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More than a quarter of Canadians don't believe climate change is real and human-caused, and fact-checking is unlikely to change their minds about what needs to be done to combat it.
The findings come from a new report released Thursday by the Digital Democracy Project, a joint initiative led by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. The report also found a sharp partisan divide in support for climate science — nearly half (45 per cent) of Conservative supporters were classified as climate skeptics, compared to 22 per cent of Liberal supporters and 16 per cent of NDP supporters.
"People bring to any kind of information that is being presented to them by supposedly objective experts — whether it's journalists or professors doing a survey — any number, any amount, of doubts and an ability to rehearse arguments against their side or in favour of their side," said Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who led the study’s survey analysis team.
"So it's possible what we are seeing here is people are not accepting an update on the first case, which gives us a sense as researchers of how much work needs to be done and may give journalists a sense of how much work needs to be done on facts."
The report, released Wednesday, is the second in a series examining the media ecosystem and its relationship with factors such as partisanship, political knowledge and concern over policy issues.
The findings are based on three data sources: an online survey of 1,554 Canadian citizens 18 and older conducted between Aug. 17 and Aug. 23, more than 2 million tweets collected from June 1 to Aug. 23 and nearly 39,000 news stories pertaining to Canadian politics and policy-related issues.
Overall, most Canadians believe the climate is changing, but a significant proportion don't agree with the scientific consensus on what's causing it.
The report notes that Twitter isn't a good source for gauging public opinion, as only about 23 per cent of Canadians use it. However, the social network is a popular tool for journalists and political leaders, so comparing it with public opinion polls allows the researchers to see how the conversation among Twitter users is different from the general public.
The Digital Democracy Project's first report from earlier this month found that the environment is a top issue for voters ahead of this fall's federal election. Thursday's report found the environment remains high priority — despite the fact that more than one in four Canadians were classified as "climate skeptics," meaning they either donʼt believe thereʼs evidence that the Earth is getting warmer at all, or they believe itʼs just part of the planet's natural course.
The environment was the most important political issue for 17 per cent of survey respondents in Wednesday's report. It was tied with health care and came second only to the economy, ranked a top issue by 20 per cent of respondents.
The "unprecedented" attention on environmental issues and climate change has been sustained for at least three months, said Aengus Bridgman, lead political analyst from the Digital Democracy Project's online data team and a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University.
The authors found most Canadians believe the climate is changing, but a significant proportion don't agree with the scientific consensus on what's causing it.
When asked to choose a statement about Earthʼs temperature “that comes closest to your view,” 73 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that aligns with the scientific consensus on climate change: “The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.”
However, more than a quarter of respondents, 27 per cent, said there's either "no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer," or that the planet is warming "mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth's environment." Those findings mirror the results of a November 2018 survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute.
“A large majority of Canadians accept the scientific consensus on climate change, but there appear to be partisan and ideological differences that mirror public opinion dynamics in the United States,” the report notes.
The report also shows clear partisan divides on questions related to environmental and climate change mitigation policies, suggesting that "partisans of left- and right-leaning parties may be talking past each other on the environment to some degree, stressing different aspects of environmental policy as political and electoral issues," the report said.
Building on the first report, which found that increased media consumption was associated with a greater likelihood of giving incorrect responses to policy questions, the new study examined whether giving people correct information would improve their policy-related knowledge.
To do that, the researchers told half of survey respondents that Canada isn't on track to meet its Paris Climate Accord targets. Those who were given the factual information were more likely to correctly answer a related question, regardless of partisan affiliation, than those who didn't.
However, the study also found that having correct information about climate change didn't influence support for different types of climate mitigation policy. For example, support for the carbon tax was nearly the same among participants who received the correct information (35 per cent) than among those who didn’t (36 per cent).
“What this suggests, at the very least, is that correct information about facts and related policies plays a limited role in determining one’s support or opposition to those policies,” the report concludes.
This finding is consistent with previous research, which indicates that improving scientific literacy about specific issues is not a sufficient strategy for changing deeply-held beliefs about those issues. This research has shown that people don't usually form opinions and beliefs based only on facts — so facts alone are rarely enough to change our minds.