Gattinger: Canadians’ Views On Energy And Environment During COVID-19

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped Canadians’ attention. Many surveys are tracking public views on the pandemic, but what about opinions on other policy priorities?

Energy and climate have been and will remain high on policy agendas. As the country moves through and emerges from the pandemic, knowing where Canadians stand on these pivotal issues is crucial for those charting the country’s energy and climate future.

Recent surveys by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program and Nanos Research show Canadians lean increasingly towards action on climate change during COVID-19, even if there are costs to the economy. The research also shows support for oil and gas development may be weakening. Results suggest these trends may continue as the country emerges from the pandemic.

The results also reveal which information sources Canadians trust for energy and climate issues. The top three sources were science/researchers, the media and ‘none’ followed closely by the CBC/Radio-Canada.

The findings show that opinions for many energy and climate issues are polarized along ideological and partisan lines.

This research underscores that policymakers must navigate the energy-climate nexus carefully. As they develop and communicate energy and climate policies, they need to beware of the risks of polarization and consider which information sources people trust when communicating with them.

This two-part series profiles the survey findings and their implications. Part I digs into the climate and environment questions. Part II focuses on oil and gas, trusted information sources, and the implications of the research for decision makers.

Part I: Canadians’ climate ambition on the rise during COVID-19, but beware of polarization

How keen are Canadians for climate action during COVID-19?

In late November, Positive Energy and Nanos asked Canadians on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means absolutely the worst time and 10 absolutely the best, how good a time it is for Canada to be ambitious about addressing climate change even if there are costs to the economy. This question was first asked in June 2020 and will be asked on a quarterly basis going forward.

Results to date show that Canadians are divided on the issue, but climate ambition has grown since June. In the fall survey, a small majority of Canadians answered 7 or higher (52 per cent), a seven per cent increase from the summer. Just over a quarter answered 3 or lower (27 per cent), a two per cent decrease from June. Less than one in five answered 4 to 6 (18 per cent, a five per cent drop from June).

On the face of it, the findings show that Canadians support climate action. But dig deeper into the numbers, and big divisions emerge.

The 0 to 10 scale helps reveal the strength of disagreement among Canadians. When views are polarized, they are concentrated at either end of a spectrum and tend to be hardened and resistant to compromise. This is where the survey results are concerning.

Almost 40 per cent of respondents held very strong views on whether now is the best or worst time for climate action, answering either 0 or 10. In the fall survey, nearly 1 in 4 Canadians (24 per cent) answered 10, while 15 per cent answered 0. This is up from June, when the corresponding figures stood at 17 per cent for both 0 and 10. 

Interestingly, opinions do not get more polarized based on age or gender. Regionally, people from the Prairies are more likely to say now is the worst time (27 per cent) and those from British Columbia are more likely to say it’s the best (30 per cent).

But break things out by ideology and party affiliation, and opinions get very polarized.

The poll asked respondents to score themselves on a scale of 0 to 10 for their political views, where 0 means left and 10 means right. Among left-leaning respondents (those answering 0-3, about 30 per cent of respondents), almost half answered 10 on climate ambition (48 per cent). Among right-leaning respondents (those answering 7-10, about 23 per cent of those surveyed), more than four in ten answered 0 (42 per cent).

When it comes to partisan views, 40 per cent of Conservative Party supporters answered 0, while over one-quarter (27 per cent) of Liberal supporters answered 10, as did 30 per cent of Bloc Québécois, 46 per cent of NDP and 66 per cent of Green Party supporters.

These are huge differences and deserve close attention from energy and climate policymakers. More on this will be included in the second part of this series.

The survey also asked respondents why they answered the way they did. For those who said now was the worst time (0-3), they most frequently said there are other priorities like health and the vaccine to attend to (32 per cent, up from 22 per cent in June) and that we should wait until the economy has recovered from the pandemic (23 per cent, down from 47 per cent in the summer).

For those saying now is the best time (7-10), by far the most common answer was that we need to act now and climate change can’t wait (60 per cent, up from 39 per cent in June). People also said the pandemic offers a good opportunity for change and highlights the extent of our potential impact (20 per cent, down from 38 per cent in the summer). The decline in the latter response could be due to growing awareness that the GHG reductions caused by COVID-19, estimated at somewhere around seven per cent in 2020, required all but shutting down the global economy. A heavy price to pay for relatively modest reductions.

Nonetheless, the overall results suggest Canadians’ climate ambition has grown over the course of the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether this will continue, and what trajectory views will take as Canada emerges from COVID-19. But survey results on another question suggest ambition may continue to climb.

The survey asked Canadians whether protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs, or whether growth and creating jobs should be the top priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent. This is a question asked for the last five years, which gives a window into pre- and post-COVID views. As shown below, in the most recent survey, a majority of respondents (54 per cent) said environmental protection should take priority. This is up from earlier in the pandemic (summer 2020), but down from pre-pandemic levels, where support for environmental protection was around 60 per cent or higher.

If support for protecting the environment rebounds as Canada emerges from the pandemic, we could expect to see climate ambition rise further along with it.

But this is anything but assured. Public opinion is likely to be fluid given the ongoing uncertainty over the severity and length of the pandemic. Decision makers need to remain attuned to Canadian opinion — especially differences of opinion — as they chart energy and climate policy. Recent experience shows that strong concentrated opposition can derail initiatives that have majority support. This is especially important as the full brunt of the second wave and new variants of COVID-19 bear down on the country, and as concern rises over multiple delays in vaccine distribution. Ambition for climate action and environmental protection may weaken or become more polarized in the face of other priorities.

It will also be important for decision makers to understand Canadians’ views on energy issues, notably oil and gas development. This topic will be covered in Part II of this series. Part II also examines which information sources Canadians trust for energy and climate issues, an important consideration for decision makers developing and communicating policy in these areas.

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