Environment

On energy and climate, politics is the problem

Nik Nanos and Brendan Frank: Climate disasters are piling up, and the public discourse around climate is getting more ambitious

Nik Nanos is the Chief Data Scientist and Founder of Nanos Research and Chair of the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy Advisory Council. Brendan Frank is a Senior Research Associate with Positive Energy and the Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

Canada has had several heated debates over energy and climate policies in recent years. The optimism and action that followed the 2015 Paris Conference quickly faced strong resistance at home and abroad. And despite our policy progress, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions curve remains stubbornly flat. At the same time, there has been a pronounced shift in the public debate as awareness grows and climate disasters pile up.

Over the last year-and-a-half, the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program and Nanos Research have asked Canadians whether it is a good or a bad time to be ambitious in addressing climate change. Canadians increasingly think it is a good time to be ambitious. Last summer, twice as many Canadians (36%) said it is the best possible time to be ambitious compared to Summer 2020 (17%). 

But do Canadians have a good sense of where their neighbours stand on climate action? Our latest round of survey results suggest maybe not.

For our most recent survey, we decided to measure perceptions of whether there is consensus on several climate and energy policies. We asked respondents to rate on a scale of 0 (no agreement at all) to 10 (complete agreement), how much agreement they believe there is on both climate action and oil and gas production in Canada. 

READ: Canadian politicians won’t be able to ignore climate change in 2022

On climate action, the results are mixed. Only 22 percent of Canadians think there are high levels of agreement on climate action (scores of 7-10), 44 percent think there are mediocre levels of agreement (4-6), 28 percent think there are low levels of agreement (0-3), while six percent are unsure. Mean scores suggesting agreement were comparatively higher among Canadians over 55, Atlantic Canadians, Quebecois, and left-leaning Canadians (all 5.1 out of 10). Mean scores were lower among Canadians under 35, Canadians living in the Prairies, and right-leaning Canadians (all 4.2 out of 10). Interestingly, Canadians inclined to vote for the Liberal Party think there are higher levels of agreement (5.3 out of 10) relative to Conservative (4.0 out of 10) or NDP voters (4.6 out of 10). In fact, Liberal voters were the most optimistic subgroup that we surveyed.

On oil and gas production there are stronger perceptions of division. Only 18 percent of Canadians think there are high levels of agreement, 36 percent say there are mediocre levels of agreement, 37 percent say there are low levels of agreement, and 10 percent are unsure. Here, we see lower perceived agreement among Canadians under 35 (3.7 out of 10), NDP voters and left-leaning Canadians (3.6 out of 10) when compared to Canadians aged 35 to 54 (4.6 out of 10) and right-leaning Canadians (4.7 out of 10). There isn’t much optimism to go around; no subgroup had a mean score above 5.0. Again, we see a gap between perceptions of opinion and actual opinion. In a previous Positive Energy/Nanos survey, Canadians were in fairly strong agreement about the importance of oil and gas to Canada’s economy, though somewhat less bullish on its future importance (mean scores of 7.6 and 6.0 out of 10, respectively, using the same 0 to 10 scale).

Next, we asked Canadians why they held these opinions. For climate action, the most common answers among Canadians who think there are mediocre or low levels of agreement were climate denial (18% and 16%, respectively), political polarization (17% and 19%, respectively), and the existence of other policy priorities (17% and 14%, respectively). Among Canadians who said there are high levels of agreement, the most common response was that action is being taken (28%). 

MORE: The Indigenous grandmothers who stopped a pipeline

On the question of oil and gas production, Canadians who believe there are high levels of agreement pointed out that we are highly dependent on oil and gas for many things (19%) and that these resources are important to the economy (16%). Among Canadians who said there are mediocre or low levels of agreement, polarization between the provinces was the most common answer by far (29% and 35%, respectively). The future of oil and gas remains a sticky subject in both politics and the court of public opinion. 

Is there more or less perceived polarization compared to five years ago?

Over two in five Canadians (41%) think there is much more agreement compared to five years ago on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet Canada’s international targets (7-10 out of 10) compared to just one in five (19%) who think there is much less agreement (0-3 out of 10). On issues like carbon taxes, building pipelines, and the future of oil and gas production in Canada, respondents were more likely to say there is much less agreement compared to five years ago than they were to say there is much more agreement; none had a mean score above 5.0 out of 10.

What does this mean in terms of the future?

In the 2021 federal election, every major party platform adopted the language of net zero by 2050. Even if you take a cynical view of politics, this is a significant rhetorical shift. Yet as these results show, Canadians are far more likely to see politics as a problem rather than a solution, and some actually think there is less consensus on meeting Canada’s international GHG targets compared to five years ago. Forthcoming research from Positive Energy also suggests that it’s not just the public—many decision-makers also believe that partisan politics is limiting consensus-building by making us seem further apart on climate action and many energy issues than we actually are. 

Overall, perception may be worse than reality when it comes to the public debate over certain energy and climate policies. Of all the policy areas we surveyed, climate action appears to be the most promising opportunity to expand the tent. However, much of it will come down to the way our leaders behave and the examples they set. The current cross-partisan consensus on net zero by 2050 is still vulnerable. As recent history shows, things can heat up quickly when the policy rubber hits the road.

Source: Positive Energy/Nanos Research, RDD dual frame hybrid telephone and online random survey, October 31 to November 3, 2021, n=1026, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20. Full research report details here.

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