Australians are far less split on partisan lines than Americans on whether they accept the need to act on climate change, and are far more likely regardless of party allegiance to be willing to pay a carbon tax to cut fossil fuel use, a study has found.
The research by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney found a majority of both Australians and Americans said climate change was happening at least in significant part due to human activity, and they would support a plan to cut fossil fuel use by raising taxes, including a carbon tax.
For all questions, support for acting on the climate crisis was greater in Australia. Researchers found 78% of Australians supported reducing fossil fuel use and 64% raising taxes to help do that.
Among people who voted for the Morrison government at this year’s election, 62% said they backed cutting fossil fuel use and nearly half, 48%, supported higher taxes.
There was overwhelming support to both questions from people who voted for Labor (88% and 79% respectively) or the Greens (96% and 88%).
The divide in the US between people who voted for Donald Trump and those who backed Hillary Clinton at the 2016 presidential election was much greater.
Across all voters in the US, support for reducing fossil fuel use was at 68%. That fell to 54% when people were asked if they would support a plan that required higher taxes. There was overwhelming support on both counts among those who backed Clinton, the failed 2016 Democrat candidate (95% and 82% respectively).
But only 29% of people who voted for Trump supported reducing fossil fuel use. The proportion of Trump voters prepared to pay a carbon tax to address the issue was just 24%.
Across all parties in both countries, including a category counting non-voters and other minor party voters, Trump supporters were the only group in which a majority did not think that climate change had been occurring either mostly due to human activity or equally due to human activity and natural causes.
Just 30% of Trump supporters thought humans were significantly contributing to climate change. Among Coalition voters in Australia, it was 60%.
A slim majority of Coalition voters (between 52% and 58%) said they believed climate change would cause more droughts and water shortages, increasingly severe storms and harm to wildlife. Trump voters (between 26% and 29%) disagreed.
Shaun Ratcliff, a political science lecturer with the centre, said the survey results showed there was a significant difference between Australia and US politics on the right.
While Clinton voters were similar to Australian Labor and Greens voters on climate change, Trump voters “looked nothing like” Coalition voters, he said. “Republican voters are much more ideological than Coalition voters are on this issue,” he said.
Ratcliff said polarisation in the US was not a result of Trump but started decades ago. He may have exacerbated it but was not the cause. This was true on a range of issues, including climate change.
He said it was evidence a Trumpian approach to politics was less likely to have sustained success in Australia.
“The Liberal party is very different to the Republican party and there is a lot of concern in the Australian public about climate change,” Ratcliff said. “People say they want action.”
He said Labor’s failure to win government with a more ambitious platform on climate change may have in part been due to how that was handled. “If you’re making major changes, voters have to have confidence you have the ability to do it well and won’t make things worse. If they fear that, you may not win their support.”
The surveys were collected in both countries by YouGov, a global opinion and data company, over a week in late July, before Australia’s ongoing bushfire crisis. They are part of a broader study called Public Opinion in the Age of Trump. Different parts of the survey were released to different media outlets ahead of the report’s publication on Wednesday.
Ratcliff said it was unclear whether concern about bushfires that have engulfed Sydney and other centres in smoke would change public opinion, and if it did whether that change would last.
“If the public does come to see the fires and the smoke and the destruction we’re seeing along the east coast as being exacerbated by climate change and believe the Coalition is not doing enough that could have an impact,” he said.
The sample size was 1,800 in the US and 1,820 in Australia; the margin of error 2.3% in Australia and 2.8% in the US.
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