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Political Risk & Climate Action

November 9, 2017

For Canadian politicians, it’s riskier to ignore climate change than it is to propose solutions.

By Bruce Anderson

Twenty years ago, when the world’s leaders were debating the Kyoto Accord, a case could be made that politicians who chose to be early champions of action to reduce emissions were running a certain amount of political risk.  The public consensus on the need to act was not fully formed, the risks of inaction not as widely perceived, and the alternatives to producing high levels of carbon seemed elusive and expensive.

Today, in Canada, the risk equation has changed. The bigger political peril lies in appearing indifferent to a matter of widespread and growing public preoccupation.

Half of Canadian voters (49%) won’t consider a party or a candidate that doesn’t have a plan to combat climate change.  Only 6% prefer a party or a candidate that ignores the issue.  The rest (44%) are “willing to consider” a party that doesn’t make the climate a priority.


For Canada’s conservative parties and candidates, an optimistic read of these numbers is that the Conservatives could win without an ambitious climate plan, given that half of the population don’t consider this policy a pre-requisite for their support.  But a more cold-eyed analysis suggests that by ignoring the issue, conservative candidates would be tying one hand behind their backs, leaving themselves with no room for error.

What’s driving this shift in the relative importance of the climate issue is not radical environmentalism, and it probably has little to do with the efforts of environmental groups at this point.  Only 11% of Canadians describe themselves as “ardent environmentalists” – the same number as say they aren’t really concerned about the environment.  Twenty-three million (78%) see themselves as environmental “moderates”.
The opinion patterns in our recent studies suggest that there is a new normal in Canada on the question of climate change.  Only 2% dispute that the climate is changing.  Among those who perceive a change, people are three times more likely to say human and industrial activity is causing it than to ascribe climate change to natural causes.

If the question of causes of climate change is becoming more clearly decided in the minds of the public, when it comes to the consequences there is now compelling evidence of public concern.

More than 85% say the consequences of taking no action on climate change will be severe, very severe, or catastrophic across a range of areas, from agriculture to human health, to the cost and availability of insurance, and the cost to taxpayers.

Less than 15% say the consequences of unchecked climate change will be not that serious or not serious at all. 

Remarkably, especially given the election of a US President who has abandoned the Paris Accord and ignores climate change, Canadians feel the momentum on this issue is now with those who want action (63%) rather than with those who want to do little or nothing (37%).    
Almost everyone (91%) feels a moral responsibility to those who will live on the planet after us. Alongside that, 79% believe the world will “face a catastrophe if we fail to do more”.
Part of what’s changing is the droughts, floods, hurricanes that people witness today.  In addition to the human toll, 80% see the prospect that “weather disasters are becoming a financial disaster”.
Wanting to act hasn’t always meant that people are confident that the world can reverse the threat of climate change.  Today, doubts remain present but confidence is more plentiful.  Only 47% say there is little chance we could stop climate change at this point, while 87% say there is “already lots of evidence we can cut emissions when we try”.
Finally, many have come to believe that combatting climate change is not an economic poison pill: 79% believe combatting climate change will open up economic opportunities.Canada’s political parties do not all see eye to eye on climate change, but our numbers reveal that many Conservative voters share the sentiments of other voters: 85% believe there is a moral responsibility to act, and two thirds (67%) see a looming financial disaster if we fail to do more.  It is inaccurate to imagine a “conservative base” that broadly rejects the need to act on the climate issue.  Most 2015 Conservative Party voters believe the world faces a catastrophe if we do too little and that action will create new opportunities for the economy.

When we ask people what is the best reason to take action on climate change, of four options (moral responsibility, catastrophe if we fail to do more, cost of weather disasters, and the economic opportunity that comes from a transition to a more climate-friendly economy), the top answer is moral responsibility, followed by the sense that catastrophic risks are evident if we take the issue lightly.  Today, fully 15% say that the best reason to act is the financial implications of weather disasters.

Baby boomers put a little more emphasis on the moral responsibility, while Millenials are more likely to see new economic opportunity.  

More people see upsides than downsides when it comes to the actions that might be taken to tackle this issue.  Majorities say climate action will benefit the prospects of younger generations, will be good for the long-term health of the Canadian economy, good for jobs (52% positive/13% negative). On the costs to government and taxpayers, 38% see an upside, 33% a downside and 29% see a neutral impact.   
For those planning election platforms and campaigns, it’s worth noting that among the 44% who would consider voting for a party that didn’t emphasize this issue, most see positive or neutral impacts from taking more action on climate change.
Because the climate change debate has often been cast as an issue which pits the interests and values of voters in Saskatchewan and Alberta against those of people living elsewhere, it is worth examining the size of opinion gaps between residents of those provinces (our combined cell size is 248).
• Less than 10% of voters prefer a party or candidate that favours doing nothing on climate change; more than 45% say they won’t vote for one who doesn’t have a plan.
• Majorities believe the climate is changing due to human impacts
• More than 75% believe that the consequences of inaction will be severe or very severe or catastrophic, and most do not believe that acting to fight climate change will be bad for the economy or for taxes.
• And large majorities agree about there being a moral imperative, plenty of evidence that emissions can be cut, and economic opportunity that will result from a shift.

UPSHOT
According to Bruce Anderson: “There’s a new normal in Canada on the issue of climate change. Half of voters won’t consider politicians who don’t take the issue seriously – and most other voters also believe action is needed and inaction will result in catastrophe.

Part of what’s changing is a belief that solutions are available, may not be as costly as we used to think, and could produce economic opportunity too.

For Conservative Party voters in particular, weather disasters represent a huge and growing cost associated with doing nothing.  Most people who live in oil sands producing provinces and most people who voted Conservative in 2015 believe there’s enough evidence to warrant action and are unconvinced that action will be economically disastrous.

As the country heads towards an election in two years, it will be interesting to see if the competition will still shape up with one party trying to rally opinion against climate action – or if all major parties will be competing with different ideas for how to grapple with this matter of broad concern.”

METHODOLOGY
Our survey was conducted online with 1,534 Canadians aged 18 and over between October 31st to November 2nd, 2017. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians.

The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association policy limits statements about margins of sampling error for most online surveys.   The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of 1,534 is +/- 2.5%, 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. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

ABACUS DATA INC.
We offer global research capacity with a strong focus on customer service, attention to detail and value-added insight.  Our team combines the experience of our Chairman Bruce Anderson, one of Canada’s leading research executives for two decades, with the energy, creativity and research expertise of CEO David Coletto, Ph.D.


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