By Chris Wallace
Global warming is undergoing sentiment cooling in America, and Australian environmentalists would do well to take note of the shift in US attitudes flowing from the global financial crisis.
“Protecting the environment” has fallen sharply in the non-partisan Pew Research Center’s latest survey of priority issues for American voters in a plunge similar to that occurring after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The top five issues cited by voters as “a top priority” this January were the economy (85%), jobs (82%), terrorism (76%), social security (63%) and education (61%).
Protecting the environment has fallen from the tenth ranked top priority issue, cited by 56% of respondents in January 2008, to just sixteenth this year with 41% of voters surveyed considering it “a top priority”. The 15 point plunge occurred across party and gender lines.
“Global warming” came in at the bottom of top twenty priority list with the proportion of voters citing it as a top priority sliding from 38% in January 2007, to 35% in January 2008 and now to 30% this year.
The economy (up 10 points) and jobs (up 21 points) made the biggest gains in the priorities list. The biggest downgrades in addition to the environment were health care costs (down 10 points) and crime (down 8 points).
Republicans are already moving to exploit the gap between voters apparent downgrading of the environment as a concern and President Barack Obama’s positioning of global warming as a priority in his inauguration speech.
Democrats remain hopeful Obama can embed climate change initiatives in a bigger energy package on the back of general concerns about the US energy situation, which came in at sixth place (60%) in the survey.
There is some anecdotal evidence of the environment going off the boil, too.
At a progressive panel discussion led by Democrat-identified blogger Arianna Huffington in New York last week, for example, global warming and the environment generally were barely mentioned by panellists or audience members. Even a year ago it would likely have loomed large in a left intelligentsia discussion of that kind.
The Australian environment movement, which lacks any totemic wins since the Rudd Government’s election, may need to rethink its strategy in light of what US developments suggest lies ahead as the downturn hits home.
Big, old trees are still being cut down in Tasmania’s forests, the Lower Murray River remains in crisis and the government’s emissions trading scheme faces an uncertain Senate passage.
If few gains were made during the relatively benign year following the Rudd Government’s election, without a change of tack the environment movement’s dividends could remain paltry as the global financial crisis and slowing Chinese economy fully impacts. New ways may have to be devised for the coming harder times - and were probably needed anyway.
[email protected] 24 January, 2009