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Hot tickets: Will views on climate change be a deciding factor in the NZ election? (Image: Archi Banal)
Hot tickets: Will views on climate change be a deciding factor in the NZ election? (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsMarch 22, 2023

A ‘climate change election’ in 2023? Here’s what the polling tells us

Hot tickets: Will views on climate change be a deciding factor in the NZ election? (Image: Archi Banal)
Hot tickets: Will views on climate change be a deciding factor in the NZ election? (Image: Archi Banal)

The Greens say climate change will be integral to the big decision this year. Toby Manhire explores the data.  

Devastating, global-warming-exacerbated storms. A new IPCC report laying out the calamitous fireball hurtling our way. And a prime minister jettisoning a host of climate-aligned policies. There is plenty of material for James Shaw to point to in declaring, as he did in the Green Party “state of the planet” address on Sunday, that this year will witness “a climate change election”.

But will it, really? How much do voters care about climate change? And if they do care, do they care so much that it might impact the box they tick in October? 

Beyond denialism

Research across the years, such as in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, makes one thing clear – the days of debating whether or not human-induced climate change is a real thing are dwindling. 

Less clear is the extent to which that translates into political sentiment. An Ipsos poll for IAG, conducted last year between April 26 and May 3, explored views on climate change and official responses. On the broad question of how important climate change is considered, the sentiment has plateaued over recent years. 

A priority issue for how many?

The Ipsos Issues Monitor, based on a thrice-yearly survey, asks respondents to identify the three most important issues facing New Zealand. The latest monitor, undertaken in the white heat of Cyclone Gabrielle on February 13-19, saw the highest proportion of people picking climate change as one of those three since the poll began. 

Climate change placed fourth equal with healthcare/hospitals, with 27% selecting it. The top issue, by some distance, was inflation/cost-of-living, on 65%, followed by housing/price-of-housing and crime/law-and-order (both 33%).

Here’s how it rates over recent years.

On the question of which party is most capable of managing the issue of climate change, 35% in the Ipsos survey said the Greens, 20% Labour, 13% National and 4% Act. Almost one in four (24%) said don't know or none.

That may explain the Greens' reasonably consistent polling. Thirty-five percent of 27% is 9.5%. The Greens' average across five recent polls: 9.1%. 

Polling for 1News by Kantar, undertaken from March 4 to 8, asked respondents to select the issue “most likely to influence your vote at the next election, if any”. Here, climate change finished second, on 12%, though the distance of several double cab utes behind the most selected issue, cost of living, selected by 48%.

Kantar also asked whether the government should “change its climate change policy in response to recent significant weather events” and if so, how. Here, in the immediate aftermath of Gabrielle, more than half said “act with more urgency”. 

The role of government

Among the findings of last year’s Ipsos poll for IAG was a growing expectation that the government should take action, together with a declining confidence in the national response.

Regular polling on climate change by Talbot Mills Research, shared with The Spinoff, has asked “how confident you are in the ability of the world to organise a meaningful response to deal with the issue of climate change”.

What about the tradeoff? In a pinched moment for cost of living, the rubber hits the road – quite literally in some cases – when climate-change costs are pitched against energy costs. Talbot Mills asked: Would you be willing to pay about 10% more for petrol and electricity in order to help the government do more to deal with climate change? 

On that score, the enthusiasm for action has now slipped under 60%. In 2010, it was 66%.

The events of Gabrielle failed to move the dial on the number who thought “the government should be taking steps now to prepare for the impact of climate change on New Zealand”. The answer was 74% in September 2022. When Talbot Mills asked that same question in March? Again, 74%. 

The Australian example

Bushfires and floods contributed to a "teal wave" of right-leaning, climate-focused candidates gaining popular appeal after splitting from their Liberal nests, and what the Australian Election Study called “a significant increase” in the number of voters in its survey that cited climate change as the most important issue. In 2019 and 2022 that number was 10%, up from 6% in the previous two elections. 

The survey found that 43% of all voters considered global warming “extremely important”, with 33% saying “quite important” and 24% “not very important”. 

Sam Crawley has undertaken a survey in New Zealand and Australia as part of postdoctoral research on public opinion and climate change. In July 2022, about 800 respondents in each country, recruited online via Qualtrics, were asked to rank climate change and seven other issues (health, crime, education, immigration, the economy, terrorism, poverty).

The results from the survey, funded by the MBIE Science Whitinga Fellowship, showed climate change to be a strikingly higher priority on the other side of the Tasman. In Australia, climate change was judged most important by 19%, compared with 9% in New Zealand. It was selected as one of the top three issues by 41% there, compared with 27% here.

(Ipsos conducts its Issues Monitor in Australia, too. “Environment” was selected by 18% as one of the three most important issues in its most recent study, but “climate change” – which registered 27% in New Zealand, per above – was not listed.)

Along with the fires and floods, the higher level of importance accorded to climate change in Australia may be a result of frustration at governments downplaying the issue in recent years, Crawley suggested. The numbers for New Zealand were broadly in line with most of Europe, he said, with the exception of the Nordic countries, where climate change is given greater importance. 

The impact of Cyclone Gabrielle, and discussion around its links to climate change, is likely to have influenced public sentiment reflected in polling shortly after, said Crawley, but research suggested it may not last. Severe weather events “make people more concerned and attuned to climate change, but usually only for about three to six months and then it tends to fade,” he said. “So from that perspective it is unlikely to be a ‘climate change election’.”

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