I care about climate change - but what’s the cost?

Polls suggest we care about climate change but that hasn’t translated into wins for parties pushing hard reform. New research explains.

"It’s important but not the most important"

Key Points

  • 2,033 voters were surveyed after 2019 federal election about climate change attitudes
  • Personal impact of climate change action influenced votes
  • Baby Boomers are half as likely as Generation Z to consider reducing greenhouse gas emissions important

New research, published in The Conversation, found that 80% of surveyed Australian voters think it’s important to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This includes 70% of those who vote for the Coalition parties.

That and aversion to personal impact of policy change seem to sum up the attitude of many of the 2,033 voters were surveyed for the study, in July 2019, two months after the election.

Report authors Rebecca Colvin and Frank Jotzo from the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy and the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy respectively, found stark differences along political party preferences in terms of how important voters think it is.

“Our research suggests the question about social support for climate action in Australia is no longer: “does climate change matter to enough Australians?”. Instead, the critical question may well be: “does climate change matter enough to Australians to shift climate politics?” the authors asked.

The climate policies of the two major parties were very different, with the Labor Party campaigning on ambitious mitigation targets and the incumbent Coalition maintaining the status quo of very limited climate policy.

What were the voters thinking?

In the study, 52% said climate change was important when deciding their vote but climate was the most important issue for only 14% of voters.

Even among those who said they felt it was extremely important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most (58%) said climate change was important, but not the most important issue, when deciding their vote.

Climate change was stated as the most important issue for 21% of Labor voters and 39% of Greens voters, but for less than 5% of Liberal Party, National Party, and Queensland LNP voters.

This pattern was reversed for those who didn’t take climate change policy into account in their vote: 26% of Liberal, 21% of National, and 31% of Queensland LNP voters did not consider climate change when deciding their vote. Under 15% of Labor and Greens voters did the same.

Climate change versus climate action

The research also explored the extent voters were willing to accept a personal cost to support climate action.

Most voters (72%) said they’d be willing to incur some personal cost in return for emissions reductions. Across the political spectrum, the proportion of voters willing to accept a small personal cost is relatively similar: 60% of progressive voters, 55% of conservative voters.

Major differences emerge when it comes to “significant personal cost”

While 26% of progressive voters are willing to incur a significant personal cost, only 5% of conservative voters feel similarly. At the other end of the spectrum, 40% of conservative voters are unwilling to incur any personal cost, but only 14% of progressive voters feel the same.

The researchers concluded that support for strong climate policies may depend on whether the policies will, or are perceived to, personally impact voters.

Young and older

Interestingly, age was a consistent predictor of responses. Younger people were more likely than older people to consider it important that Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Younger people were more willing to incur a personal cost to support climate action, and to consider climate change when deciding their vote.

Voter from the Baby Boomer generation was half as likely as a voter from Generation Z to consider it important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Divisive politics have a limited shelf life

If future young people cared just as much about climate change as today’s young people, and if existing cohorts don’t change their views as they age, then the percentage of Australian voters who consider greenhouse gas emissions to be “extremely important” is likely to increase from 52% to 56% by 2030. By 2050, this figure could rise to 65%.

The future

The researchers concluded if political leaders pursued stronger climate action, they could rest assured most of the voting population will broadly support them, along with most of their own voter base — regardless of which party is in power.

“This will become only more pronounced with gradual generational change, and likely changes in attitudes within age groups. In any case, it’s clear divisive politics that result in climate delay have a limited shelf life,” the authors predicted.