If press reports and general news reports are to be believed the issues of environmental sustainability, climate change, pollution and habitat destruction are topics critical to not just social development but economic prosperity as well. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore in 2007 was something of a call to action to both governments and individuals that environmental issues were critical to our wellbeing. 2007 was, to those supporting environmental causes, a watershed that would potentially propel humanity toward a more sustainable future.
The last several years have, however, opened the environmental debate to greater scrutiny and the reality of public and political realpolitik. This has manifest itself in the unseemly public battle over the credibility of climate scientists as well as the effective collapse of the Kyoto agreements as governments either fail to live up to their promises or walk away from the agreement altogether.
In Australia these issues have found their way into many different forums but was most prominent in the fall of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and the heated political battle over the institution of a carbon tax. In many ways the battle is reflective of the society. On the one hand, Australia is urban, liberal and in sync with its natural beauty. On the other hand, the country is one of the world’s largest resource suppliers, particularly of carbon-based fuels, such as coal.
But how does this sit with the public at large? In 2007, my colleague Pat Auger and I began a project aimed at examining the social, political and economic values of various societies. We started, naturally, with Australia and have subsequently expanded the study to examine other countries as well. However, we are unique in having very detailed measures of individual’s social, economic and political trade-offs that allow us to examine a large number of wide ranging issues – from children’s schooling, to public debt, to transportation, to third world poverty, to human rights.*
One of the areas where we have quite detailed information is on how individuals value environmental concerns. Without getting into all of the details of this (a report will be made available in late April) we can see how environmental issues, in general, stack up against other general categories of social, economic and political concern. In addition, we can look deeper into people’s concerns by examining how specific environmental issues stack up against both more mundane daily issues (e.g., interest rates, schooling, transport, work conditions, etc.) and general global issues (e.g., nuclear proliferation, third world debt, human slavery, etc.).
What is interesting with respect to environmental sustainability is that between our investigation in 2007 and the one we conducted last year was that environmental concerns, in general, declined from being the third highest category of issues (just below “crime and public safety” and “rights to basic services”) to being 8th out of 16 categories in 2011.
The significance of this decline is reinforced when we investigated the specific environmental issues that make up the category and compare them to the 113 different social, economic and political issues we investigated. When we examined which issues where in the “top 25” concerns in 2007, we found that 5 of the 9 specific sustainability issues showed up – Industrial Pollution (5th), Alternative Energy Generation (8th), Climate Change, (12th), Deforestation and Habitat Destruction (13th), and Depletion of Energy Resources (25th). No environmental issue found its way into the bottom 25 concerns of the Australian population.
When we examined this at the end of last year the changes were startling. Only one issue – Deforestation and Habitat Destruction (at 24th, falling from 13th) – remained in the top 25 concerns, while two issues – Personal/Household Pollution (89th, falling from 73rd in 2007) and Pollution for Ancillary, Non-Industrial, Sources (90th, falling from 40th in 2007) – found their way into the bottom 25 concerns. Of the big issues in 2007 there were dramatic declines: Industrial Pollution fell to 30th (from 5th), Alternative Energy Generation fell to 41st (from 8th), Climate Change fell to 51st (from 12th), and Depletion of Energy Resources fell to 31st (from 25th).
Overall, this reveals a startling decline in concerns about environmental sustainability across the Australian population.
An initial reaction to this might be that this decline can be attributed to the Global Financial Crisis. However, this is not the case. The issues that rise in terms of importance as the environmental issues fall are mixed – including issues about Food & Health and Civil Liberties. Although concerns about the Cost of Daily Living rise to 3rd overall this concern was already in the top 10 in 2007 (at 9th). What we see in our data is not that environmental concerns are being pushed down but that they are simply falling and other issues are rising to fill the void.
If anything this information is very depressing to those hoping that the euphoria of 2007 would be sustainable (in a different meaning of the term). The reality is that this has not turned out to be the case. It is possible that 2007 was nothing more than an aberration associated with the phenomenon that was An Inconvenient Truth and that what we see from 2010 is closer to the long-term trend in the value of environmental sustainability to the general population.
Either way, those believing concerns about the environment are politically relevant because they resonate at the grassroots will need to seriously reconsider how they muster political support for their cause.
*The data reported here are based on two population studies involving 1,751 and 1,443 people in the two years respectively.