Battling a global pandemic and the first recession in 30 years has not prompted Australians to worry less about the impacts of climate change, and a substantial majority of voters believe we are already experiencing the effects of warming, according to an authoritative snapshot of community attitudes.
The latest Climate of the Nation report, an annual national survey of almost 2,000 voters that has been running for 13 years, will be launched on Wednesday by the New South Wales environment and energy minister, Matt Kean.
The survey finds that 74% of the sample remains concerned about climate change, which is the same level as last year, and 80% of respondents think we are already experiencing climate change impacts.
Over the past five years, the number of Australians saying they believe climate change is already happening has increased by 15 points. The survey shows the number of Australians who think we are experiencing the impacts of climate change “a lot” has increased from 33% in 2016 to 48% in 2020.
The survey also suggests Australians are cool on the Morrison government’s “gas-led recovery”, with 59% of respondents saying the recovery should be powered by renewables compared to 12% who favour gas.
But the results indicate that Australians think the gas industry is larger than it is. Survey respondents on average believe that gas mining and exploration makes up 8.2% of Australia’s total workforce, when the reality is the industry accounts for 0.2% of employed Australians. People also think gas makes a more substantial contribution to economic growth that it does in reality.
Voters remain wary of coal seam gas developments, with majorities saying CSG has a negative effect on water resources (61%), farmers (56%), climate change (55%), and human health (54%). But again, Australians believe the industry makes a positive contribution to the economy, and contributes to job creation.
While the Morrison government continues to resist calls for it to adopt an emissions reduction target of net zero by 2050, a majority of the sample (68%) supports that course of action, and the target has majority support across all voting cohorts, except One Nation voters.
People also want Australia to lead on global action, with a noticeable shift in attitudes over the past couple of years: 71% say Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change, up from 62% in 2019. Just under two-thirds (62%) of the sample disagree that Australia should wait for other countries before strengthening our emission reductions targets, up from 54% in 2019.
Voters are more inclined to see the energy transition as opportunity than they were in 2019, with 77% of the sample saying reducing emissions creates opportunities in clean energy for new jobs and investment, which is up seven points in a year.
A smaller majority (52%) opposes government subsidies to expand coal, oil and gas, which is up seven points in 12 months. But only a small percentage of people (11%) have noticed that fossil fuel companies have performed worse on the Australian stock exchange than the top 300 listed companies over the past 10 years.
A majority of respondents (68%) say power generated by coal should be closed down within 20 years, and 39% want obsolescence in a decade. Fourteen percent of respondents say coal-fired power should never be completely phased out.
The research project this year also includes a one-off survey in response to the January bushfires. That work indicates people who experience catastrophic events are more likely to be concerned about the risks.
Kean will launch the survey at a webinar hosted by the Australia Institute, the progressive thinktank that now funds the survey initially commissioned by the now defunct Climate Institute.
The NSW Liberal minister, who is a vocal advocate for renewable energy, was recently rebuked by Scott Morrison for describing the recently approved, controversial, Narrabri coal seam gas development as a “gamble”.
Richie Merzian, the climate and energy director at the Australia Institute, said: “Our research shows that far from dampening the call for climate action, the Covid-19 crisis has strengthen Australians’ resolve for all levels of government to take action on climate change.”
While the survey has indicated for some time a majority of Australians think climate change is real, and prefer renewables to fossil fuels, Australian voters elected a Coalition government in 2013 on a platform of repealing the Gillard government’s carbon price, and the Coalition has won two subsequent elections despite having demonstrably less ambitious climate action policies than their opponents.
While the Morrison government champions a gas-led recovery, the International Monetary Fund has recently argued that a combination of carbon pricing and an “initial green stimulus” would turbocharge economic recovery from the coronavirus, and help put the global economy on a sustainable growth path post-pandemic.
A leading Australian business lobby, the Ai Group, has also called for the two biggest economic challenges in memory – recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and cutting greenhouse gas emissions – to be addressed together, saying that would boost growth and put the country on a firm long-term footing.