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Dealing with the electoral (un)importance of climate change

By Leigh Ewbank - posted Friday, 30 July 2010

Julia Gillard’s announcement last Friday marked a new low point for Australian climate change policy. If reelected, a Labor government will fill the void created by its decision to defer the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) a collection of low-impact policy measures: miniscule investments in renewable energy; an ill-conceived “cash for clunkers” program; and the much criticised plan for a “citizens’ assembly” to establish “community consensus” on climate change. Such measures do not reflect the urgency and scale of the climate change challenge.

In the wake of Gillard’s announcement, several climate advocates made the case that community consensus on climate change already exists. Be that as it may, community consensus doesn’t tell us whether climate change is a priority issue for Australians. Polling released last week revealed a disturbing truth for Australia’s climate change advocates. Contrary to the rhetoric of many, addressing climate change ranks well down the list of the most important issues for voters in the 2010 federal election.

Polling data (PDF 1.51MB) produced by Essential Research shows that “addressing climate change” is a priority issue for just 12 per cent of voters - ranking ninth out of 15 possible issues. This number is dramatically less than the level of support received by the top three priority issues: economic management (63 per cent); health care (55 per cent); and protecting jobs and industries (24 per cent).


This is a shocking outcome. The most important long-term issue facing Australia is not receiving the priority it deserves. With all the money, time and resources invested in climate change advocacy, these results challenge the efficacy of the dominant climate policy proposals and the ways in which the phenomenon is communicated.

Pricing carbon through an emissions-trading scheme is the most important climate policy for many national climate groups. The Australian Conservation Foundation and Climate Institute, among others, have led the charge calling for an emissions trading scheme (ETS) and have undertaken a concerted effort to frame climate change as a pollution problem. Unfortunately, neither the ETS nor pollution framing are election-friendly ideas.

The Labor party will try to keep their proposed emissions-trading scheme off the table during the campaign. The reasons for this are simple. First, the ETS does not appeal to the top concerns of the electorate. Second, and more importantly, an election promise to expedite the implementation of such a scheme would allow opposition leader Tony Abbott to invoke his “great big tax” message.

Cautious Labor strategists won’t give Abbott ammunition for a scare campaign on the economic impacts of carbon pricing. Framing the CPRS as a “great big tax” that is bad for our economy and bad for jobs allows the Coalition to appeal to the electorate’s concerns while drawing on their strength on economic management to attack Labor’s credentials on jobs and industry. Aware of these risks, Gillard will ignore criticism from climate campaigners and stick to her commitment to delay the CPRS and build a “consensus” on the matter.

The limitations of emissions trading are compounded by a problematic communication strategy. Framing climate change as a pollution problem is unlikely to be an effective way of communicating the phenomenon to voters. This is simply because carbon emissions are qualitatively different to the way we experience pollution, which is direct and visible, compared to the indirect and systemic long term impacts of a changing climate. This pollution-centric messaging is of limited value in the context of an election. Admittedly I’m a young writer who hasn’t experienced many national elections, but I can’t think of an example where pollution was a top concern for the electorate (please let me know if there is a recent example in Australia).

We clearly need an alternative to this flawed approach to climate policy and communication. Instead of waiting for climate change and pollution to become a more significant concern, we must develop ways to fuse the electorate’s priorities with the imperative of addressing climate change.


I have argued that a nation-building project for climate change with the scale and vision of the Snowy Mountains Scheme is capable of winning the hearts and minds of Australians. This alternative approach will address climate change while appealing to the concerns of the electorate.

Direct public investments in infrastructure projects will build the foundation of a clean energy economy in Australia. New grid infrastructure can open up renewable energy resources for entrepreneurs and regions for economic development. The construction of large-scale renewable energy projects like concentrated solar thermal power plants can demonstrate the feasibility of the technology and help build new industries. Leadership on renewable energy will help the nation capture a slice of the rapidly expanding global market for renewable energy technology. This will provide valuable export opportunities for Australia, particularly as demand for our coal decreases as the world stops using fossil fuels over the next several decades.

This investment-centred and jobs-friendly strategy would allow Labor to build on its strengths. Director of polling firm EMC Peter Lewis argues that much of Labor’s first term success was based on its ability to protect jobs with its stimulus package, and identifies the National Broadband Network as another initiative with excellent job creation and industry building potential. Both the stimulus and NBN meet the electorate’s demand for secure Australian jobs and industries. This should be the model for climate policy in the short to medium term, with renewable energy investments matching those allocated for the NBN at a minimum.

So why not just present emissions trading as good for economic management, jobs and industries? Attempts to link them are futile. The carbon pricing reform is too complex and indirect for the public to conceptualise as an economic management or jobs/industry-creation program. Such an approach would be akin to arguing that the GST will create jobs and industries a decade ago. While research reports will be published modelling jobs projections and industry growth, only when Australians experience the benefits of decarbonisation will they support carbon-pricing measures.

When the focus of climate policy is on providing the renewable energy infrastructure projects we need, it is easy to demonstrate the job creation and industry development benefits. This direct approach allows the nation to invest in this critical infrastructure now, rather than waiting for the invisible hand of the market to provide it at some point in the future.

A nation-building approach to climate policy will require Australia’s most prominent environment groups to adapt their strategies: to cut their losses and shift their immediate focus away from emissions trading. These groups are capable of adopting an approach that yields are far greater chance of success than business as usual.

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About the Author

Leigh Ewbank is a graduate of RMIT University's Bachelor of Social Science Environment degree and was a summer fellow at the progressive think-tank the Breakthrough Institute. Leigh currently reports for and consults on framing and messaging.

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