Are Canadians all talk on climate change?

Click to play video: 'Canada lagging behind climate support initiatives: Ipsos poll'
Canada lagging behind climate support initiatives: Ipsos poll
A new Ipsos poll conducted by Global News shows Canada is lagging behind when it comes to supporting climate support initiatives. – Nov 6, 2022

As world leaders, dignitaries and stakeholders gather for the COP27 conference to discuss climate change and to chart a path forward, recent polling has highlighted a significant gap between Canadian attitudes on the environment and climate change and the behaviours they exhibit.

This gap suggests that Canadians talk a big game when it comes to climate change, but quietly continue in their old ways, believing that the solution belongs to someone else.

Ipsos’s What Worries the World polling covers 29 countries around the world, and the most recent findings reveal that climate change remains number seven on the list of top worries, behind what many see as more pressing concerns: inflation, poverty and social inequality, unemployment, crime, corruption and health care.

However, Canadians are second-most likely to say that climate change is a top worry for them, with only Germans being more angsty. Canadians are clearly concerned about climate change and its effects, which have been so vividly felt in Canada recently.

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Surely this heightened level of concern should translate into greater calls for action and government intervention, such as greater taxation of polluters or more appealing incentives to speed up the transition towards a greener economy. Wrong.

The inverse is true: Canadians are laggards. They’re less likely than the global average to support government subsidies to make environmentally friendly technologies cheaper. They’re less supportive than the global average of giving more road space to cyclists at the expense of motorists, of increasing taxes on more environmentally damaging travel such as flights or diesel vehicles, and of higher taxes on non-renewable energy sources such as gas and oil.

Perhaps Canadians are less supportive of government intervention because they’re taking matters into their own hands and are taking steps to become more socially conscious through their own purchasing power and shopping habits? Wrong again.

Recent research has revealed that most Canadians are not acting with their wallets based on environmental, social or ethical concerns. And only 31 per cent have made or changed a purchase decision based on these concerns. When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, Canadians lag those in other countries, such as Spain, Sweden, the U.S. and the U.K.

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So why are Canadians talking the talk but not walking the walk? First, Canadians are preoccupied with inflation. In fact, Canadians are among the most concerned in the world about inflation, according to Ipsos’s polling. There exists a prevailing belief that climate-change initiatives cost money, and that is something that is presently in short supply. Any solution that costs governments more money, or costs consumers money, is likely off the table for the time being.

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Click to play video: 'Ukraine war, energy crisis has Canadians more supportive of oil and gas: Ipsos poll'
Ukraine war, energy crisis has Canadians more supportive of oil and gas: Ipsos poll

Second, social cohesion is declining in Canada. The polling suggests we feel like we have less in common with our neighbours and with other Canadians. We’re no longer willing to sacrifice things for the greater good. Canadians used to prioritize the collective over the individual, but we’re moving towards a “me over we” attitude. Even if they could afford it, many are reluctant to pay more for the greater good, believing that others won’t do their part and thus their efforts will be for naught. Taking action on climate change requires a collective effort, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get everyone rowing in the same direction given that cohesion is declining.

Finally, Canadians are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is because they believe they’re already doing their part. Whether they are or not is another matter – it’s that they think they’re doing their part that informs their actions. Moreover, they are of the opinion that government and businesses need to step up to the plate and take the lead, because the belief is that the individual consumer doesn’t have much impact on the environment in the grand scheme of things.

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Canadians are least likely to change their behaviour on the actions that would have the most positive impact on the environment. For example, only 44 per cent of Canadians say they’re likely to eat less meat in order to help battle climate change. And only 15 per cent say living car-free is among the most impactful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The truth is that such a change would be very impactful.

In order for consumers to take up the call, there will need to be better public education on what steps Canadians can (easily) take that are most impactful without pinching the pocketbook. Reducing, reusing and recycling has been engrained in our psyche for decades, but it’s time to come up with a new catchy call to action that individual Canadians can adopt.

Canadians’ actions towards climate change are out of step with their attitudes. Canadians say they care about climate change, and that taking concrete action is increasingly urgent, but who needs to take that action remains a point of contention. People are reluctant to do more until they know that everyone else is doing their part too. With all the headwinds facing Canadian households right now, can you blame them?

More than two decades of communication on climate change from governments, scientists and activists has failed to mobilize Canadians. Given this failure and COP27 pronouncements regarding the urgency of the situation, Canada is very likely to have to resort to a Plan B that does not rely on a voluntary shift to green behaviours.

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Progress on climate change will need to come from legislation and regulation combined with massive investment in infrastructure and energy transition. More money will have to go into adaptation rather than prevention. Governments will do this because rebuilding cities and coastlines every few years is too expensive. The insurance cost from lost crops and lost livelihoods will be too great. They will do this because many of the climate refugees will be Canadians forced to move away from areas prone to wildfires, flooding waterfronts and plains.

In the end, climate change efforts will be driven by the country’s fiscal parameters — more than by what people want or consumer behaviours — so maybe it’s not a problem that Canadians trail the rest of the world.

Sean Simpson is senior vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs in Canada.

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