‘Here be dragons’: Australian climate change policy reform

Sean Barry*

Brisbane, December 7, 2015 (Alochonaa): The traditional idea that old maps had the words ‘here be dragons’ near their edges to warn the unwary seafarer of the unknown, appears to be as mythical as the serpents they were supposed to depict. No maps have yet been discovered portraying these creatures of legend in this manner. Despite these map dragons failing to exist, dragons of inaction on climate change exist and they are alive and well in Australia. They seem to frighten both policy-makers and the community from venturing too close to sensible and effective climate change policy intervention. These dragons of inaction will make it difficult for the next legitimate reformer of climate change policy in Australia. Although Australia no longer prices carbon (and was the first country on earth to remove such a measure) it is highly likely it will again have to consider the option in the future. No doubt ideological opponents and rent-seeking special interest groups will complain again. The premise here is that Australians will never allow large scale GHG emissions reform to take place if the problem is framed solely, or largely, as an environmental issue. It is time to promote change based on economic arguments.

For issues such as climate change the behaviour of individuals is influenced by more than legislation. Humans live with a ‘value-action gap’ about the environment— concern about the environment often does not translate into behavioural change. The value-action gap is driven by both structural and psychological reasons. Structural issues can include poverty, low incomes, living in country areas or a colder region, or infrastructure that is climate-averse. Theoretically in wealthy economies such as Australia, these can be overcome. Psychological barriers are shared around the world and are much more challenging, stifling both positive individual and collective action. In perhaps the most comprehensive attempt by a researcher to identify the psychological barriers to climate change policy reform, Gifford identifies his dragons of inaction. He divides them into seven groupings with a total of 29 barriers. The fact there are 29 illustrates the complexity of the problem facing policy-makers. Gifford’s research demonstrates the convoluted possibilities that might act on an individual’s opinions and behaviour and the obvious difficulties faced by policy-makers. Climate change is a ‘wicked’ problem. For those wishing to combat they also face the predicament of Gidden’s Paradox. The dangers of global warming seem so distant that it will only be when the effects become acute that people will finally act to make change. Obviously by then it is will be too late to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change. Australians also demonstrate these traits.

Recent data from research shows Australians increasingly want the country to lead in climate change responses. A majority think the Coalition should take climate change more seriously, with only a minority seeing the Direct Action plan as credible and effective. Whilst increasing numbers support carbon pricing, they are ‘not prepared to pay much for it.’ Both major parties seem to be distrusted to deal with climate change but they will be the entities that will have to manage reform. Those same parties do face substantial opposition to climate change responses from mining interest groups that have produced what some have called a ‘quarry economy’. An approach needs to be sought that weakens the influences of these groups by increasing demands for change within the community.

Australian elections are commonly fought about and won or lost on the back of policies addressing issues in the economy. The ABC’s Vote Compass data asked Australians to nominate the most important issue for them at the 2013 election, it was the economy that triumphed as an issue on 28 percent. A question posed in research conducted by The Lowy Institute asked Australians, ‘if you had to choose between a good democracy or a strong economy, which one would you personally choose?’ The choice opting for good democracy (53%) was almost eclipsed by a preference for a strong economy (42%). This data might be disturbing for some, but understandable and commonplace to others. The two major parties in Australia established early values that enshrined the importance of economic matters and emphasised the continuing need to provide a greater share of wealth to individuals. Think of the campaign waged by the Tony Abbott opposition in Australia. One of its major tenets was a misleading argument that Australians were financially worse off under a carbon price, appealing to the economic rather than the environmental. Forming an emotional connection to climate change policy reform based on economic advantage may also play its part to weaken the divisions between conservative and progressive voters with public attitudes to climate change generally divided down party political lines.

The message for climate change policy reformers is to frame early and frame correctly—you may not be given another opportunity. Climate change policy research suggests this is particularly so in that policy area. Scientific evidence just bounces off people and it is social views and cultural beliefs that are important in predicting denial. Values and cultural beliefs are difficult to change and so policy-makers will not succeed by using data, studies and tactics of fear alone to attempt to influence change in attitudes. It is also important to ‘win the battle’ early for a government trying to gain public support for policy. Early frames presented by politicians are powerful and people have a preference for early frames, dogmatically adhering to supporting them in preference to later frames.

So, as one way to assist in carbon pricing for Australians, frame the policy purely in economic terms, highlighting the advantages for industries and jobs both now and into the future. Decide on policy initiatives and direction early and get the message out there. A large number of Australians do not want to hear any more about dangerous climate change, fires, sea levels rises and personal responsibility. They want to hear about a strong economic future, increasing wealth and advantages for the individual. After all, you have to work with the political environment with which you are presented and these dragons are worth slaying in the long-term interests of the world.

*Sean Barry is a PhD student in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. His dissertation is about reasons prompting economic reform in Australia over the last forty years. One of his case studies concentrates on the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future Package. This has given him a burning interest in climate change policy reform. His general research interests include policy change (reform); economic reform; culture of change; climate change policy; and leadership.

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Categories: Australia, climate change

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