy wonks struggle to get their heads round it at times. Several popular criticisms of action on climate change stem directly from misunderstandings about how the government’s scheme might work (these criticisms may also be leveled at other schemes). Here are three key sources of confusion:
- It won’t make a difference because Australia is only a small part of global emissions
- It won’t make a difference because industry will move overseas and pollute from there
- It won’t make a difference because we are going to compensate the polluters – so there is no reason for them to act.
There are very good answers to all three points. But this is entering a level of detail beyond the point at which the public would normally engage in public policy. Debunking incorrect information is necessary. But arguing the toss on the details of particular arguments is pointless – people end up confused and disengaged. Instead, advocates of climate change action would do well to focus on some key communication approaches:
- Appeal to the emotional: Use language and imagery that appeals to people’s emotional rather than intellectual side. This is something marketers have honed for decades.
- Use third-party advocates: There is no academy of science in the world that disputes the science. Other voices lend credibility to your arguments.
- Point to peers: Highlight what others, faced with the same problem, have done. The vast majority of countries have some form of measure in place to combat climate change.
Talk about the alternative: Instead of allowing the debate to focus on the intricacies of different schemes, focus on the costs of inaction.
Make it local: Talk about the impact of climate change on insurance bills and front lawns.
A recent poll by Fergus Hanson for the Lowy Institute showed that 38 per cent of Australians felt they had become ‘more concerned’ about climate change since the debate in Australia began. If this concern is to be harnessed into support for action, we need to do a much better job of telling the story, and a much better job of debunking the myths. “Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean,” Bob Dylan once remarked, “sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean”.
By Andrew Ure.