12 August 2010

It’s official: Coalition politicians are less certain than their Labor counterparts that climate change exists and less likely to consider it a serious threat to human existence, a new survey shows.

The inaugural Political Leaders and Climate Change Index (PLCCI) – co-sponsored by the Global Change Institute and the Institute for Social Science Research, both at The University of Queensland - demonstrates that beliefs about climate change diverge dramatically along political lines.

Dr Kelly Fielding, of UQ's Institute for Social Science Research, said preliminary results from the survey confirmed that Labor politicians have a greater belief and comprehension of climate change and its impacts.

"Liberal/National politicians, on the other hand, are expressing uncertainty about climate change - they aren't convinced that it is a serious threat to humans or that the current impacts are serious," Dr Fielding said.

The survey of more than 300 federal, state and local government political leaders highlights that the political debate around climate change is based on significantly different levels of knowledge and understanding of the issue.

It showed that Labor and Liberal political leaders are also influenced by different sources.

While the results show that scientists generally have the most influence over politicians’ knowledge of climate change, the level of influence varies significantly between politicians on the left and right of the spectrum.

"Labor politicians are more influenced by scientists than Liberal/National politicians - 85 per cent of Labor politicians are highly influenced by this group compared to 44 per cent of Liberal/National politicians," Dr Fielding said.

The Director of UQ's Global Change Institute, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, said he was surprised by the results.

“They suggest that many politicians are not going to the experts for information on this important matter,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“The survey confirms suspicions of a great political divide. On one hand, you have political leaders that are listening to the science on climate change and are taking it extremely seriously.

"On the other, you have others who have less regard for the science and appear not to fully understand the serious nature of climate change for Australia and the world.

“It is of great concern that a large number of political leaders do not feel compelled by the overwhelming scientific case for climate change.

"So the question needs to be asked - where do those political leaders who are not highly-influenced by science get their information on climate change?

“Why they would not be influenced by climate change experts who have spent their careers exploring this critically important issue in a non-biased fashion needs answering.”

In addition to scientists, environmental groups, international figures and constituents were considered as influential sources by all respondents, irrespective of their political persuasion.

Labor politicians are more influenced by environmental groups than their Coalition counterparts with just over one-third of Liberal/National respondents reporting they were not at all influenced by environmental groups on the issue of climate change.

For Coalition politicians their top priority lay with "managing a strong economy", a big bottom line (60.3 per cent).

Only 2.7 per cent ranked "tackling global warming" as paramount, and 5.5 per cent nominated "protecting the environment".

By comparison, almost one-quarter of Labor politicians highlighted "tackling poverty and social disadvantage" as the most important issue (24.7 per cent), followed by "managing a strong economy" (19.6 per cent), on an equal footing as "tackling global warming" (19.6 percent) and "protecting the environment" (11.3 per cent).

Interestingly, a sample of the general population surveyed on the same issues as part of the PLCCI, highlighted that political leaders overall were less likely to believe in climate change, and the need to act, than members of the public.

“What is surprising is that the community remains convinced that climate change is a major challenge and yet some political leaders appear to be denying climate change," Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

"There is a significant political divide on climate change and it would be good politics to rethink this particular issue.”

Despite this, politicians thought their own beliefs in the facts that underpinned climate change were stronger than their electorate’s beliefs.

"The idea that there might be a disparity between what politicians think the electorate believes about climate change, and what their electorate actually does believe has significant implications for how politicians prioritise climate change as an issue," Dr Fielding said.

Survey summary data: http://gci.uq.edu.au/PLCCI.pdf

Media: Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Director Global Change Institute The University of Queensland oveh@uq.edu.au mobile/cell: +61 (0) 401 106 604

Dr Kelly Fielding
Institute for Social Science Research School of Psychology (Adjunct) The University of Queensland k.fielding@uq.edu.au
mobile/cell +61 (0) 400 128 084

Dr Mark Western
Director Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland m.western@uq.edu.au tel: +61 7 3346 7344

Robert Mackay-Wood
Communications Manager Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland r.mackaywood@uq.edu.au tel (+61 7) 3346 9041 mobile/cell: +61(0) 410 491 159

Dr Brian Head
Program Leader Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland brian.head@uq.edu.au tel: +61 7 3346 7450

About the Global Change Institute
The Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, investigates complex, interconnected, large-scale global issues in innovative ways, in order to contribute evidence-based, progressive solutions to the major problems of a rapidly-changing world. The GCI is a vehicle for collaborative research, learning, engagement and advocacy. It seeks to partner with third-parties and achieve multi-disciplinary, integrated solutions to global change issues within the existing and projected frameworks of those problems: political, environmental, social, economic and technological.

About the Institute for Social Science Research
The Institute for Social Science Research at The University of Queensland is one of Australia's largest social science institutes. ISSR researchers address some of the most important issues and challenges facing Australia today and work in close co-operation with government agencies, corporations and community organisations. Our research is broad, multidisciplinary and informed by the latest developments in social science theory and methods. ISSR conducts research on priority issues and offers commercial services and training for public and private sector organisations.