Are most Australians really climate 'agnostics'?

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Former Prime Minister John Howard claimed Australians had "settled into a state of sustained agnosticism" on climate change. Is this true?

Last year, former conservative Australian prime minister John Howardgave a speech at the climate-change denying Global Warming Policy Foundation in London.

In his speech, he derided climate change mitigation advocates as "alarmists" and "zealots" for whom "the cause has become a substitute religion". He also said that politicians should not heed the advice of scientists when making policy, and repeated the denialist line that climate change was natural: "Of course the climate is changing. It always has," he said. 

Most extraordinarily, for man who was renowned by the media as having the pulse of Australians, he made the claim that:

The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue.

John Howard's prime ministership was notable for several things in Australia: The cruel and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, thesquandering of a once-in-a-generation mining boom, the privatisation of many national assets, trashing of Australia's productivity through WorkChoices, taking Australia blindly into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq, and the dubious honour of leading the highest taxing and most profligate government in Australia's history.

On climate change, he was also an abject failure as prime minister. He refused ratify the Kyoto Protocol, lumping Australia in with global climate change pariah George W. Bush, and refused to countenance a renewable energy target. His government dithered over the crucialMurray Darling Basin system, pushing it to the point of collapse.

Howard's excuse was that, so far as climate change policy was concerned, he hit a perfect storm of decade-long drought combined with the release of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth.

Now that the drought has broken, Howard asserts, most people have become climate agnostics.

Agnosticism is a synonym for "skepticism" or "unbelieving". With deeply ironic theological overtones, an agnostic is someone who believes that nothing can ever known about the existence or non-existence of God. Applied to "climate agnosticism" it implies that nothing is know or can be known about whether climate change is real or caused by human activity. (It is real and is caused by human activity.)

Does his view hold up? Are Australians climate agnostics?

The Essential Report, a regular poll of topical issues and voting intentions in Australia, asked the question:

Do you believe that there is fairly conclusive evidence that climate change is happening and caused by human activity or do you believe that the evidence is still not in and we may just be witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth's climate which happens from time to time?

The results are shown in the graph below, tracking along with the two-party preferred vote.

Australian polling on climate change attitudes

Graphic: Polling of Australian attitudes to climate change, including two-party preferred polling numbers. Graph by Alex White. Poll numbers by Essential Research.

This shows that although acceptance of man-made climate change fell in 2010 after the federal election, it has remained fairly consistently a majority.

Similarly, while belief in "natural fluctuation" rose during the three year scare campaign run by Tony Abbott against the carbon price, but fell sharply in May 2013.

Climate denialism also does not follow support for the Liberal/National party, although the latest poll numbers suggest that only 36% of LNP supporters accept human-caused climate change, compared to 67% Labor supporters and 82% Greens party supporters.

How does this compare to John Howard's view that "most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue"?

In Australia, the figures are very clear. A majority of Australians accept that humans are causing global warming. John Howard is simply wrong with regard to Australia.

Howard does hedge though. His statement is "people in countries like ours". Assuming he means industrialised English speaking countries, then what are the views in the USA and UK (where he gave his speech)?

In the USA, another country with a very powerful, rich and loud climate denialist astroturf movement, the figures are even more conclusive.

23% of Americans don't believe that global warming is not happening, compared to 63% who do, according to the most recent research from November 2013. (The figures do show an increase in public skepticism of climate change since the low point in 2012.)

The UK meanwhile has the most skeptical public: According to YouGov polls, in April 2013

39% think human activity was making the world warmer, 16% think the world is getting warmer, but not because of humanity, 28% thought the world was NOT getting warmer. 17% weren't sure.

However, the same poll asked whether the recent "patchy" weather was normal or a sign of climate change. 46% of respondents agreed that the "patches are signs of the climate changing, producing unusual weather patterns", compared to 40% are just "normal ups and downs". Additionally, the YouGov report notes that the way people believe in climate change in the UK has changed, with people increasingly identifying climate change, not with warming, but "more extreme and unpredictable" weather.

There's no doubt that Australia and countries like the USA and UK have seen an extraordinary effort made by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in the climate denialist machine.

<a "="" href="">The Guardian has previously revealed that a group of anonymous billionaires have spent more than $120 million funding more than 100 climate denial groups in an effort to discredit climate science.

Graphic: climate denial funding

Graphic: climate denial funding

In Australia, extremist business figures like Maurice Newman have used the national pulpit of The Australian newspaper to repeat discredited denialist talking points. Even publishers like Fairfax publish conspiracy-laden denialist articles seeking to discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Media reporting of climate denial may not have seen a majority of Australians become denialists, but it does reinforce the beliefs of people who are denialists.

As Reddit science moderator Nathan Allen noted, vocal climate denialists are:

true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking. They had no idea that the smart-sounding talking points from their preferred climate blog were, even to a casual climate science observer, plainly wrong. They were completely enamored by the emotionally charged and rhetoric-based arguments of pundits on talk radio and Fox News.

This is the kind of public discourse on climate change fostered by news publishers like Murdoch-owned The Australian. Opinions of climate denialists are becoming hardened and conspiratorial (witnessed by the likes of Abbott denigrating the carbon price as "socialism masquerading as environmentalism").

Despite this right-wing media cheer-squad, John Howard is living in a right-wing fantasy world if he truly believes that "most" are "sustained agnostics" on climate change. His view is simply not supported by public polling figures.

It is clear however that Australia has been taken over by a coterie of climate denialists, decision-makers who either don't believe in climate change at all, or don't accept the dangers.

John Howard ended his speech with a clarion call for increased drilling of shale oil and gas, incredibly under the rubric of "energy independence". It looks like his protégé Tony Abbott wants to take Australia down areckless path of fossil fuel addiction, and to make Australia an utterly dependent charco-state.