Canadians and Climate Change

The world is hot under the collar regarding Canada’s commitment to reduce its level of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Do Canadians care about global warming?

Canadians take some heat on climate change

A number of local and international climate change reports hit the wires in late November, and the results provide an interesting snapshot of how Canada is managing its obligations in the eyes of both Canadians and the international community.

Based on the latest data, both the global community and Canadians are losing faith in the Canadian government’s ability to deliver results on its greenhouse-gas initiatives, but the Canadian public hasn’t reached its boiling point – at least not politically.

The world is giving Canada a thumbs-down, and it seems Canadians are somewhat concerned about global warming but don’t really care what outsiders think.

“It (climate change) is not sufficiently personal and concrete for most Canadians for it to be an issue on which they will take action or consider who they might vote for.”

Bottom of the heap
The Center for Global Development, based in Washington, published its annual Commitment to Development Index on Nov. 18. In the area of environmental initiatives, the report put Canada in last place among the world’s wealthiest 27 countries.

These findings follow a report released in October by Environment Canada that showed Canada will likely miss its 2020 emission-reduction targets set out in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

The Canadian government initially made a commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent from the 2005 levels.

Hannah McKinnon, national program manager for Environmental Defence, a non-partisan environmental charity, says the reason for the poor international ratings in these reports is simple: a lack of commitment by the federal government.

“This government has so far focused Canada’s national energy policy exclusively on oil sands,” says McKinnon.

“The government has stopped funding clean energy and energy efficiency measures federally while they continue to subsidize the oil and gas sector … It’s affecting our reputation abroad but more importantly it is costing us action on climate change and a reduction in our emissions, and that is going to do irreversible harm to our climate and our environment.”

What Canadians think
While the international community gives Canada a failing grade for not meeting its emissions-reduction obligations, Canadians also appear to be losing some faith in their government’s ability to lead on climate change initiatives.

The results from a survey conducted in October by the Environics Institute, a social-research organization, state that only 53 per cent of Canadians now believe their government can provide leadership in the area of carbon emission reductions. This is down sharply from the previous year’s number of 59 per cent.

The same survey indicates that 60 per cent of Canadians believe climate change is real and caused by human activity.

“We see over and over again in polls that Canadians do want to see action on climate change, and that they don’t think the Canadian government is pulling its weight.” McKinnon said when asked about the recent Environics Institute poll.

But how well informed are Canadians about their government’s policies?

“The [Environics poll] question was not worded specifically to ask about the federal government. It asked about governments generally. This may be a statement broadly about government but chances are Canadians are thinking first about the federal government,” said Dr. Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute.
“Most Canadians would not be particularly informed about what the government’s policy is and what they’re doing, but they certainly haven’t seen much action.”

Another report released on Nov. 8 by, a Canadian progressive think-tank, showed that 80 per cent of Canadians want the government to protect the environment, and just over 70 percent believe the government should take a leadership role on climate change.

Are Canadians really concerned about global warming?
With a majority of Canadians believing that human activity is causing climate change, and that their government is not capable of taking a lead on the issue, one might think the government would be concerned about the results of the latest reports.

But the simple fact is the government doesn’t need to win over a majority of Canadians to win elections.

“They (the federal government) have a history of not governing to a broader Canadian consensus, but focus on their political base which is more in the camp of being skeptical about climate change,” Neuman said.

“Canadians are concerned about the environment and about climate change but not in a way that makes it a political issue. It is not sufficiently personal and concrete for most Canadians for it to be an issue on which they will take action or consider who they might vote for,” Neuman said.

The Canada2020 study also showed that Canadians strongly expect the government to focus on jobs and strengthening the economy.

The Environics Institute has conducted its survey since 2007. The results show the peak of Canadian belief (that human activity causes climate change) was reached in 2007 when the economy was still on a roll.

As the great recession hit, Canadians apparently became less “convinced” that human activity causes climate change. Support for this idea bottomed out in 2010. The trend has gradually increased over the past three years but has not yet reached the 2007 level.

So, maybe Canadians are more convinced that something should be done to address climate change when they have secure jobs and a stable economy. But as soon as their finances get shaky, the environment becomes less important. This might be another reason why climate change has not been a political issue in Canada.

Neuman suggests there is more to the story.

“In the spring of 2007 climate change emerged as a big and scary issue. It got an unparalleled amount of media and government attention. Al Gore came out with Inconvenient Truth, there were weather events, there were all sorts of things that made climate change the hot new issue,” Neuman said.

“When you ask Canadians ‘What is the most important issue today?’, it was the spring of 2007 when the environment became the number one issue for a relatively limited period of time… The last time the environment was a ‘top-of-mind’ issue was back in 1988…. The (2007) recession certainly focused everybody’s attention on other issues.”

One group is trying to help Canadians be better informed.

To help document the effects of climate change in northern communities, the IK-Adapt Project was formed. Groups of researchers and local partners are studying the health effects of global warming in five arctic communities.

IK-Adapt hopes to reach both academics and a broader audience.

“From a research standpoint there is consensus that it (climate change) is happening and our project is working with communities in the north who are experiencing impacts of climate change,” said Ellie Stephenson, IK-Adapt project coordinator.
“Our project is focused on the health impacts of climate change – food security, water security, and changes in infectious disease that are climate sensitive health conditions,” Stephenson said.

The five research groups are sharing information and facilitating the transfer of knowledge between communities regarding the types of issues they are facing and how they are adapting.

“We certainly hope and anticipate those relationships will continue forward even after our project ends,” she said.

When asked about the pace of environmental change, Stephenson said the scientific data backs up the consensus that there is an increasing rate of temperature change. “It’s consistent with what people are experiencing in the communities.”

Will “Canada Warming” be the political tipping point?
Whether it is due to apathy, a lack of information on policy or simply the minimal day-to-day impact on their lives, Canadians still haven’t made climate change a political issue.

That may change.

Floods in Calgary and Toronto have been a wake-up call for people who have historically been climate change “fence sitters”. Indeed, urban Canadians are now experiencing the effects of global warming first hand. Natural disasters are no longer events that only happen somewhere else.

Recent cracks in the ice in Ottawa may suggest the winds of change are already upon us.

On Jan. 6, the unthinkable happened. Conservative MP Peter Braid directly linked climate change and recent adverse weather events in Canada. His comments stunned environmentalists and the Canadian political establishment.

“We are seeing the effects, the impacts of climate change. With climate change comes extreme weather events. We saw that through the floods in southern Alberta, we’re now seeing that with the ice storms in Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, with the extreme cold across the country,” Braid said when speaking to CBC host, Evan Solomon.

The local impact of these early stages of climate change could be the catalyst for public opinion to shift. And if sentiment were to move drastically enough, all of Ottawa and the PMO would be forced to take notice and listen to the voices of a broader group of Canadians.

Written by: Andrew Walker


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