Opinions On Energy And Environment In Canada Part 2: Divisions Exist, But Canadians And Energy/Environment Leaders Aren’t Necessarily Polarized

This is the second in a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here.


Seeing the protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, you might think the country is hopelessly polarized over energy and environment. Canadians’ views on oil and gas development, pipelines, Indigenous rights and climate action seem ever-more divergent. So do those of energy and environmental leaders.

But just how divided are they? Are they polarized into incommensurable positions? Or are they fragmented in ways that may be open to change and compromise?

The University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program set out to answer these questions last fall with two surveys: one of the Canadian public led by professors Stephen Bird (Clarkson University) and Erick Lachapelle (Université de Montréal) and the other of energy and environmental leaders, undertaken with Nanos Research.

The upshot? Divisions exist, but Canadians and energy/environment leaders aren’t necessarily polarized.

To carefully analyze divisions in opinion, the research distinguishes between opinions that are in agreement, those that are fragmented and those that are polarized.

What’s the difference?

Imagine a question asking people the extent to which they agree or disagree with a statement, say, ‘The economic benefits of building new pipelines in Canada outweigh the risks from potential spills, tanker traffic and climate change.’ (Spoiler alert: we asked this question.)

When opinions are in agreement, peoples’ views cluster together — they respond in a similar way, with a solid majority agreeing (or disagreeing) that the benefits outweigh risks. In contrast, when opinions are fragmented, views don’t cluster for or against the statement. They tend toward an even distribution across the two categories. When opinions are polarized, meanwhile, views are concentrated at either end of the agree/disagree spectrum. People don’t just agree or disagree, they do so strongly. 

Why do these distinctions matter?

Polarized opinions are difficult for democratic political systems to deal with. People are hardened into incommensurable views. Where these become aligned with identity markers like region, age or partisan affiliation, finding common ground can be difficult. Policymaking can become contentious, uncertain and prone to wild swings when power shifts from one party to another.

Fragmented opinions, in contrast, are more amenable to political decision-making. Peoples’ views aren’t crystallized. They may be more open to change and compromise. Opinions tending toward agreement are likewise easier for political systems to manage —  views are pulling in a similar direction.

So what did the surveys find?

The table below summarizes findings from the general public survey on a range of key issues: opinions in agreement are shown in green, fragmented in yellow and polarized in red.

Source: Stephen Bird and Erick Lachapelle, Polarization over Energy and Climate: Understanding Canadian Public Opinion (Positive Energy: In Brief). Ottawa: Positive Energy, University of Ottawa, 2019.

The main takeaway? Canadians’ opinions are divided, but not all of them count as polarized.

In fact, an interesting story emerges as you walk from left to right through the table.

Start with the column showing overall opinion at the national level. None of the topics —  carbon taxes, pipeline benefits/risks, pipeline compatibility with emissions reductions, fossil fuel compatibility with climate commitments, nuclear energy and Indigenous consent— showed polarized views. Interestingly, opinions even tended toward agreement on fossil fuel development being compatible with Canada’s climate commitments.

This is a much more hopeful picture than the one often seen in mainstream and social media of deep divisions between Canadians.

What about energy and environmental leaders? Where do they stand on the issues?

The same questions were asked of some two thousand decision-makers comprising the Positive Energy/Nanos Leaders Panel. One hundred leaders from the public, private, NGO, Indigenous and academic sectors completed the survey.

Here, the findings showed high levels of agreement for all of the questions asked, except for Indigenous consent (more on consent below).

The extent of support for a national carbon tax and for nuclear energy mitigating climate change was striking. Large majorities supported both ideas: for the carbon tax, 77 per cent were in agreement, and for nuclear energy, 69 per cent. Opinions also tended toward alignment on the benefits/risks of pipelines (62 per cent in agreement that benefits outweigh risks) and on pipelines being incompatible with emissions reductions obligations (60 per cent disagreed with the statement).

What’s more, large proportions of respondents said they ‘strongly agreed’ with many of the statements. Almost half (47 per cent) strongly agreed that Canada needs a carbon tax that applies equally across the country. Half. And more than a quarter strongly agreed with the statements about nuclear energy (27 per cent) and the benefits of pipelines outweighing risks (29 per cent).

In sum, the aggregate results of the two surveys buck many commonly held views about the extent of polarization over energy and environment in Canada. And they certainly differ from what protests over Coastal GasLink suggest about Canadians’ opinions.

But the results show more than just agreement and fragmentation.

Polarization begins to emerge when we break the data down by partisan affiliation, region and age (given the number of respondents in the leaders’ survey, we were not able to break the findings down for that research). But even here, it is a mixed picture —  we did not find polarized views across the board as many might have expected.

In fact, the only place where polarized views emerged systematically was along partisan lines. This is perhaps not surprising given political parties’ positions in last fall’s federal election. But it’s troubling, especially with a minority Parliament in Ottawa and a federal-provincial dynamic that tends to cleave along partisan lines.

What is surprising is that regional polarization may not be as widespread as commonly believed. And age rarely emerges as a fault line of polarization, another surprise given that many assume younger Canadians are more progressive on energy and environmental issues than their older counterparts.

Diving into three of the questions is revealing (the other three will be discussed in Part 3 of this series).

Take the benefits and risks of pipelines. Watching our national debate, one would think Canadians are polarized on the topic at the national level, and especially along partisan, regional and generational lines. Instead, the results show that views are only polarized along partisan lines. Across region and age, they are fragmented in ways that mostly mirror the national-level data.

When asked if the economic benefits of building new pipelines outweigh the environmental risks, half of respondents support the statement (16 per cent slightly agree, 16 per cent agree and 18 per cent strongly agree) while just over a third oppose it (nine per cent slightly disagree, 11 per cent disagree and 15 per cent strongly disagree). Sixteen per cent neither agree nor disagree. Importantly, those who strongly agree or disagree with the statement are in the minority: over two-thirds of Canadians either do not have a view on the issue or have views that are not strongly held. 

Opinions get polarized when unpacking the data by party support. Over a third of Conservative supporters (35 per cent) strongly agree that benefits outweigh risks, while between a quarter and a third of NDP (28 per cent), Green (31 per cent), and Bloc Québécois (31 per cent) supporters strongly disagree. Liberal supporters stand out, with far fewer respondents strongly agreeing (two per cent) or strongly disagreeing (13 per cent).

While these partisan divisions are not terribly surprising, the break-out by region offers a more nuanced picture than that seen in recent debates. There was evidence of polarized views in the prairies, where 34 per cent of respondents from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba strongly agreed with the statement. And there was some evidence of polarized views in Québec, where 20 per cent strongly disagreed. But the results show fragmented opinion that mirrors the national average across the rest of the country, including British Columbia. Surprisingly, opinions didn’t differ by age, despite common beliefs that younger Canadians weigh the environment more heavily than the economy in their attitudes.

These are important findings, given controversy over the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines in B.C., and protests over CGL in Ontario and elsewhere that suggest a different picture.

Similar patterns held for the question about Canada having a national carbon tax that applies across the country.

In fact, the only question where polarized opinions emerged across party, region and age was for Indigenous consent. In response to the statement, ‘The consent of Indigenous peoples is the most important consideration for deciding whether or not an energy project should be approved,’ opinion was evenly split in the general public between those who agreed with the statement (16 per cent slightly agree, 14 per cent agree and 11 per cent strongly agree) and those who disagreed (12 per cent slightly disagree, 14 per cent disagree and 17 per cent strongly disagree). Seventeen per cent neither agreed nor disagreed. As with the questions above, those with strongly held views were in the minority: 28 per cent strongly agreed/disagreed while close to three-quarters of respondents were in the other categories.

Breaking the data out along regional and partisan lines saw those who strongly agree and those who strongly disagree boost up in ways one might expect: stronger opposition in the prairies (26 per cent strongly disagree) and among Conservative supporters (28 per cent), and a greater proportion of Green and NDP supporters strongly agreeing (18 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively). As for age, polarized views were less sharp than for region or party affiliation: Millennials (born 1981-96) and Generation Z (born 1997 onward) were most likely to strongly agree with the statement (14 per cent), while Boomers (1946-64) and the Silent Generation (1928-45) were most likely to strongly disagree (22 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively). 

Indigenous consent was also the only issue showing division among energy and environmental leaders. Here, views were not as evenly split as they were for the general public survey, but they were likewise fragmented: roughly one-third agreed with the statement (11 per cent slightly agree, 13 per cent agree and  eight per cent strongly agree) and almost half disagreed (16 per cent slightly disagree, 21 per cent disagree and 12 per cent strongly disagree).

So, what should be made of these findings?

The survey results suggest that concerns about polarized views on energy and environment may be exaggerated. Yes, people disagree on the issues, but their opinions are not necessarily polarized. This is encouraging news for those seeking a positive path forward for energy and environment in Canada: there may be more room to find common ground than many believe.

Part 3 of this series discusses what the elements of a positive path might look like.

About the surveys

The Polarization Survey, led by Positive Energy researchers Stephen Bird (Clarkson University) and Erick Lachapelle (Université de Montréal), was an online survey conducted via Qualtrics between September 9 and 29, 2019. The sample size was 2,679 with 5 regional subsamples over 500. Margin of error is not applicable for a survey of this kind; a probability-based sample of this size would yield a margin of error of approximately +/- 2 per cent, 19 times out of 20 (approximately +/- 4 per cent for regional subsamples).

The Positive Energy/Nanos Energy and Environmental Leaders Panel is a group of approximately 2,000 leaders who are invited to participate in successive waves of the panel. Waves have taken place to date in fall 2019 (100 leaders participated), winter 2018 (88 leaders participated) and fall 2016 (141 leaders participated). No margin of error is applicable to this research as it is only representative of the participants’ views.

Full survey results available on the Positive Energy website https://www.uottawa.ca/positive-energy/.