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The most skeptical Canadians are on par with progressive Americans on the subject of global warming according to a new study that drills into riding-by-riding data for the first time.

Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara Matto Mildenberger and his team were surprised by some of the results in their first-of-its-kind research detailing how Canadians think about climate change at the granular level of federal political ridings. In every riding in Canada the team found majority support for carbon pricing through a cap and trade system. Nationally, 66 per cent support cap and trade while a carbon tax garners less support at 49 per cent.

Mildenberger said he didn’t expect the kind of nationwide support for cap and trade their data shows.

“Even a majority of people in Fort McMurray want to see, according to our estimates, some form of carbon pricing policy through a cap and trade system. So I think that level of support in parts of Canada we don’t usually associate with interesting climate action is surprising,” Mildenberger said.

Alberta and Saskatchewan have the most hold outs. Of the 10 most skeptical Canadian ridings, seven are in Alberta. But even in Alberta, researchers found that ridings in Calgary and Edmonton show majority support for a carbon tax.

Mildenberger said policy-makers have lacked an understanding about how people in different ridings think about climate change, knowledge relevant for political action and climate change adaptation. That's why the team released their data to the federal and provincial governments before the First Ministers meeting in March, prior to peer-review.

The report says that a "window of opportunity" has opened for improved climate policy with the election of both the federal Liberals and the NDP in Alberta, complimenting climate policies enacted in other provinces.

“This data set is intended to sort of act as a resource for advocates and policy-makers and political actors to also have an understanding of the distribution of public beliefs,” Mildenberger said.

The team, consisting of climate scientists from universities including Yale and the University of Montreal, found that 79 per cent of Canadians believe the earth is warming and that 61 per cent believe humans are at least partly the cause. They found that 47 per cent of Canadians believe humans are the primary cause of climate change. Researchers surveyed over 5,000 Canadians between 2011-2015.

Mildenberger was surprised by the level of consistency in belief across Canada, while fellow researcher and Assistant Professor of Political Science at UCSB Leah Stokes said they found that Canadians believe climate change is happening at higher rates than Americans do.

The data from Mildenberger's team indicates that Canadians believe global warming is occurring at higher rates than Americans. Image courtesy Plos One.

“That’s particularly the case in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces,” Stokes said. “But even in Alberta and the prairies, beliefs are comparable to more progressive parts of the United States.”

Stokes said the higher concentration of Canadians who believe in climate change over those in the U.S. could be a function of our proximity to the Arctic. She said, since climate change disproportionately warms the poles, Canada will feel the effects of climate change before the U.S. due to things like thawing permafrost and glacial melt.

According to a "State of the Climate" report just released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate change records were smashed in 2015, setting new standards for atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, sea level rise, and surface temperatures on both land and sea.

Cap and trade preferred over carbon tax

Researchers also polled Canadians on their support for carbon pricing initiatives like cap and trade or carbon taxation. In Alberta, where the government will price carbon at $20 per tonne in 2017 rising to $30 per tonne in 2018, 44 per cent of the population supports carbon taxation while 49 per cent do not.

Alberta consumers will pay an additional 4.49 cents per litre of gasoline beginning in 2017 before that cost rises to 6.73 cents in 2018, alongside a natural gas levy collected by providers like ATCO or Enmax.

But respondents across the country found cap and trade more popular than a carbon tax. Mildenberger said every riding in the country reported majority support for cap and trade, while two-thirds of the country’s ridings have more supporters than opponents for a carbon tax. That translates to 66 per cent support nationwide for a cap and trade system and 49 per cent support for a carbon tax.

Ontario expects to raise around $1.9-billion per year through its cap and trade program, and pledges to use the funds to shift the province toward a low-carbon economy.

Data showing support for a carbon tax across the provinces and Canada's largest urban centres. Image courtesy Plos One.

Stokes said that while fewer Albertans support a carbon tax than those who don’t, the results aren’t as dramatic as they appear visually on a map. Densely populated ridings in both Calgary and Edmonton reported majority support for a carbon tax.

She said the challenge with the maps published alongside their research is the challenge with Canada: there are huge rural ridings with low population densities that make lower support for carbon taxation or a cap and trade system look more dramatic than the data shows.

Ontario, Quebec, and B.C. have already implemented carbon pricing, with Alberta soon to follow. Mildenberger said that their research indicates that residents in provinces that have implemented carbon pricing plans still support those policies.

“We don’t see any evidence of a political backlash against enactment of these carbon pricing policies,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that he may implement a nationwide price on carbon, but he hasn't yet detailed the plan.

"High-definition, granular estimates"

The data shows that 16 per cent of Canadians reported believing that the earth is not getting warmer. Among the 10 electoral ridings who reported the highest percentage of people who believe the earth is not warming, seven of them were in Alberta. Residents in the riding of Battle River-Crowfoot are the least likely to believe the Earth is warming, and were also the least likely to support cap and trade.

The research found that populations in Calgary and Edmonton more closely reflected those in B.C., Ontario, and Quebec.

Visualization of data showing riding-by-riding breakdown of the population that believes the Earth is warming because of human activity. Image courtesy Plus One.

While the paper isn’t a look at why Canadians believe what they do about climate change, the data Mildenberger and his team collected allowed them to come up with the kind of “high definition, granular estimates” they sought to report.

Stokes agreed, saying that the report attempts to illustrate widespread support for cap and trade over a carbon tax and the strong belief in climate change.

“It’s important to note that this isn’t something we baked into the model, it’s just the facts of what people reported in public opinion polls,” she said.

You can find the riding-by-riding breakdown here.

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