Despite a global pandemic dominating headlines, concern about the impact of climate change is at a record high in Australia, with 80 per cent of people thinking we are already experiencing problems caused by climate change and 83 per cent supporting the closure of coal-fired power stations.
- The survey shows Australians greatly overestimate the economic impact of the gas industry
- Half of the respondents said fossil fuel producers should pay for climate action
- Nearly three-quarters thought Australia should be a global leader in combatting climate change
In addition, 71 per cent of Australians now think Australia should be a world leader on climate action, according to The Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation report, which has been tracking Australian attitudes to climate change since 2007.
The progressive think tank polled nearly 2,000 adults over a week in July.
It said the results showed Australians wanted a speedy transition to a zero-emissions economy.
“Our research shows that, far from dampening the call for climate action, the COVID-19 crisis has strengthened Australian’s resolve for all levels of government to take action on climate change,” Richie Merzian from the Australia Institute said.
This year, more respondents have agreed climate change “is occurring” than at any other time over the survey’s history, with 79 per cent agreeing with the statement.
While the number of people saying they are “concerned” about climate change has remained steady for the past three years, a growing number of people believe we are experiencing the impacts of climate change “a lot” — up from 33 per cent in 2016 to 48 per cent this year.
Bushfires were the biggest impact that respondents were concerned about, jumping from 76 per cent last year to 82 per cent this year.
That was followed by droughts, extinction and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, all with about 80 per cent of people expressing concern.
Rebecca Colvin, from the Australian National University, researches public attitudes to climate change. She said the poll showed COVID-19 had not made people forget about climate change.
“I think it’s surprising,” she said.
“It shows climate change isn’t just a fad that people care about when everything else is stable.”
The results came just weeks after the Lowy Institute released polling on climate change that showed a dip in another measure of concern: the number of people saying we should take action now, even if it came at a significant cost.
Dr Colvin said the results told two sides of the same story.
“We have a remarkable level of scientific consensus on climate change and the weight of public opinion both pointing toward the need for action on climate change,” she said.
“What I take from the combination of them both is possibly that the Lowy Institute polling is showing that in the immediate term our resources are thin because of the recession and COVID — but it’s not like that’s erased climate change from the agenda altogether.”
In the Lowy poll, despite a dip in the number of people urging action even if it came at a high cost, concerns about some climate impacts were at record-high levels.
“Droughts and water shortages” and “environmental disasters such as bushfires and floods” were considered critical threats by 77 per cent and 67 per cent of people, respectively. That was despite only 59 per cent saying the same of climate change itself.
Dr Colvin said that could be a result of people seeing the immediacy of the impacts of climate change — but not being able to see the cause: a rise in greenhouse gas concentrations.
“It tells us one of the stories about climate change — we can always put it off until the next day — but we’ve done that for more than 30 years and we’re now reaping the outcomes of that with the fires.”
With electricity generation, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, the Australia Institute survey probed Australians’ attitudes to energy.
It found support for renewables rose over the past year, and support for coal, gas and nuclear fell or remained stable.
Fifty-two per cent of respondents thought coal-fired power stations should be gradually phased out, while 31 per cent thought they should be phased out as soon as possible, even if that cost more.
The Government has trumpeted plans for a “gas-led” economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession, so the poll looked at the public’s knowledge and attitudes to gas.
The survey found Australians greatly overestimated the number of jobs in the gas industry, believing about 8 per cent of Australian jobs came from the sector. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests just 0.2 per cent of all jobs are involved in the extraction of oil and gas.
The response mirrored similar results on the public’s overestimation of the number of jobs in the coal industry, which has remained steady since last year.
“When it comes to employment in the gas industry, Australians overestimate the gas workforce by a factor of 40,” Mr Merzian said.
When it came to action on climate change, the poll found 63 per cent of Australians thought governments were not doing enough, and half thought fossil fuel producers should pay for more action.
There was a jump in support for Australia going further than other countries, with 71 per cent saying Australia should be a global leader — up from 62 per cent last year.
And 68 per cent of respondents agreed Australia should have a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 — something already in place in the UK and New Zealand.