“Yes, there are high levels of concern and the public do think climate change is going to have a big impact, so the community understands Australia needs to do something,” Ipsos director Jennifer Brook said.
“But the political discourse has reached the electorate in terms of the confusion out there, and we’re seeing a polarisation along political lines.”
Few of the indicators, measured almost every year for a decade, showed a significant shift after the summer bushfires and the results showed scepticism about the science actually rose compared with the last survey two years earlier.
The survey found 24 per cent agreed they had “serious doubts about whether climate change is occurring” in an increase from 19 per cent two years ago and 22 per cent a decade ago.
The “serious doubts” were backed by 38 per cent of Liberal and Nationals voters but only 9 per cent of Labor voters.
“That is the highest it’s ever been for Liberal and Nationals voters and it’s the lowest it’s ever been for Labor voters, so they’re growing apart,” Ms Brook said.
No huge spike in climate alarm after bushfires
A YouGov poll for the Australia Institute found last month that 79 per cent of Australians were concerned about climate change, an increase from 74 per cent last July, leading the institute to conclude the fires had intensified community concern.
The organiser of a protest outside Parliament House this week, the Peoples Climate Assembly, has described the fires as a “wake-up call” that has shifted community opinion.
While several Ipsos results showed very high concern about climate change, many of the responses were in line with previous surveys and did not show a spike that could be attributed to the bushfires over summer.
Asked if climate change posed a serious threat over the next 25 years, 62 per cent of voters agreed – a result consistent with 63 per cent two years ago and slightly higher than 59 per cent a decade ago.
When the question was asked about the threat over 100 years, 68 per cent of voters agreed, very close to the 67 per cent result in the survey in 2010.
There was 64 per cent support for the proposition “Australia should be doing more to address climate change” in a slight increase from 62 per cent two years ago and a jump from 54 per cent three years ago.
There was 60 per cent support for the proposition that “Australia should be a global leader” on the issue, in line with 59 per cent in the 2018 survey.
But the research also revealed the uncertainty among voters at a time of intense political and media commentary on the bushfires and climate change, with 55 per cent agreeing with the statement that “there are too many conflicting opinions” to be confident about the claims being made – up from 50 per cent in the last two surveys.
As well, 24 per cent said they were not prepared to make changes to their lifestyle for the sake of climate change, up from 21 per cent two years ago and in line with 25 per cent in the survey conducted a decade ago.
The Ipsos survey was conducted in the week beginning January 20 and repeated questions the research company has asked for a decade, rather than asking questions commissioned by a client.
In a series of new questions, Ipsos found that 38 per cent were “very” concerned about climate change and 42 per cent “somewhat” concerned, with another 19 per cent not concerned and one per cent unsure.
Causes of climate change
On the causes of climate change, 45 per cent agreed with the proposition it was “partly” caused by natural processes and “partly” caused by human activity, up from 33 per cent in the 2018 survey and closer to the 42 per cent result in the 2010 survey.
In this year’s results, 12 per cent said climate change was “entirely” caused by human activity, 24 per cent said it was “mainly” caused by human activity, 10 per cent said it was “mainly” due to natural processes and 4 per cent said it was “entirely” caused by natural processes. Another 3 per cent said there was no such thing as climate change and 2 per cent were unsure.
Climate change action
The polling confirms some of the findings from separate focus group research by Ipsos last week for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, in which voters said they wanted action on climate change but were not sure what this should be.
“They rejected the idea of paying more for electrical power or petrol, or more tax generally, except for one Greens voter in the Melbourne group,” the research company concluded.
“They tended to be sceptical about the likely outcome of [an Emissions Trading Scheme], seeing it as generating jobs for highly paid consultants and simply addressing the consequences of global warming rather than addressing the causes.
“Melbourne participants were frank that they did not understand what was involved in an ETS and therefore none felt comfortable commenting on whether it was a sensible or problematic approach.”
One Sydney voter, Scott, voted for the government at the last election but said Australia was “not doing enough” on climate change.
A retiree who was generally supportive of the government, George, said Australia contributed so little to global carbon emissions that it should not do more on the problem.
“It would make us feel good but would not make any difference,” he said.
George nominated recycling as an example of a government promise that could not be delivered, arguing that plastics that were meant to be recycled ended up buried in landfill instead.
Others in the Sydney focus group said that argument was a “cop-out” and were strongly in favour of more renewable energy, but they were cautious about what they would do in their own households to reduce emissions.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.