Decarbonisation and politics: How to make it matter to voters

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Most people agree with the concept of climate change. For those of us that think it’s a relatively urgent issue the challenge is how to make it front of mind for voters.

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AAP Image/Dean Lewins, File
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“If at first you don’t succeed”

Climate change doesn’t much matter to voters even though they (naturally) accept the science

The annual Climate institute survey shows that 75% of the public agree with the concept of climate change. On the other hand it doesn’t rate as a top 3 issue with voters. For those of us that think it’s a relatively urgent issue the challenge is how to make it front of mind for voters.

Power prices are going up. There will be a large blame game as to why. The anti renewables camp will say it is the fault of renewables, the pro renewables camp will say it’s the fault of lack of certainty around energy policy preventing the investment in new supply. This is not an easy argument to win as the facts cant be reduced to a simple slogan.

AAP Image/Dean Lewins, File
AAP Image/Dean Lewins, File

Do we need a national political champion that sees how decarbonization can be turned into an election winning issue?  No such person is in evidence at the moment. Kevin Rudd was the last such person but perhaps because he saw foresaw the political strength of the “big fat tax on everything” he dropped it, and having played the public for a fool paid the consequence.

Of course, it was a leading issue in the Gillard Govt and the experience has clearly left a sour taste in the “prgamatists” that drive ALP strategy. No leading  politician since has been prepared to back climate change as a front of mind  election issue.

A variety of NGOs from the CEC, the Climate Institute, Beyond Zero, IGCC, Climateworks are all out there but would it be better if there was an umbrella organization, better funded which undertook more direct action? Our view of direct action means reaching voters directly, via advertising, social media, but also influencing the conventional media. Making the jobs case. Making the lo

Or is it better just to stay with the incremental approach and simply allow the facts to gradually become clear? In the end incrementalism will get us there but only over time.

The public in Australia increasingly supports the concept that global warming is occurring

The Climate Institute published its annual survey of attitudes towards  Australia on climate change, and this didn’t perhaps get the attention it deserved. There is a lot of detail in the survey, and of course the answer to survey questions and the conclusions  drawn always depend on the exact question asked and the survey methodology.

The Climate Institute’s annual survey consists of a 2000 person Galaxy Research Poll in the first week of August with a 2.2% error margin and qualitative focus group interviews conducted in Brisbane, Melbourne and Newcastle.

About ¾ of Australians agree that Climate Change is occurring. This number has been climbing for the past five years.

Figure 1: Views on climate change. Source: Climate Institute
Figure 1: Views on climate change. Source: Climate Institute

However it wasn’t  an election issue. Both major parties ran completely dead on climate change. And for good reason. The Coalition knew it was weak on the “bad boy” image and the ALP was still licking its wounds from having its butt kicked from West Australia to Queensland by Tony Abbott hammering the “big tax on everything” and “Julia’s a liar” images.

Essential Research found the economy and healthcare the big issues

Figure 2 Top 3 election issues. Source Essential Research July 26
Figure 2 Top 3 election issues. Source Essential Research July 26

According to vote compass, an opt in survey of ABC viewers, in the big three States, the environment only rated as a top 3 issue in Victoria.

Screen Shot 2016-12-13 at 11.52.23 AMScreen Shot 2016-12-13 at 11.52.44 AM

Figure 3 Election issues: Source ABC vote compass May 2016

A Roy Morgan survey of the problems facing Australia and the world rated climate change at just 7% a long way below the economy at over 40%

Figure 4 Problems facing Australia: Source Roy Morgan May 2016
Figure 4 Problems facing Australia: Source Roy Morgan May 2016

Interestingly though for the first time in a number of years when Australians were asked the main problems facing the world they nominated the Environment and Climate Change as No 1 @ 25% just pipping the economy.

Figure 5 Problem facing world. Source Roy Morgan May 2016
Figure 5 Problem facing world. Source Roy Morgan May 2016

Coalition response – turn climate change into a cost of living issue

Facing the fact that the majority of the people believe in climate change, the Coalitions’ response seems to be to turn it into an economic issue. Ie Climate change means renewable energy means less reliability and higher prices. However  they are still left with the intellectually indefensible position of having signed up for COP 21 without being able to demonstrate how that will be achieved. This is a weakness that can be exploited but probably won’t swing many votes.

ALP response wedge turnbull

The ALP’s response is to cast the Prime Minister as someone that believes in the problems Climate Change causes but is powerless to do anything about it because he does not have enough Cabinet Authority. Turnbull has recently been wedged on this issue in a textbook example of wedging. When a politician is effectively wedged it creates an impression of weakness or lack of guile. You didn’t see Bob Hawke or John Howard getting wedged all that often.

The ALP has also presented a 50% renewable energy by 2030 policy. The Coalition expressly rejects that this is achievable. So in a sense that is where the crux of the debate lies. State ALP Govts in Victoria and QLD have started their own policies to move towards the Federal ALP target.

If you think, as I do, that execution and management matter, then the appointment of Simon Corbell as advisor to the Victorian Govt is an extremely positive sign. Based on the ACT’s track record we can expect financially astute, progressive policy to be advanced in a straightforward and steady fashion with few errors.  If it goes well in Victoria it will build very strong national support. So we see the Victorian legislated policy as a key driver for public support. Of course its not enough on its own.

How to lift climate change up the list of issues that matter?

Your analyst is more interested in issues  than political loyalty. We see climate change as a large, going on for existential,  global problem and believe that Australia as a wealthy, high emitting reasonably large country has a role to play.  From that perspective the challenge is to lift climate change out of the abstract “its happening but it doesn’t matter” into the “its happening and I’m going to vote for someone to do something about it” category. The question is how to achieve this.

Some questions for activists to consider

Should this be a party driven top down approach a la that taken by the Greens or should it be a bottom up approach in marginal electorates driven by being able to show to marginal voters why they should think about climate change?

How can the link be made from climate change as an “abstract future” issue to something that requires immediate vote driving action?

What would it take to get the ALP’s 50% renewable by 2030 policy as a vote winner instead of a  “we’ve got the greenies covered” policy not to be talked about. The ALP went to some lengths in the last election not to put its 50% renewable policy in front of voters. For instance we think extending the SREC benefit to household storage and allowing utility scale storage to gain REC credits would be vote winning policies.

In short how can we get climate change on the front page in a positive way?

Is it even a good idea to spend scarce resources on Federal policy or would it be preferable to assist State Governments that have gone down the higher renewables path and get them to do even more?

David Leitch is principal of ITK. He was formerly a Utility Analyst for leading investment banks over the past 30 years. The views expressed are his own. Please note our new section, Energy Markets, which will include analysis from Leitch on the energy markets and broader energy issues. And also note our live generation widget, and the APVI solar contribution.

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14 Comments
  1. Rod 3 years ago

    I agree. All of the various environmental groups should try to unite under one umbrella organisation.

    The message has to be simple and emphasise the cost benefits.
    Few voters realise how much has been wasted on Direct Inaction.
    I love graphs (and cartoons).
    If that cartoon of Finkel and Turncoat from the Canberra Times(?) went viral it would get people talking.

    It will need to use online media.

    I would love to see Labor push the case Federally but can’t see it happening.
    I would also like to see the Greens make Climate Change their primary policy.

    It would be good if Vic, SA and Tas could form some sort of bloc championing RE

    Here in SA we are seeing a ramping up of pressure from the feds on the State Labor government with energy a major target.

    • Robin_Harrison 3 years ago

      One thing that tends to fragment the environment movement is various interest groups devoted to the many different things that we don’t want.
      Perhaps a unifying thing would be to start focusing on the things we do want. Like a sustainable future for our species and what that would entail.

  2. Dennis Kavanagh 3 years ago

    We need a bipartisan approach. To achieve this Liberal and National party voters can keep voting as they have but they need to preselect Liberal and National party candidates that are not climate change deniers or skeptics but believe that reasonable lowest cost action on climate change is justified just like centre right parties and governments in other western countries. Otherwise we will not only have numerous repeats of the last 10 years of flip-flopping but we will be in for some really disruptive breakdowns of our electricity grid as the necessay technical improvements Finkle recommends are delayed but as the renewable percentage of generation increases.

  3. Robin_Harrison 3 years ago

    The climate change debate is being thrown around like a dog toy in the ideological cesspit of politics. When ideology rules, logic, reason, facts and truth are optional and disposable extras. Of course it’s important but maybe we can achieve our aims another way.
    I would suggest shifting focus completely to the increasingly attractive economics. Carrots work better than sticks. Let them try side-lining that with ideology. They will certainly try.

  4. S Herb 3 years ago

    I appreciate that Mr. Leitch talks here about ‘accept the science’ and ‘agree with the concept of climate change’, rather than the all too common ‘believe in climate change’. ‘Believe in Science’ is a strange or oxymoronic combination; I think that most people feel this at least a bit when they are asked ‘Do you believe …?’ It is a poor framing of the issue.

  5. brucelee 3 years ago

    In the long term if we do nothing it gets hotter. On hot days we use more power. i.e. what good are these “low” power prices the government promises if we have to use more power due to climate change anyway?

    For WA, this article quotes “The city also smashed an electricity consumption record Monday, at just over 4300 megawatts, a record that had stood since January 2012”

    https://weather.com/news/international/news/perth-australia-record-heatwave-feb2016

    It would be great to see an analysis (say for 20yrs time, 2035) that shows how much more power we would use due to increased temperatures induced by climate change, and the resulting spend that consumers will have to pay.

    In addition, the added demand of the desalination plants to create the water we need.

    • solarguy 3 years ago

      You made some excellent points on power consumption and the need for desalination. The government may well promise lower power prices using FF, but it won’t happen, the vested interests will make sure of that. The sure way to get bills down is to invest in SOLAR for your home, sooner the better. Solar and wind always pays for itself.

  6. disqus_gF5uXVTUbL 3 years ago

    “Your analyst is more interested in issues than political loyalty. We see climate change as a large, going on for existential, global problem and believe that Australia as a wealthy, high emitting reasonably large country has a role to play.”

    This is a “projection”, David Leitch not able to observe his own character strengths and weaknesses – big on analysis although not particularly insightful with understanding how to influence people or bring about change. Nonetheless a very genuine series of questions.

    I’ve begun to look at the other sides arguments against wind, and they argue intermittency means having fossil fuel on standby and hence RE doesn’t result in cost savings. This website has never compared the real cost of wind/storage and solar/storage with running fossil fuel generators. It is the lefties being out of integrity. Storage is a cost of RE and until its taken into account and we move to a position of integrity to address the other sides real concerns, all the shifting thoughts about the problem won’t count to Australians. Small, medium and large scale RE/storage has to perform on par with fossil fuel generators and we may as well resign ourselves to making those cost comparisons. Being biased towards analysis and away from other character strengths, Leitch also thinks in terms of adding storage to a grid anywhere, so the numbers stack up. Grid reliability means the storage needs to be implemented in vaguely the same area as the RE generator, otherwise local communities won’t have energy security. In summary Mr Leitch, you need to keep working upon your integrity and really address the cost and energy security of RE. On the positive side, it only takes a few successful examples of RE/storage at each level of scale, for the conservatives to be silenced.

    • Giles 3 years ago

      Actually, this website does a lot: The csiro/ENA report last week made it quite clear that wind/solar/storage was going to be cheaper than fossil fuels/synchronous/inertia. It also makes clear storage not needed until 40-50% penetration.

      • disqus_gF5uXVTUbL 3 years ago

        In my view, each locality needs RE/storage for true distributed generation and energy security to be addressed. So it needs to be targeted in scale to local communities, building a knowledge base at every level of implementation. The view you’ve expressed appears valid on the surface, though it advocates waiting, instead of resigning ourselves to integrated systems design.

      • disqus_gF5uXVTUbL 3 years ago

        This is actually more an awareness and human development issue, regards what is the most powerful approach. It really is the paradigm that needs integrating into cultural discourse. The ultimate power to create a new approach, is stepping forward the paradigm, then the rest is a dominoes. It’s difficult to explain in this context, though creating an approach is most powerful for forward direction, when it is in alignment with all people. It has to overcome their resistance to galvanise a unity of action. It must take the other sides critique into account. It is a skilful use of the Will and intention.

  7. solarguy 3 years ago

    David you might find this interesting. About 30% of people I try to sell grid connect systems to, are climate change deniers to some extent, they don’t believe solar and wind can power the country. But do want solar to get their bills down. Their also likely to be the ones who use 43kwh/day on average by way of using the big ducted AC most days and bung the washing in the dryer, regardless of the weather, but swear blind they don’t. Their also the ones to blame their high bills on the carbon tax and Labor. Go figure.

  8. disqus_gF5uXVTUbL 3 years ago

    With this statement the greens are using a top down party driven approach, they are actually a bottom up approach in terms of seeking consensus within their party – though I get your point they are top down in terms of advocating for an ideal and hoping one day the ideal will translate into policy. Not that they will govern with their present approach. Recently I joined in an attempt to address their approach and attended their in person strategic review member feedback and their online feedback and online member forum. To overcome these problems I put forward a new general approach:
    a) set the goal to govern,
    b) continue working in house with internal member driven consensus by creating org structures for comprehensive policy development throughout local, state and federal levels,
    c) look to external consensus with other emergent political parties with the same values or values overlap, beginning with small like values orgs and moving towards bigger orgs,
    d) form working groups of ex-members from other political parties to workshop policy approaches with the other major parties,
    e) it doesn’t matter whether the greens integrate the policy interests of other special interest parties or if these parties actually feel so empathised with they end up joining the greens, the cooperation to govern is present,
    f) destroy the opposition by highlighting any misinformation etc

    The chief problem was many in the greens couldn’t get their head around what they felt were compromising their values by forming relationships with others. This has resulted in them largely standing along the sidelines as a protest party and fearing their core values will be lost if they relate to anyone else. I’ve endeavoured to highlight that setting a goal of no more than 2 degrees rise in temperature has not conflicted with later setting a goal of no more than 1.5 degrees rise in temperature. I’ve endeavoured to highlight fear and separation is the real issue, preventing alliances on common values. The basis of common values to form relationship with the greens is basically supporting the three principles of the economy, social justice and the environment. Even high goals like splitting the coalition in half by building relationship with the Nationals or their voters around a common care of the land need to be addressed. Also addressing the need of One Nation to have a structural understanding of oppression and wealth inequality, will enable them to focus less on minority groups and only on the minority group we all need address, the 1% who have amassed 15% of the wealth and no pulling away from the middle classes and poor. Of course all the minor parties could be effectively integrated like the Sustainability party, sex party etc. It’s really letting go of prejudice others needs are so different and doing the work to workshop policy with others. In this way, collective awareness is slowly increased and brought into a values based position and voters will sharpen their critique of contemporary society. In the past, the greens have merely complained others voted based upon xenophobia etc when really Trump and Hanson voters did for the wellbeing of their families. The greens are as xenophobic as anyone else.

  9. Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

    The punch in the jaw that was the election of Trump (and we probably needed it) is a reminder that we should not neglect the massive number of people who do need everything simplified for them.

    The Trump Presidency – I guess like every Presidency – had a lot of dirty tricks behind it. But the wake-up call is not that Trump is now POTUS. It is that 60 million people voted for this dunce out of spite for complexity. It’s a deserved punch in the jaw to the people who complicate matters, such as climate change.

    It’s now incumbent on people who are across the science and the issue, to simplify things so that ALL can get involved. Ditch the vegetarianism push, ditch the shaming on fuel usage and flights, and start promoting the simple COSTS SAVINGS aspects of acting on climate change – solar panels, efficient appliances, home insulation, electric cars, LED lighting, recyclling.

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