Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister has seen public sentiment shift on pricing carbon

16 July 2013 — COMMENT: The mood on climate change and carbon emissions could be going through a rapid turnaround, following the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s attempt to belittle the problem.

A new report from The Climate Institute also confirms growing acceptance for climate action as rational and a generator of economic growth, with three quarters of people surveyed saying the impact of climate change is already apparent.

Abbott’s quip on Monday that an emissions trading scheme is a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one” ricocheted around the twittersphere and ended up on the front page of daily newspapers on Tuesday labelled an own goal for the Opposition.

Finance Minister Penny Wong mocked Abbott and painted an uncomfortable picture of him as a potential future PM meeting with Britain’s PM David Cameron or US President Barack Obama with these legacy gaffes weighing like a millstone around his neck.

The latest misstep from Abbott ranks with his climate change as “absolute crap” comment, which gave him a big part of his upswing at the height of the cold war on global warming. What Abbott may be missing is that to belittle climate change now could be looking as “yesterday” as the belittling of Kevin Rudd.

The influence wielded by climate sceptics is now starting to look as thin as their credibility.

Leading newspapers pointed out on Tuesday that the world has moved on from the failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

China and the US were forging agreements on key climate and pollution policies, they pointed out.

Among the areas to be tackled are building energy profiles of both countries.

Add in a new China–US promise to work towards cleaner trucks, carbon capture technologies, smarter grids and improve reporting of greenhouse gas emissions.

This followed another agreement by US president Barack Obama and China’s premier Xi Jinping that they would work together to reduce the production of especially powerful climate pollutants – hydrofluorocarbons.

In The Guardian Deborah Seligsohn, who has advised the World Resources Institute on China’s climate and energy policies, said the move could prod China towards more ambitious curbs on its own greenhouse gas emissions at future negotiating rounds.

“There is a little bit of new wind in everybody’s sails right now,” she said.

Peter Hartcher in Fairfax Media on Tuesday devoted an entire column to berating newspapers, including his own presumably, for ignoring the report from the World Meteorological Organization two weeks ago warning on the now present and growing dangers of climate change. Australian Defence gets it, he said.

Meanwhile Rudd’s rise continues as he overshoots Abbott in the popularity stakes and Labor draws neck and neck with the Coalition as preferred government.

For whatever reason, the man has the ability to draw the climate debate with him.

Sadly one of the negative costs is today’s announcement (Tuesday) that to pay for the new emissions trading scheme that will cost about $4 billion he will cut climate programs.

The cuts include:

  • Changing the car fringe benefits tax rules to bring savings of $1.8 billion
  • 800 public service job cuts and more efficient procurement of agency software to save $248 million
  • Closing the Energy Security Fund two years early with savings of $770 million
  • Cutting back the Coal Sector Jobs package allocation in 2014/15 to save $186 million
  • Deferring $200 million of funding from the Carbon Capture and Storage program to save $24 million
  • Returning $213 million of unallocated money in the Biodiversity Fund
  • Returning $143 million of unallocated money from the Carbon Farming Futures program
  • Cutting $200 million from the Clean Technology Program

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry said while he welcomed cutting the “environmentally damaging” fringe benefits tax break for company car use and ending the Energy Security Fund early, he was disappointed with cuts to the Biodiversity Fund, Carbon Farming Futures and Clean Technology Program.

“Cutting taxpayer assistance to power stations and car use will help reduce pollution, but cuts to the Biodiversity Fund weaken Australia’s efforts to protect our natural environment from the impacts of climate change and is a backward step,” he said.

Mr Henry said tackling fossil fuel subsidies would be the sensible way to fund the early transition to an ETS.

“Australian taxpayers give away more than $10 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies,” he said. “Mining companies still pay 38c less per litre for diesel fuel than ordinary Australians. This should fund any budget shortfall as a result of the early shift from a fixed carbon price.”

On Monday afternoon the Climate Institute issued evidence to back the changing mood on carbon pricing.

In a survey report the institute found dislike of the “carbon tax lie” was greater than that of the policy itself, for which there is an emerging sense of “give it a go”.

The report, Climate of the Nation 2013, benchmarks public attitudes from last year, drawing on qualitative (focus groups) research and nationally representative quantitative (poll) research in early June.

According to Climate Institute chief executive John Connor, there was “absolutely no foundation for suggesting that the forthcoming election is a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’.

“In mid-2013, two-thirds of Australians think that climate change is occurring and almost all of them believe that it is impacting on us now. Two-thirds are concerned about the cost of living impacts on food prices and insurance premiums of further extreme weather events as a result of climate change.”

Report researcher John Scales said climate concern was previously viewed through the “prism of the ‘carbon tax’, hiding undiminished concerns about climate change and why, following the introduction of carbon pricing, there is a firm belief that it should be given a chance to work”.

Connor said the public could see economic opportunities in taking action.

There was rebounding support for Australian leadership on finding solutions to climate change, he claimed.

He warned that support for climate action remained soft but “rises to a majority when people understand the policy correctly –  that is that all of the revenue raised from it goes to support households and industry, and is invested in renewable energy”.

Other key findings include:

  • 66 per cent agree that climate change is occurring. 87 per cent of these believe both that humans are at least in part to blame and that we are already experiencing climate impacts in Australia. Only 11 per cent of those who agree climate change is occurring think it is caused solely by natural cycles.
  • 58 per cent think that Australia should be a leader in finding solutions on climate change, up six per cent from last year and on the rise for the first time since 2008, when 76 per cent shared the sentiment.
  • 43 per cent think that now the laws are in, they should be given at least a few years to work and only 24 per cent think that if the laws were abolished electricity prices would go down to pre-law levels.
  • Last year, 65 per cent thought that they would be worse off from the carbon price, down to 53 per cent this year. In 2012, 36 per cent said they would be much worse off, this has dropped to 24 per cent.
  • 87 per cent placed solar energy within their top three preferred energy options. Wind was the second most preferred option with 67 per cent. Coal and nuclear are rated lowest.
  • 63 per cent of Australians think that responding to climate change presents a unique economic opportunity for the development and sale of renewable energy. Also, 71 per cent see new jobs and investment in clean energy resulting from Australia acting on climate change, with 64 per cent of Coalition voters sharing this view.
  • 40 per cent of Australians believe the Renewable Energy Target of 20 per cent by 2020 should be higher while just nine per cent believe it should be lower.
  • For Coalition voters, in early June the top concerns were about Labor’s economic mismanagement, its perceived broken lies and promises generally, and Julia Gillard’s ‘carbon tax lie’. The carbon tax itself was further down a list of issues, including waste of taxpayers’ money and dislike of policies generally.
  • People don’t think that industry and the media are doing a good job at addressing climate change, giving them net performance approval ratings of -17 and -20 per cent respectively, broadly similar to last year, while the Federal Government improved from minus six per cent to minus one per cent.
  • Labor (26 per cent) is still seen as having a more credible climate change policy than the Coalition (19 per cent), though both are at low levels.

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