08 March 2019

SHOCK, HORROR: Poll finds strong majority support for declaring a climate emergency

Panel discussion at the City of Darebin's climate emergency conference, September 2018. Photo: John Englart.
by David Spratt, published at RenewEconomy on 8 March 2019

In five countries —  Australia, the USA, Canada, the UK and Switzerland  — an impressive 382 local government authorities covering more than 33 million people have recognised or declared a climate emergency. And now polling conducted in Melbourne shows that a sizeable majority in that city support declaring a climate emergency.

That will be a shock for some of Australia’s largest climate advocacy organisations, who have steadfastly refused to use the climate emergency framing, saying that such language is not plausible, is not supported by market research or that appeals to fear do not work.

Perhaps they should tell that to David Wallace-Wells, the author of the just released book, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, which is destined to become a runaway best seller.

Wallace Wells says that “fear is what animated me.”  He explains: “To go back to the Second World War analogy, we did not mobilise in that way because we were optimistic about the future. We mobilised in that way out of fear, because we thought Nazism was an existential threat. And climate change is obviously an existential threat and it is naive to imagine we could respond to it without some people being scared”.

[Counterposing “fear” and “hope” narratives is a false dichotomy, because both are needed. Research shows that increased commitment to taking action can be achieved by just reading a climate message that forthrightly describes the seriousness of our situation. Strong fear messages have been found to be more effective than weak fear messages; when fear is combined with hope, this can create an emotional drive that motivates a change of habit.]

In the UK and Australia, school students strikers for climate action embrace the “climate emergency” story in their advocacy.

And now we have research which shows that Australians are embracing this language too.

In December 2016, the City of Darebin in Melbourne’s inner north became the first council to recognise the climate emergency. Subsequently, the council contracted the agency Common Cause to advise on communicating the council’s stance. It was an interesting choice, because Common Cause in their public workshops had never embraced the emergency narrative.

Common Cause facilitated the dial testing (real-time quantitative testing of an audience’s response) of five different, short messages of less than a hundred words each. The online dial test was undertaken with a representative sample of 900 Melbourne residents.

And the results? Messages were tested on three audience segments:
  • Opposition, comprising 26.9% of the test group: strongly-held views unlikely to change their view just because of a different narrative and opposed to the thrust of the test messages.

  • Persuadable, comprising 46.6%  of the test group: those who are open to persuasion. 

  • Supporters, comprising 26.5%  of the test group: strongly-held views unlikely to change their view just because of a different narrative and supportive to the thrust of the test messages.

The principal result, according to a recent Common Cause presentation to interested Darebin residents, was that: “There is support for declaring a climate emergency, taking action. It is seen as serious and urgent by a majority of people”.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The message that we need to declare  a climate emergency and take serious action was supported by:
  • 96% of supporters;

  • 74% of persuadables; and

  • even 19% of opposition!

Across the whole sample, that’s a whopping 65%, or two-thirds of the 900 people tested.

So next time you are told that “climate emergency” is not compelling language, you will not need to invoke Al Gore (“We have a global emergency”), Peter Garrett (“It’s a climate emergency”) or Naomi Klein (“We are living in a climate emergency of shocking proportions we never expected so soon”). Or UN Secretary General António Guterres, who says that “we face a direct existential threat” for “the emergency we face”.

Now the evidence speaks for itself.  And so does the reality we face, of an existential threat to human civilisation this century amidst the sixth mass extinction in the history of Earth.

Being brutally honest liberates us from the failed politics of incrementalism, and towards an honest conversation about the global climate emergency mobilisation which is now our only rational response.