Aug 12, 2019

When it comes to climate action, the public is ahead of our politics: Analysis of national climate poll

Photo: Ben Gingell / Shutterstock

Last month, as part of the research for a book I am writing on mobilizing Canada for the climate emergency, I commissioned an extensive national public opinion poll from Abacus Data.* The full results of the poll can be found on the Abacus website here.

I share highlights and my analysis below. Big picture: the results are hopeful and indicate a high level of support for bold and ambitious climate action. Canadians support systemic solutions that go well beyond what our governments have so far been willing to undertake.

First, a little background on why I commissioned this poll.

For years, far too much of the political oxygen and polling on climate change has been consumed by the carbon tax/pricing debate. While carbon pricing is an important tool, it alone is not going to get us where we need to go, and the topic has distracted us from the scale of action needed. Additionally, too often polling questions individualize the challenge and solutions, rather than focusing on collective and governmental actions. Past polling has tended to over-test people’s willingness to change their personal behaviour or to pay a carbon tax. But people increasingly understand that these “solutions” are not sufficient. People rightly feel cynical when presented with voluntary solutions that don’t match the scale of the challenge, and that others around them are not undertaking. When climate polls do tackle policy changes, most have tended to test incremental options rather than bold, system-change solutions. The questions we ask, and the solutions we propose, matter.

My forthcoming book will explore the gap between what the science says we must do to confront the climate emergency and what our politics currently seem prepared to entertain. The current challenge, as I see it, is that the climate solutions we need consistently encounter a political wall; the prevailing assumption within the leadership of our political parties appears to be that if our political leaders were to articulate (let alone undertake) what the climate science tells us is necessary, it would be political suicide. And so they don’t.

But is that prevailing assumption correct? That’s what this poll sought to test.

In framing the challenge, communications specialists often recommend against using an emergency or wartime frame. They contend that the public does not respond well to an alarmist or fear-based approach. Similarly, most official government climate plans, the product of careful focus-group testing, barely mention the climate crisis, but rather focus on positive messaging.

But the reality is that we do face an emergency, and we do need a wartime-scale response. And we in Canada have lessons to draw on. It has long been my view that recalling the speed and scale of our historic wartime mobilization can be a source of inspiration (not fear) in the face of the climate emergency. In undertaking this poll, I sought to determine whether or not this framing would resonate among the Canadian public and whether there is an appetite for systems-level solutions.

Poll results (and my analysis)

My main takeaway from this national opinion survey of 2,000 people is that the public is ahead of our politics. A large share of Canadians is already deeply worried about the climate crisis, and they are increasingly ready for bold and ambitious actions. In the wake of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last October, combined with recent weather events, we may well be witnessing a shift in public opinion.

Here are some of the highlights from the poll:

  • The Canadian public is increasingly worried about climate change. Three-quarters of respondents said they were worried, with 25% saying they “think about climate change often and are getting really anxious about it,” and a further 49% saying they “think about it sometimes and are getting increasingly worried.” In contrast, only 19% say they don’t think about climate change often, and only 7% either don’t believe climate change is real or something for us to worry about.
  • Stunningly, 42% believe climate change is now “an emergency,” while a further 20% believe it will be likely be an emergency within the next few years, for a combined total of 62%. Even in Alberta, which registered the lowest level of support for this view, a combined total of 47% of people believe climate change is either an emergency or will likely be one in the next few years.
  • People are deeply anxious about what climate change means for the fate of our children and grandchildren. When asked if climate change represents a “major threat to the future of our children and grandchildren,” 81% responded that it does (49% strongly agree and a further 32% agree). Even 67% of Albertans agree with this statement.
  • For a majority of Canadians, climate change is no longer an abstract threat impacting people somewhere else or at some time in the future. They see it happening here and now. When asked: “To what extent have you or someone close to you experienced the effects of climate change (such as living with the consequences of changing weather patterns or severe weather events such as flooding, wild fires, droughts or intense heat waves)?” three-quarters of respondents said they or someone close to them had experienced the effects of climate change (13% of respondents said “in a major way,” while 37% said “to some extent,” and a further 23% said “in a minor way.”) Only 21% said they had not experienced climate change at all, while 6% reported being unsure.
  • People are ready for a major transition. 44% of respondents said “In the future, we should produce energy and electricity using 100% clean and renewable sources, such as hydro, solar, wind, tidal and geothermal,” while a further 37% support shifting in that direction but don’t believe getting to 100% is possible. Even in Alberta these numbers clock in at 28% and 47%.
  • The wartime frame resonates with many. My book is exploring mobilization lessons from World War Two—the last time we faced an existential threat and responded at the scale necessary. So, I wanted to test the resonance of that frame. The poll reveals that a large share of the Canadian public connects with this approach. When asked about the statement: “The climate emergency requires that our governments adopt a wartime-scale response, making major investments to retool our economy, and mobilizing everyone in society to transition off fossil fuels to renewable energy,” 58% of respondents responded positively (21% strongly agreed while a further 37% agreed). Younger respondents (those between 18 and 44) were even more inclined to agree (with agreement levels closer to 65%). This wartime frame found particularly high resonance in Quebec, with 68% supporting this proposition.
  • People are ready for bold policies to move us off fossil fuels. The poll listed a series of six major policy moves and asked people if they agreed or disagreed with these actions. The six policies, along with the results, are shown below:

These results are quite stunning. As of yet, no federal or provincial government in Canada has been prepared to move this ambitiously. Yet the results show that when one combines “strongly support,” “support” and “can accept,” we find the public’s willingness to get behind bold actions to reduce greenhouse gasses range from a low of 67% to a high of 84%.

Zeroing in on the policy of banning all new buildings and homes from using fossil fuels for heating by 2022 (just a few short years away), a full 78% of Canadians are comfortable with this idea (55% either support or strongly support, with a further 23% willing to accept this policy). 74% support or are willing to accept phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels over the next two to three decades (50% support, with a further 24% willing to accept such a move). Indeed, even in Alberta, 27% support or strongly support phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels, with a further 21% willing to accept this move.

The “can accept” folks are notable. My take is that these are people who are still unsure of how ambitious we can be, but with the right kind of leadership—the kind of bold leadership Canada saw in WWII—they could be brought along.

Also of note, 57% of those polled believe the federal government is currently doing too little to combat climate change. And 75% of people either support or strongly support the idea of “our governments making massive investments in new green infrastructure, such as renewable energy (solar panel fields, wind farms, geothermal energy, tidal energy), building retrofits, high-speed rail, mass public transit, and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as reforestation.”

  • The more a bold and transformative climate plan is seen as linked to an ambitious plan to tackle inequality, economic insecurity, poverty and job creation, the more likely people are to support it. In addition to people’s concerns about climate change, they are also very worried about inequality and affordability. So, when these social equity issues are tackled as part of a climate action plan, support for bold action to reduce GHG emissions rises dramatically.The poll listed five policy actions that could help with the transition, including extending income and employment supports to those more vulnerable during the transition, and increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help pay for the transition, and asked people if such policies would make them more or less supportive of bold and ambitious climate actions. Those five policy options and the responses are shown below.

As shown, if the government provided financial support to low and modest-income households to help them pay for the transition away from fossil fuels, 79% of people became more supportive of bold climate action (41% said “much more supportive,” while a further 38% say they would be “somewhat more supportive”). Similarly, if the government increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help pay for the transition, 78% of respondents became more supportive of a bold climate plan (46% much more supportive, and a further 32% somewhat more supportive). And if the government were to commit to a “good jobs guarantee” for current fossil fuel workers—a signal that the government was ready to actively help with a just transition plan for workers—73% became more supportive of ambitious climate action (34% much more supportive and 39% somewhat more supportive).

While few people want to pay more income taxes themselves to pay for the transition—an understandable response given the affordability challenges many are feeling—they are open to helping to pay for the plan in other ways. The poll asked if people would consider purchasing “Green Victory Bonds” (modelled on the Victory Bonds of WWII), and 30% said they would be either certain or likely to buy such bonds, with a further 35% saying they would consider it.

  • Few Canadians have heard of the Green New Deal. But once they learn about it, they like it. Unsurprisingly, only 14% of respondents were certain that they had heard of the Green New Deal (GND), and another 19% thought they might have, while 67% said they hadn’t heard of it. And of those who said they were aware of it, only 17% said they were very familiar with the GND. However, after being given a short description of the GND, 72% responded that they support the key principles of a Green New Deal (34% said they strongly support it, and a further 38% said they somewhat support it).

    The description provided was: “A Green New Deal is an ambitious vision for tackling the twin crises of climate change and inequality. It would see us cut our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030, while leaving no one behind. It would be a comprehensive plan to massively invest in green infrastructure and renewable energy, and to transform our economy to address the scale of the climate emergency and deepening inequalities. It would see the creation of millions of jobs in the areas of economic/energy transition, affordable housing construction, reforestation, and in the caring economy (education, child care, elder care, etc.).”
  • Nearly half the public understands that Canada needs to be more open to climate refugees and migrants. When asked to respond to the statement: “As climate change progresses and more people are displaced by major weather events around the world, Canada has a responsibility to accept higher numbers of climate migrants and refugees?” 45% agreed that Canada should accept more climate refugees and migrants (14% strongly agreed and another 31% agreed). It’s worth noting that the remainder were not all opposed; only 36% of respondents were opposed to this statement, while 19% indicated they either don’t know or have no opinion. While only 45% in support might be discouraging, I expected worse. We are seeing a rise in anti-immigrant views, yet nearly half of us understand that climate change will likely make climate migration a major issue in years to come, and that Canada, in the grand scheme of things, will be geographically lucky, and should not respond by pulling up the drawbridge. Also noteworthy: the strongest level of support for this proposition, at 56%, came from the youngest respondents (those between 18 and 29).
  • Most people don’t see a future for their children in the fossil fuel sector. Survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 65 were asked, “If you have or plan to have children, would you want your child to be employed in the oil and gas industry?” Only 11% said “yes.” We also asked people if they currently work in the oil, gas or coal industry, or in a job closely related to those sectors. Some 5% of respondents said they did, and of those, only 57% said they would want their kids to work in that sector. It would seem that even many who work in the fossil fuel sector see the writing on the wall when it comes to their children’s futures.
  • There are notable regional differences, but support is solid across Canada. Overall, we see the highest level of support for bold action is in Quebec, while the lowest levels of support are in Alberta. Most of the country falls somewhere in between the two provinces. But as noted above, even in Alberta, support for strong policies and action is solid. Regional-level results are available in more detail on the Abacus site.
  • There are modest but notable differences based on age. The age cohorts between 18 and 44 years old were generally more supportive of bold action, followed by people over 60. Those age 44–59 tended to have slightly lower levels of support. The fact that millennials (the largest age cohort in Canada) are most supportive of bold climate action bodes well for us all; they are just beginning to exercise their political muscle; what they want and are prepared to hear from our politicians represents a harbinger of what will become increasingly possible in our politics.

My overall conclusion is this: our politicians have been underestimating the public. They have failed to take adequate action in the face of the climate emergency, insisting the public is “not there yet.” But increasingly, the public is ahead of our elected leaders. A solid majority of Canadians are ready to move beyond incremental policies and to entertain truly transformative climate action. Even many of those “in the middle” still wrestling with these ideas are open to bold leadership. And that is precisely what we need. After all, faced with the existential threat of fascist domination, the political leaders we remember from WWII didn’t “meet the public where they are at.” Rather, they took them where they needed to go.


* Abacus Data conducted this national survey of 2,000 people between July 16 and July 19, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey online from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.19%, 19 times out of 20. The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment and region.

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This piece was published as part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a six-year research and public engagement initiative jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC and Saskatchewan Offices, and the Alberta-based Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

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