Not Saussure

October 17, 2006

Are you a selfish, uncaring bastard?

Filed under: environment, Opinion polls — notsaussure @ 4:10 pm

The Telegraph reports the publication of Predict and decide: Aviation, climate change and policy:

Dr Brenda Boardman, who oversaw the project, said: “The Government has to confront the contradictions in its policies.

“Unless the rate of growth in flights is curbed, the UK cannot fulfil its commitments on climate change.

“If Government wants to be confident about achieving its targets, it has to undertake demand management. Relying on technological fixes alone is totally unrealistic.”

The findings suggest that public awareness of these issues has grown steadily and support for restraining the growth in air travel now outweighs opposition, with a majority in favour of airlines paying for environmental damage, even if this means higher fares.

Commenting on this,

Jeff Gazzard of the Aviation Environment Federation said: “This isn’t the first time that serious academic research has highlighted the Government’s failure to control the climate change impacts of flying.

“These findings give the lie to politicians’ oft-repeated fallback that there are “no votes in taxing air travel. There clearly are.”

This surprised me, partly because I can remember the way that, thoughout the 1980s successive Labour politicians were mystified by the fact that opinion polls regularly showed considerable support for policies involving higher taxes to pay for better hospitals, schools and pensions and yet, when it came to a general election and Labour promised exactly that, people stubbornly voted for the Tories, who were promising them nothing of the sort.

Eventually, of course, people twigged to the fact that it’s one thing to ask someone in a face-to-face interview whether he’s prepared to pay a bit more for something seen as socially desirable. It’s quite another to get him to vote for it in the privacy of the polling booth. This type of question eventually became known as the ‘are you a selfish, uncaring bastard?’ question, because that’s what it was thought, in effect, to be asking punters, and fell into disrepute. That’s one of the reasons, I’m told, that parties use focus groups; you can elicit more truthful answers, or at least answers that’ll better predict voting behaviour, by asking more indirect questions.

Anyway, intrigued by the findings that there are, apparently votes to be had in taxing air travel, I took a look at the report, and the polls are even more misleading than I thought. We may, I think, set aside an online EU survey since it was completely self-selecting, and concentrate on the various UK polls. One of these asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with the following propositions:

a) People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like;
b) People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like, even if this harms the environment;
c) People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like, provided government acts to limit the harm done to the environment;
d) People should be able to travel by plane as much as they like, even if new terminals or runways are needed to meet the demand;
e) Building new terminals or runways to enable people to travel by plane as much as they like is acceptable if environmental costs are included in the cost of flights

The results aren’t that unexpected; most people agreed with the first proposition, disagreed when environmental costs were pointed out, and became rather keener on flying again if ‘government acts to limit the harm’ or ‘if environmental costs are included’ — though, significantly (but unsurprisingly) people are only happy with the environmental costs being included so long as they don’t add very much to the cost of the ticket.

All this, apparently, points to the importance of

framing questions of environmental and social policy in the context of the problems they are designed to address, and ensuring that people have the opportunity to reach informed opinions.

(or so that you get the answer you want, of course). That being the case, what can you make of the statement, of another survey — a face to face one this time — that

The study also provides further evidence that public opinion on policy has changed: across both groups, 68% agreed that “Protecting the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of slowing down economic growth in the air travel industry.”

other that that the wonder it is it wasn’t more than 68%?

I’m not disputing the idea that some sort of carbon tax on air tickets is probably necessary; I’ve not looked into the question, but the idea seems to make sense. I’m a bit worried, though, that two separate issues are being confused here — the idea that the polluter should pay for the cost of clearing up the damage done by air travel and the idea that we should discourage air travel by taxing it, regardless of how we spend the taxes thus raised. However, I very much dispute the idea there are votes to be had in it.

Let’s have a survey asking a question on the lines of ‘Are you prepared to see government put high enough taxes on your the cost of your air travel to discourage you and your family from traveling by air for your holidays, in order to avert environmental problems in the future rather than to give you any advantage now, while rich, selfish buggers (especially ones with 4x4s) and businessmen continue to swan about by air as much as they like?’ Then we’ll see. Until then, I think people would be most ill-advised to assume it’s an election-winner.

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1 Comment »

  1. Well said. It’s briefly brought to mind the episode of Ye Prime Minister on polling opinion on bringing back conscription.
    Do you want young people off the streets
    Do you want the unemployed youth to be a trained killer.
    (hugely paraphrased from memory)

    Comment by piers — October 18, 2006 @ 8:41 am

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