My analysis of Australian climate change beliefs in The Australian

The Australian newspaper has summarised my analysis of variations in belief in climate change in the Australian today (17 May 2019) on page 33. It was written up by Robert Gottliebsen, one of Australia’s most respected and experienced journalists.

There has been a wave of climate change denial by all the usual suspects in the lead-up to the federal election tomorrow. Their arguments are fallacious and misleading, but potentially influential.

I will be updating our survey after the federal election in order to evaluate the extent of any change in beliefs.

Charlie Nelson

An inconvenient hot summer in Australia

With record high temperatures across much of the continent, smashing the previous record; with record rainfall in North Queensland and 500,000 cattle lost; with extreme drought in many locations, including the death of millions of fish in the Menindie Lakes; it has been a summer well beyond past experience.  Bushfires have caused loss of property in Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales.

With such an extreme summer being closely followed by a federal election, denial of climate change; claiming that Australia should do nothing as we are a small emitter of greenhouse gasses on a global scale; and token policies will not resonate well with the majority of the electorate.  As Australia is being damaged by climate change, and the damage will escalate, it is time to consider what action we can take which is of greater influence on global greenhouse gas emissions than our proportion of emissions.

Australia’s 2018-19 summer was very hot compared with all previous summers, dating back to 2010-11 (Chart 1).

Chart 1

The record mean temperature in 2018-19 was 0.86 degrees C hotter than the previous record set in 2013.  This margin is the greatest on record, exceeding the margin of 0.52 degrees C by which the summer of 1972-73 was hotter than the previous record in 1938-39 and 1925-26.

The only comparable extreme is the very low mean temperature in 1916-17.  That was during an extreme La Nina, but there was no extreme El Nino in 2018-19.

The temperatures shown in Chart 1 are relative to the average of the period 1961 to 1990 (27.5 degrees C).

The upwards trend is 1.3 degrees per century (Chart 2) and has accelerated to 2.2 degrees per century from 1970 (the last seven summers have been hotter than the 109 year trend).  These trends are highly statistically significant.

Chart 2

The trend mean temperature anomaly for 2019-20 is predicted to be 0.64 degrees, with a 95% confidence interval of 0.45 to 0.83.

The mean temperature anomaly relative to 1961 to 1990 across Australia in the summer of 2018-19 is shown in Chart 3.  Much of the continent was more than one degree hotter than the 1961 to 1990 average, many locations had a mean temperature more than 2 degrees hotter, and some places were more than 3 degrees hotter (the average was 2.1 degrees across the continent).

Chart 3

The record rainfall in much of north Queensland was in marked contrast to a dry summer in most of the rest of the continent (Chart 4).  This chart shows rainfall anomalies relative to the 1961 to 1990 average.

Chart 4

The longest continuous tracking of the general public’s level of belief in imminent global warming has been carried out by foreseechange (Chart 5).  The estimated likelihood of clear signs of global warming in the year ahead is a 63% chance, back to the level of 2007 when the electorate last voted the coalition out of office.  The last update of this tracking survey was in November 2018 – since then we have experienced the highly extreme summer of 2018-19, which would have further lifted the level of belief in imminent climate change.

Chart 5

Previous variations in the level of belief in imminent climate change have been caused, in part, by preceding temperatures and rainfall.

When the general public was asked to rate issues on the basis of the level of concern in the foreseeable future, climate change ranked fifth, ahead of traffic congestion, health, and crime (Chart 6).  The scale was from 0 (will not be at all concerned) to 10 (will be extremely concerned).  This survey was conducted in November 2018 and it is likely that the extreme summer of 2018-19 will have lifted the level of future concern about climate change.

Chart 6

In the lead-up to the imminent federal election, the electorate will be looking for a credible, urgent plan to mitigate climate change.

Australia must move on from the seemingly endless debate about whether human activity is causing climate change and whether we should do anything at all because our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is less than 2% of the global total.

Australia can have an impact beyond our share and it is in our interests to do so given the economic and environmental damage we are experiencing and the economic opportunities we can capitalise on.  That will be the subject of a future article.

Charlie Nelson



The 2019 Australian federal election and climate change


Climate change policy, or the lack of it, has been influential in the demise of several federal political leaders since John Howard lost the 2007 election (and his seat in Parliament).  Malcolm Turnbull lost his leadership of the opposition in 2009 and his prime ministership in 2018 because he proposed policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but enough of his Liberal colleagues did not support that.

Three separate prediction methods indicate that the Liberal National Coalition will lose government in the 2019 federal election.

The level of belief in imminent global warming amongst Australian adults is now back to the level of 2007, when Labor last won government from the coalition.  Importantly, the level of belief amongst people aged 65+, the core constituency of the coalition, has recently lifted to the same level as in 2007.

This is documented in my recent article, along with an assessment of the top issues in voters minds.

Of course, it is still up to Labor to propose a credible set of policies which are attractive to voters.

Charlie Nelson


Climate change is not our highest rating future concern

Most Australian adults believe that the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partially to blame.  Most of us want action to be implemented now to address this pressing problem.

Unfortunately, climate change is not at the top of the list of future concerns that keep us awake at night.

A June 2018 survey by foreseechange has found that climate change is the ninth most highly rated future concern out of 12 rated by over 1,000 adults.

Top of the list is the cost of living, followed by security of personal information.  At least climate change rates ahead of unemployment and interest rates.

Until climate change rates much more highly as a future concern, there will not be enough pressure placed on politicians to act decisively.

In the mean time, a different approach to dealing with climate change is needed, rather than what we have been doing over the past quarter of a century.  This is the subject of a forthcoming report.

Charlie Nelson



Most Australians believe that climate change poses a critical threat

Most Australians believe that climate change poses a critical threat to the vital interests of Australia in the next ten years, according to the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll.

Their survey of 1200 adults asked about the perceived level of threat of 11 possible threats.

Equal number one threats were international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program, which were perceived t be a critical threat by 66% of respondents.

Number three was climate change, 58%.

Number four was cyberattacks from other countries, 57%.

Number five was a severe downturn in the global economy, 50%

The other possible threats were perceived as critical by less than 50% of respondents.

Number nine was large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into Australia, which was perceived to be a critical threat by 40% of respondents.

Discussion and action about the issue of climate change seems to be a lower priority for the federal government than the global economy and immigrants and refugees – at variance with the priorities of the general public.

Charlie Nelson


Do we have the will to act on climate change?

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The level of belief in climate change and the attribution of causes has varied significantly over the past 12 years in Australia and in the USA.  Belief is currently higher than in the 2010 to 2012 period but not higher than in 2005 in Australia.  The level of belief varies by age group and the divergence between the oldest and youngest age groups has increased in recent years.

Despite most people believing that the climate is changing and that human activity is at least a partial cause, it is not considered to be a particularly important issue relative to others health, living costs, and employment.

A minority of adults in Australia and the USA believe that climate change will have serious consequences over the next five or even ten years.

Accordingly, the general public is not putting enough pressure on politicians to take decisive and urgent action.

My report documents these findings based on a wide range of surveys of the general public over the past 12 years.  It identifies the key reasons for variations in the level of belief.  It also suggests a way forward.

A second report is currently being written which analyses the level of support for specific actions which can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Charlie Nelson