Can the major political parties tackle climate change? As wildfires rage, anxious young Australians have little faith.


I’m an Australian born in NYC, but my heart resides in Australia, where I spend summers at Balmoral Beach in Sydney. As I’ve been closely following the wildfires, I’ve become increasingly perplexed and upset by the government’s response to the fires and its seeming reluctance to tackle climate change. I wondered: am I alone in feeling this way? 

To answer my question, I conducted a nationally representative survey of 500 young Australians aged 18-30 to capture the views of both Gen Z and millenials on climate change and the wildfires. The survey was conducted on January 4-5, 2020 and has a margin of error of 4%. 

One conclusion stands out from the survey: as the wildfires burn, young Australians have no faith that the major political parties can tackle climate change. 

Make no mistake, young Australians believe that climate change is real and it’s happening now. Not only did 86% of respondents say that they believe climate change is happening, but 78% of them said that it’s urgent and needs to be addressed immediately. And three-quarters think we are already feeling its effects or will do so in the next 10 years. 

It is concerning that, for a problem deemed so colossal, 80% of young Australians do not think it is being adequately addressed by the government. This sentiment runs deeper than general disappointment in the government, as exhibit 1 below shows. While the Greens are the party most trusted to tackle climate change, more young Australians think that “none of these parties” can be trusted than the total number who chose the Liberal, Labor, and National parties combined, as the chart below shows.

There is further evidence in the survey that reaffirms young Australians’ negative view of the government. While 83% of respondents mentioned climate change and the environment as the most important issue facing Australia today, the second-most mentioned issue was government and poor leadership, which was selected by 63% of respondents. As seen in exhibit 2, no other issues, including poverty, the economy, healthcare, and immigration, garnered even half as many mentions. 

Note: total adds to more than 100%, as respondents chose three responses each

There is no question that a significant majority of young Australians think that the government is falling short and our vacationing Prime Minister Scott Morrison is only feeding the fire. Young Australians’ cynicism is being fueled by the Prime Minister’s reluctance to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, his refusal to commit to more ambitious emissions targets, and his reliance on Royal Commissions rather than decisive action. Young Australians also don’t believe the common claim, repeated by Prime Minister Morrison this week, that addressing climate change will harm the economy. In fact, 55% believe that efforts to address climate change will help the economy versus 16% who believe it will hurt the economy. 

Many young Australians have channeled this frustration into activism. Tens of thousands of people across Australia took part in climate change protests this past Friday to send a message to the government: we ignore climate change at our peril as it is no longer a theoretical threat. 

In fact, nearly 9 in 10 young Australians believe that the wildfires are solely, mostly or somewhat a result of climate change. It’s hard to understate the level of anxiety that young Australians feel. Two-thirds believe that climate change will be catastrophic for future generations. An astounding 60% of young Australians are angry with past and current generations for their handling of, and contributions to, climate change. Behind this frustration lies deep sorrow. Young Australians are devastated by the impact of the wildfires on human life, property, but wildlife most of all, according to my survey. 

Whose fault is this climate catastrophe? According to young Australians, humans are to blame. 90% of this demographic believe that climate change is due predominantly to human actions, or to both human actions and natural changes in the environment. More specifically, they charge the oil and gas, coal, and mining industries as the three industries that bear the most responsibility for causing climate change. For young Australians, there’s a deep irony to businessman Andrew Forrest’s $70 million donation to wildfire-related causes given that he gained his wealth from mining. 

There’s no doubt that young Australians are sad, angry, and anxious about their government’s handling of climate change. They want not only an acknowledgment that climate change is the great challenge of our time, but also immediate policy action to address it.

Fortunately, policies that can help are at hand. The most popular policy actions among young Australians are those that would encourage the use of renewable energy like wind and solar power, invest in research for cleaner energy sources, encourage the use of electric vehicles, and invest in public transportation. 

At the end of the day, there is no doubt that something needs to change in the Australian government. The wildfires are a tragedy that continue to unfold in real-time. For young Australians, they are a wake-up call to action. Here’s hoping they will rise to the challenge.