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

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2010

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.

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.

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First published in The Australian on February 13, 2010.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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