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Carbon Tax Adds to Australia’s Climate Confusion

The fierce political debate over the country's carbon legislation has led to mixed messages and public mistrust in climate science

Sydney, Australia: Since the year began in Australia, bushfires have raged, heat records have been broken across the country, a cyclone devastated the north, and rivers have flooded. In early January, the heat waves were unprecedented, not only in their intensity but also in their duration and reach across large parts of the continent. Sydney recorded its hottest temperature ever at 114.44°F (45.8°C). The hot and dry conditions caused widespread bushfires, and destroyed more than one hundred homes in Tasmania. It got so hot that the country’s meteorology department extended Australia’s temperature range and added two new colors — purple and pink — to its weather map,

photoname Photo by Flickr user LeorexA thunderstorm over Sydeny. Although Australia has always experienced extreme weather events,
they are becoming more frequent and more destructive.

The extreme heat was followed by cyclone Oswald, which caused five tornadoes, destructive winds, and heavy rainfall. Rivers flooded, damaging houses and businesses. Roads disappeared under water and isolated smaller towns for days. In New South Wales, the Clarence River rose so high it broke a record set 120 years ago. Weather patterns seemed to swing from one extreme to another.

Despite this continuing spate of extreme weather events, public support for action on climate change has been declining in the country.

Australia has always been susceptible to natural disasters, and many Australians have experienced first hand their impact. Jenna Gabriel describes how bushfires can start without warning and leave a path of destruction. One Christmas day, her family received a call to go home immediately because a fire was raging towards their house at 62 miles per hour. There was no time to gather their photos or valuables. All they could do was water down the walls and flee, as sparks flew terrifyingly close to the road, starting spot fires where they landed. “We were told as we were leaving that we had lost the house,” she recalls. Miraculously, as the fire raced through the surrounding bush land, it jumped over the roof and into the treetops on the other side. Her house survived, but everything else in its path was destroyed.

Farmers in particular understand that the Australian weather can be unrelenting and change rapidly. One crop that has been damaged by the recent flooding is sugar cane. “It’s bizarre,” says Steve Ryan, from the Australian Cane Farmers Association. “There has been damage to the low lying crops, but the higher areas have actually been affected by drought.” Cane farmers understand that their crops are vulnerable to the weather. Ryan explains that floods have been occurring in a cyclical way for years, and that records date back to the 1800s. “The climate has always changed,” he says, stressing the importance of learning to cope with a constantly changing environment.

However, recent studies show that although Australia has always experienced extreme weather events, they are becoming more frequent and more destructive. A report by the Australian Climate Commission indicates that climate change contributed to the hot conditions this summer, and will continue to increase the risk of extreme weather.

So why this drop in support for action on climate change?

Since the 1950s, each decade in Australia has been warmer than the previous one. However, there are short-term variations. Public concern about climate change was very high five years ago, at the peak of the worst drought in Australia’s history. Often referred to as the millennium drought, it lasted almost 10 years in some areas, causing extreme water shortages in many cities and towns across the country. For most of the country, this drought broke in 2010, and two years of cooler weather and high rainfall followed. This cooler period occurred as the initial debates over the implementation of carbon pricing legislation began. At the peak of the drought, Bureau of Statistics reported that a very high 73 per cent of the population was concerned about climate change. By 2012, this number had dropped to just 53 per cent.

It appears this slump in public concern coincides with the carbon pricing legislation, which aims to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. Though the tax has been praised internationally, it is highly unpopular within Australia and has damaged the ratings of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her government. A number of surveys conducted last year show that a clear majority of Australians are against the carbon legislation, and that support for action on climate change more generally has also decreased since its implementation.

An insightful study by Climate Institute titled ‘Climate of the Nation’, found that 66 percent of the population is confused about the many conflicting messages surrounding global warming. The fierce political debate over the carbon legislation has led to mixed messages about climate change itself. According to the report, concern about climate change is largely consistent with voting patterns. Global warming seems to have become an overwhelmingly political issue, rather than an environmental one.

The lasting result is that the Australian people no longer trust the information they are given by institutions, politicians, businesses, and the media. This politicization of climate change has confused the Australian public, and appears to have resulted in less overall support for taking action against it.

It seems that observations of extreme weather events may ultimately change opinions on the issue. After almost losing her house to a bush fire, Gabriel says she is unsure about whether specific disasters can be attributed to climate change. However, she notes, “The disasters are definitely occurring more often. Especially in the last few years.”

“Predicting the future is complex and uncertain,” says Sebastian Oliva, who is completing a PhD in renewable energy. “If you have more storms, and you have more bushfires, people will believe what they experience, not what they are told.” Christina Stefanova from the Climate Institute echoes this observation. “Our research shows quite clearly that people in regions impacted by extreme weather, such as drought or bushfires, are more concerned about climate impacts than those in areas that have not experienced such events,” she says.

Environmental groups that advocate for action on climate change have had to deal with a distrusting and confused public. Their challenge now is to reclaim climate change as an issue that affects our society and our environment.

Jemma Williams
Jemma Williams has an Honours degree in International Studies and specialises in sustainable development. She writes about social justice and environmental issues. Jemma is currently based in Sydney, Australia.

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