Creating Critical Mass for Political Action on Climate
Australia is at a turning point. Whether or not the movement in public opinion turns into a vote for the Greens depends on how quickly the major parties and the independents adopt effective climate change policies. So says Professor Nicholas Low of the Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport.
Nicholas Low in The Age (6 September 2010):
Effective policies are being demanded by more and more people.
The science of climate change does not appear to be understood by the leaders of the major political parties, though it appears to be better understood by at least three of the four elected independents, as well as by the Greens MP for Melbourne.
Climate change is not just a theory, it is a scientific fact, like gravity or the orbit of Earth around the sun. The consequences of global warming are so severe that avoiding climate change is not just a policy, it must become the overriding context of policy: economic policy, social policy, infrastructure policy and foreign policy, including policy on immigration and refugees.
The surging Greens vote in the federal election shows that after 20 years the public are now awakening to that reality.
People cannot be forced to accept the fact of climate change. But people are ultimately persuaded by rational argument and the objectivity of science. What I and my colleagues at the University of Melbourne’s transport research centre can do to put climate change at the top of the transport policy agenda is only a tiny part of a widespread movement of general persuasion about climate change that is now taking off.
Politicians sometimes forget that today people do not have to be told what to think. They actually persuade one another in a process that seems to go on beneath the political radar.
It is ”under the radar” because opinion polls and focus groups can only deliver snapshots of the present. They do not pick up underlying long-term movements.
Consider the following thought experiment on mutual persuasion. Suppose we date the start of public persuasion at 1990, the date of publication of the first report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.
Let us suppose that each year one person who accepts that climate change is real and requires strong action persuades one other person to think the same way. At the end of 1991 there are two people who are persuaded.
In the following year, those two people each now persuade one other person, so at the end of 1992 there are four people. Thus each year the number of people who think action on climate change is needed doubles.
How long will it take for a majority of the Australian electorate to be persuaded that effective action on climate change is necessary?
Considering that by the year 2000, only 1024 people have been persuaded, one might think that we will have to wait a very long time for all the voters of Australia to come round. But of course this is not so. Continue the doubling each year and by the end of this year, about a million people will have been persuaded.
What lessons can we draw from this thought experiment? In reality, the process by which the public takes on a new idea is very uneven. As debate over the issue rages in the media and in the political arena, in some places and among some sections of the public the process will be much slower, or even go the other way. Correctly, action on climate change is seen to have a cost. In other places, persuasion will move much faster.
In some periods opinion will surge and at other times retreat. A single movie, such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, can persuade thousands in one year. Readers of Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees (based firmly on the published science) will be frightened out of their wits by the dangers of climate change.
Sober government-sponsored reports, such as those by Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut, carry weight with policymakers. If people with power over policy are persuaded, then action may even move in advance of public opinion. But perhaps it is reasonable to suppose that, on average, all the unevenness might balance out, and a time scale not unlike that in the thought experiment might occur.
If this is so, this year we are just at the point on the exponential curve of mutual persuasion when public opinion really begins to take off. In the next three years, according to the curve, the population demanding action will grow more than eightfold. Perhaps the result of the federal election, in which the Greens received about 1.5 million votes, shows that Australians are moving faster than the thought experiment.
Those who believe that climate change requires real and effective action, which must include putting a cap and a price on carbon emissions, are still a minority. According to the thought experiment, however, the next three years will see that minority rapidly swell into an overwhelming majority in Australia.
This movement goes beyond party politics and even beyond the Greens. Australia is at a turning point. Whether or not the movement in public opinion turns into a vote for the Greens depends on how quickly the major parties and the independents adopt effective climate change policies.
Professor Nicholas Low is director of the Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport, at Melbourne University