Green recovery could be polarizing issue among Canadians

Posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Author: Prof. Monica Gattinger and Brendan Frank

Director and Lead of the ISSP Energy Research Cluster
Chair, Positive Energy, uOttawa

Interim Research Director
ISSP, uOttawa

Originally published by The Hill Times on July 27, 2020

For six months, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has superseded all other public policy priorities. Governments placed their economies in a state of suspended animation, buttressed their health care systems, and pushed trillions out the door to help citizens weather the storm. But other policy problems are not going away. Indeed, COVID-19 has exposed and deepened many cracks in the system. As countries reopen, governments and multilateral institutions are grappling with what comes next, and how to reverse what the IMF estimates will be a five per cent contraction of the global economy in 2020.

In Canada and elsewhere, the question of how to weave energy and climate priorities into recovery is a growing part of the conversation. For years, the dominant narrative has been that economic health and environmental health are a zero-sum game. Public opinion surveys suggest that Canadians are more favourable to ambitious climate action when they feel economically secure. At the same time, in Canada and abroad, we are seeing a significant and possibly permanent shift in public attitudes towards climate change, with growing numbers of Canadians believing it is a serious threat that demands urgent policy action.

So, in the midst of the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, do Canadians think now is the best or the worst time for Canada to be ambitious about climate change? A new survey from Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa and Nanos Research answers this question. We asked Canadians: “On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means this is absolutely the worst time and 10 is absolutely the best time, how good a time is it for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate change even if there are costs to the economy?”

The results are revealing. Canadians are divided on the issue, but they lean towards action. A plurality of survey respondents said that now is a good time to be ambitious about addressing climate change: 45 per cent answered seven or higher. Less than a third of respondents said now is a bad time: 29 per cent answered three or lower. Close to a quarter (23 per cent) answered between four and six.

Interestingly, more than one-third of respondents answered either 0 (17 per cent) or 10 (17 per cent). This suggested that calls for a “green recovery” could be polarizing. Positive Energy’s research on polarization over energy and climate issues shows that disagreement over policy issues is not necessarily a prohibitive hurdle to policy progress. But strong disagreement—where views are hardened, extreme, or resistant to compromise—can be. Governments must tread carefully.

We also analyzed which Canadians are more likely to say now is a good versus a bad time for climate ambition. People in the Prairies (50 per cent), men (34 per cent), and Canadians aged 35 to 54 (34 per cent) are more likely to say this is the worst time (0 to 3). People in Quebec (54 per cent), Atlantic Canadians (48 per cent), women (48%), and Canadians under 35 (51 per cent) are more likely to say it is the best (7 to 10). As with previous Positive Energy surveys, this poll suggested that geography is a stronger indicator of attitudes on energy and climate than age or gender.

The study was a hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,049 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between June 28 and July 2, as part of a Nanos omnibus survey.

We also asked Canadians why they believe now is a good or bad time to address climate change. Those who said now was the best time most frequently answered that climate change cannot wait (39 per cent), or that the pandemic offers a good opportunity for change and highlights our impact on the environment (37 per cent). Those who believe now is the worst time say we should wait until the economy has recovered (47 per cent), or that there are other priorities to address—namely public health and the search for a vaccine (21 per cent).

So, what does this mean for decision-makers? Our findings suggested that climate change is still on the minds of many—but not all—Canadians, and over one-third of Canadians have very strong views on the subject. Given this, economic recovery from COVID-19 could be a unifying or polarizing issue for the country, depending on how governments at all levels approach it. Policies that appear to favour one region over another or measures that don’t pay close attention to trade-offs with priorities beyond the climate, could face stiff resistance.

Reviving the economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions need not be a zero-sum game, but they require integrated balanced approaches and careful attention to where and how Canadians’ views align and diverge on the issues.

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