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Are Australians more concerned about climate — or are Lowy polls loaded and misleading?

The new Lowy Poll has got some commentators arguing that climate fear is rising in Australia. What the survey actually shows is that 55% of Australian don’t want to spend money fighting climate change. The Lowy poll asked loaded questions, didn’t ask people to rank their concerns, and showed nearly everyone was critically worried about nearly everything. Was there a point?

Predictably, one small uptick is portrayed to pretend the climate religion is gaining momentum again.

The SMH leaps to say the climate of dread is heating up (they wish):

“In a striking shift in public opinion, 45% of Australians now see global warming as a ‘serious and pressing problem’, up 5 points since 2013 and 9 points since 2012. 63% of Australians say the government ‘should take a leadership role on reducing emissions’, while only 28% say ‘it should wait for an international consensus before acting’.” — Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald.

How important is a 5 point shift? The survey was of 1,000 adults in Feb 2014. The margin of error is 3.1%.

Peter Hannam doesn’t mention that the level of concern is 22 points down on the high that was recorded in 2006 when 68% of people thought climate change was a “critical threat”. Nor does he mention that more than 40% of Australians think nearly everything in the survey is a critical threat.

These threats are not prioritized. The Lowy institute didn’t ask people to rank their concerns. Peter Hannam could have given SMH readers the full perspective on the news- but evidently chose not too. His title is Environment Editor, not Climate Activist, though that might be more honest. The SMH also gave space to The Climate Institute which predictably pushed the scare factor too. Did they contact any skeptics? If they’d asked me I would have said that almost every other survey shows the long slow decline of a belief in man-made global warming. On the internet, people are just not looking. A CSIRO survey showed 53% of Australians don’t think humans are causing climate change, and 80% of Australians chose not to voluntarily pay money for “the environment”, and in 2013 only 16% of all Australians were “very worried”. The reason the Lowy survey shows something so different, is thanks to the loaded question design, and lack of options for half the population.

Are you super worried, a bit worried, or not worried – yet? (You will be!)

The Lowy Institute claim their annual Poll has “challenged preconceived notions about Australians’ views”. Shame their poll results have not challenged their own preconceived views. In Table 13 they assume climate change is a “problem” and something we have to deal with. The options are three shades of alarm. Skeptics are not people who’ve made a different choice, but merely alarmists who haven’t realized it yet.  The weakest answer allowed is until we are sure that global warming is really a problem we should not take any steps that would have economic costs”. It’s just a matter of time, right?

Respondents are pretty good at figuring out what the surveyors want them to say. In the long run, I daresay it will surprise the Lowy team when they realize the skeptics were right.


Table 13 (Click to enlarge)

As well as not starting with a loaded question, a neutral survey would offer a 3 or even 5 point scale with pro-action choices, neutral and skeptical options. Other groups that have done this — like the recent UK survey, showed fully 62% of UK citizens don’t believe in man-made climate. That survey was one of the first to ask very specific and useful questions and offer a simple Agree/Disagree/Neutral choice. It also showed that  educated high income respondents were more likely to be skeptical than manual workers and less skilled respondents.

The Lowy Institute could have asked whether the real problem with global warming is that climate models don’t work, predictions are wrong, and scientists have been exaggerating. Just having that option there would shift all the other response rates wouldn’t it rather?

Even so, 45% of people chose “significant” costs , while 55% chose low or no cost, or don’t know.  What does significant mean? Even in the halycon days of climate fears in 2008, at least 52% of Australians were not willing to spend anything over $10 a month on climate change. (That was from the Lowy Institute poll of 2008).

Everything is critical!

In table 11 climate change is ranked 6th 9th of 12 in “total: important threat”. But the Lowy Institute didn’t ask people about some of their most pressing concerns at all — namely, “the economy”. It also didn’t ask people to rank their fears. This is a Santa wish list — a kind of “name everything” — it’s a you-can-have-it-all list. If everything is “critical” then nothing is.

When even the least feared option is perceived as an “important threat” by 75% of respondents, you know this is blunt instrument. 

Table 11 (Click to enlarge)

In table 12 (below) about half the population will say “yes” when asked if something (anything) is a critical threat and are also not asked to choose between threats. Given the error in the response rate, this makes a fair bit of the table fairly uninsightful. The top two threats are probably significantly perceived as more threatening, and the bottom one less, but this is not as useful as forcing people to choose. When they do, climate change universally ends up near the bottom of the list.

Only 3% of Americans name the environment as the top issue. In the recent CSIRO survey Australians ranked climate change as 14th out of 16 concerns.

Did the Lowy institute really want to find out what Australians think? They say they are non-partisan, but on climate change they aren’t hearing the voices of half of Australia.

Table 12 (Click to enlarge)

In  Table 14 should we be “leaders” or “do nothings”

Golly – tough choices. Doesn’t it make you feel good to be someone who asks the government to do nothing? I’ve offered some more appealing and “leader like” options below that the Lowy Institute could have asked.

Table 14 (Click to enlarge)

Imagine if they had also given people just questions like:

Do we suppose that  these options would have received 0%, 0% and 0%?  So some percentage would have been dragged out of all three categories and shifted down the ladder of concern. If the same survey was done with 3 believer choices and 3 skeptical choices, we might finally get a meaningful answer.

Poor Sydney Morning Herald readers (especially those that watch the ABC too) will be continually disappointed and surprised as reality overtakes them. Presumably circulation figures will keep falling. Lowy Institute fans might pause too, to wonder if the institute is achieving much with preconceived notions and loaded surveys?

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