What do Canadians really think about climate change?
Many of us pre-lubricate before visiting our parents. I actually got on pretty well with my dad — for many months it was the short, exasperating walk from sidewalk to front door that drove me to drink.
Approaching the house, on your left, stood one of those “No Tankers, No Pipelines” lawn signs, common around Vancouver at the height of the Trans Mountain pipeline controversy. But looming over the path on your right? As big a billboard as the bylaw officers would permit, rallying the neighbourhood to defy council’s dastardly plans for transit-oriented development and other seditions grouped under the ill-advised moniker, eco-density.
Now I should hasten to clarify that my dad was a staunch environmentalist decades before it was cool, let alone consensus. An accomplished alpinist and unapologetic defender of the living world back to the days when such people were viewed as cantankerous weirdos. He was one of those fortunate souls who mellowed with age, and always up for an amicable argument. Fond of whiskey (single malt, blended, rye, all welcome) and made his own wine (some years, beer as well) so lubricants were never far from the front door. But I was never able to grease the divide between the two sides of the path.
He was like most Canadians in that way — convinced and even fearful of climate change but unclear on the path forward. And, therefore, unwilling to entertain proposed changes to the home, neighbourhood or pocketbook.
I spent a lot of this spring wading through 61 public opinion surveys to help produce this year’s edition of What do Canadians Really Think About Climate Change? published by Re.Climate, based at Carleton University.
Some of the results are encouraging. Over 70 per cent of Canadians understand we are facing a climate emergency. Over half say it must be stopped “no matter the cost.” These attitudes stayed solid throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and despite acute worries about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living.
Even more encouragingly, in the past few years, Canadians have come to see the energy transition as inevitable. “Canadians have a view about where the puck is going,” says Bruce Anderson, chair of Abacus Data. Renewables and clean energy are wildly popular and the number of Canadians who see them being “very important” to Canada’s economic future has surged 19 points in the last couple of years.
But despite all that, the public still doesn’t really have a solid grasp on “agency” — what’s causing the chaos? — we don’t have a clear line of sight on the problem or the resulting path forward. We lack the foundation for a public mandate for serious action and some nasty memes have gained disturbing amounts of traction.
Agency: Humans and fossil fuels
Consider the fires raging across the country: Nearly eight in 10 Canadians understand that climate change is a cause behind intensifying extreme weather. And there’s no question fires, storms and deadly heat are driving the urgency of climate change home for more and more Canadians. But just 40 per cent say it has played a “major” role in extreme weather. Barely half are willing to tell a pollster they believe global warming is “mostly” due to human activity.
You surely know those “human activities” are primarily the burning of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. In fact, fossil CO2 accounted for 91 per cent of global emissions last year. But most of your compatriots are much less clear about the role of fossil fuels. Six in 10 think Canada can continue to expand oil and gas production and reach net zero, or aren’t sure.
Public support for expanding fossil fuel production actually appears to have risen in the past couple of years. Although support for building clean energy is much higher than for expanding oil and gas, the vision of the future is still blurry: Canadians want to believe we can have our fossil fuels and our clean energy, too.
The gas industry has been particularly effective with its propaganda. Most gas in Canada comes from fracking — a practice endorsed by less than one-third of Canadians.
But drop the term “fracking,” tack on the term “natural,” throw in some undisclosed millions in advertising from Fortis, Enbridge, CAPP and their proxies, and public support jumps to two-thirds — significantly more popular than oil.
The path forward
You’ve probably seen the federal government’s ads about climate change. They’d lead you to believe the solutions are “nature-based.” Granted, nature-based solutions are extremely popular and we should absolutely stop trashing and restore the natural world. But you can probably see the sleight of hand here: nature is not the problem and restoration can’t replace oil and gas.
If you’re not clear on the cause of a problem, you’re not likely to aim solutions at the right target. So it’s still crucial to emphasize that fossil fuels are the root of climate chaos, as infuriating as that might be after so many decades. Since “fossil fuels” is kind of abstract, name the biggies: “oil, gas and coal.” And don’t shy away from naming the Big Oil companies that have taken such control of our economy and political life.
Then, the path forward reveals itself: get off fossil fuels and electrify everything.
The good news here is that Canadians are extremely supportive of clean energy, at least in principle. Not many things garner over 80 per cent support among any public. But solar energy does. And the same number believe electric vehicles are going to take over. About 70 per cent of Canadians say they support a requirement for electricity generation to only come from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases by 2035.
We can’t run absolutely everything on clean electricity, of course, but it gets us most of the way off fossil fuels. “We can lick 75 per cent of the problem that way,” Leah Stokes put it to me recently, “just clean the grid and electrify everything we can.” Stokes is a human power plant in her own right — a Canadian dynamo who came up through the University of Toronto and worked in Parliament. She’s currently powering the charge to electrify America from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“May these smoky days be a signal,” she wrote this week. “May this inspire people to do more to chip away at the fossil fuel system — through protest, policy change, or purchases of cleaner, electric machines. May these days change us.”
As you probably know, those electric machines can replace oil, gas and coal in factories, vehicles and buildings. But there are forces undermining the public mandate on this front, too.
At least one-third of Canadians, and on some topics many more, have swallowed disinformation or simply don’t know what to think about crucial steps on the path forward.
About half of Canadians say they’re not sure whether “solar panels emit more greenhouse gases during manufacturing than they end up saving.” Yes, you read that correctly.
That shocking result comes from surveys conducted by Erick Lachapelle at the Université de Montréal and EcoAnalytics. And if you sit in on Canadian focus groups, you’ll hear that kind of disinformation with disturbing frequency — the merchants of doubt™ are getting real traction, generating confusion and skepticism about solar, wind and batteries, heat pumps and electric vehicles. Everything comes with its own set of problems, of course, but our human bias for the status quo works in their favour — electrification is far less damaging than fossil fuels, but that context is entirely absent in the malignant memes infecting our public conversation.
“This kind of confusion, and the misinformation that feeds it, is a vulnerability for the social acceptability of a clean energy transition,” says Lachapelle.
Add in the small, but motivated segment that sees climate action as a camel’s nose for authoritarian government and social acceptability erodes still further. If you want a peek into how this all plays out on the ground, you’ll want to check out Marc Fawcett-Atkinson’s report from the Kootenays in B.C. A toxic brew of disinformation and right-wing climate conspiracy ‘angst’ has stalled climate action, forcing the region to postpone 17 open houses, citing threats to staff.
The uproar in the Kootenays "needs to be understood as part of a wider climate lockdown narrative that has been circulating in Canada for a couple of years now," said Chris Russil, a Carleton University professor and disinformation expert. Russil also provided a helpful pre-publication review of What do Canadians Really Think About Climate Change? where you can find sources for all the public opinion data in this week’s Zero Carbon (along with many more).