Two years on, the ‘great moral challenge’ just leaves people in the cold

It seemed the perfect issue for the government. Not only was it the “greatest moral challenge of our time” but it had the potential to wedge the Coalition and distract it from campaigning on issues where it could win votes.

(From The Australian February 13, 2010. An analysis of polling here and around the world on global warming).

The confluence of right and might must have been irresistible to the campaign managers, particularly as this issue - global warming - was one of the main reasons Labor won the election.

So how can it be that, two years on, the biggest problem the federal government has is how best to avoid being wedged from some of its key supporters on this very same issue?

Climate change in the last election was not just about global warming. Drought and climate change went hand in hand. At the time, our major cities had dams that were bumping along at less than half capacity.

That emergency has passed, and without the emergency, global warming is a top of mind fact that we mostly agree on but won't do anything about.

In fact, an analysis of Newspoll, Roy Morgan and our own polling, suggests about 60 per cent of us agree that global warming is happening, and it is substantially man-made, and about 50 per cent believe it could be catastrophic.

But when in 2009 Newspoll asked Australians to rank it in a list of 10, it came in ninth.

Global warming is a fact in a similar way that the Beatles being the greatest pop band is a fact. Everyone has an opinion, most will agree, and a fair proportion will be prepared to argue the toss on both sides, but only in their spare time.

While many Australians think something ought to be done about it, they are not prepared to pay the ticket price. That's partly why many who fear global warming don't want an emissions trading scheme: it's too expensive. And for the diehards, the ETS isn't serious enough. You can't win.

There is also the fashion cycle to consider. Ideas wax and wane. Interest in global warming peaked in Australia between 2006 and 2008. It peaked in the US and Britain about the same time.

It has been in decline for two years, and the signs are that it may have reached a tipping point. British pollster Populus works for the BBC and The Times. It polled the British on global warming in November last year and again last week. In that three-month period, the number of people who believe global warming is man-made slumped from 41 per cent to 26 per cent. The number that believe it isn't happening increased from 15 per cent to 25 per cent.

Global warming has had a run of bad-news stories starting with Copenhagen, unseasonably cold weather in large parts of the northern hemisphere, and scandals about data collection methods, scientific practices, peer-review and the authorial and editorial practices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There has also been an international financial crisis that has re-ordered the priorities of citizens in other countries, although not so much in Australia.

What part does Australian politics play in the decline? Does the election of Tony Abbott change the views of Australians or does a change in view make his election possible? How does it affect Kevin Rudd? If he can't win votes from it, can he lose them?

Our latest poll at On Line Opinion suggests that in fact he is losing them, but not necessarily because of climate change. It is emblematic, but not causative.

The poll sample on January 27-29 was 1,737. We analysed the 3 per cent of our sample who voted Labor last election but intend to vote for the Coalition next election: that is a small proportion of the sample but a huge potential swing in electoral terms.

Overwhelmingly they were greenhouse sceptics. Only 24 per cent thought humans were having a significant effect on the climate, while 41 per cent disagreed, and only 10 per cent thought global warming could be catastrophic.

Yet in most cases global warming wasn't the reason they had changed their vote. For some it was issues-based, frequently citing border protection and immigration. For most it seemed to come down to a perception that the Labor government is incompetent - “most inept since McMahon” - and is all talk.

Dislike of the Prime Minister, who personalises the faults of the government, is visceral with these voters. They give Abbott the benefit of the doubt. They have reservations about him (and politicians in general), particularly his Catholicism, but think he is unaffected, “at least he might do something” and he is not “KRudd”.

Ominously for the government 41 per cent of defectors are traditional Labor voters and 34 per cent swinging voters. And lest it be thought these are blue-collar conservatives, 26 per cent are employed in education, 17 per cent are retired and 26 per cent earn $75,000 or more a year.

So rather than being a swing issue, attitudes to global warming are a marker of a particular culture. These voters are practical, rather than theoretical. They are self-reliant, egalitarian and don't like being patronised. They value actions over words, tradition over innovation. A policy to fix a thing that might happen, where they are told the “science is settled” so they should shut up and listen because they are not qualified, summarises everything they think is wrong with the government. Especially when it threatens to cost them money for no tangible return.

Which means that the government's global warming challenge is not how it can fashion a more effective policy or even walk away from it. It is about how to change its substance and appearance. If it doesn't it will lose seats this year, not win them.

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