Climate remains a top concern through troubling times

The economy has pushed its way to the top of people’s concerns, but action to address climate change continues to loom large in public opinion. [14 October 2008 | Peter Boyer]

How do Australians see the world? What are the main threats to our present existence, and what ought to be our main foreign policy goals?

That’s what the Australian-based Lowy Institute seeks to establish in its annual study of foreign policy concerns. This year, with external threats looming ever-larger on the horizon and policy-makers keen to know the public mood, the poll attracted a lot of attention.

The 2007 Lowy poll found Australians thought climate change was the most important foreign policy goal for Australians, rating above about nuclear and terrorism worries. But this year the same organisation found it had slipped below economic issues in order of priority.

Protecting jobs and strengthening our economy are now ahead of people’s perceived need to address global warming, and compared to 2007, respondents indicated a reduced willingness to pay to tackle the problem.

This warrants some investigation. In scale and reach and impact, climate change clearly surpasses any threat we’ve ever faced and any we’re ever likely to. Having once understood the immensity of the problem, why would Australians ever rate it less than top?

For one thing, people’s responses depend the questions. Asked about potential threats, Australians still rated climate highest, with water the most critical issue and global warming equal second with terrorism. And as the 2008 Lowy report said, “a solid majority remains in favour of immediate action even if this involves significant costs.”

Another factor is the strong link between climate and the economy. Our understandable focus on today’s financial morass shouldn’t be taken to mean that our climate concerns have gone off the boil, but that we know all too well we’re in double trouble.

Some recent Tasmanian anecdotal evidence supports this. We’ve seen people walk the talk in the annual “Walk to Work” day, rally with “People for a Safe Climate” to show support for urgent action, and assert cyclists’ legitimate place on city streets in the “Critical Mass” ride on the last Friday of every month.

This is on top of a rising frequency of forums dealing with climate, managing change, adaptation, economic consequences and the like, now happening every week. Just recently the Australian Psychological Society held its national conference in Hobart on the “change” theme.

And then there’s the unabated demand for more information. When Prof Ross Garnaut left Tasmania off his list of venues for information sessions in July the reaction was strong enough for him to issue a prompt undertaking to be here in October.

Requests for information and workshops coming to groups such as the Climate Project and Sustainable Living Tasmania are unabated. In my own case, with twice the number of Climate Project presenters now operating in Tasmania, my bookings are around the same level as last year, with total audience numbers over two years now approaching 6000.

Whatever our leaders may say, Australians know something’s seriously wrong. A strong, clearly-articulated political response to climate change – with measurable physical outcomes – is a certain vote winner, and the sooner politicians everywhere realise that, the better.

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