As world leaders meet in Warsaw this week for another summit on climate change, prospects for substantive progress have never seemed weaker. The consequences of inaction, however, have never been clearer, as the Philippines struggles to recover from massive destruction caused by the very type of extreme weather predicted by climate scientists. Yet once again, Canada is standing firm against stronger actions, even congratulating Australia on plans to abolish its groundbreaking carbon tax.
But does our country's position reflect the views of its citizens? The answer can be found in new public opinion surveys on how Canadians view climate change today, and how opinions have changed in recent years.
According to a national survey just released by the Environics Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, a clear and growing majority of Canadians believe the science on climate change is conclusive. And half of those not yet convinced say we should err on the side of taking strong action anyway rather than waiting for further evidence. What's more, a majority of Canadians believe we know what needs to be done to address climate change, but that the primary obstacle is the absence of political will rather than a lack of technical solutions. This issue is also top of mind for many Canadians: A separate survey released yesterday by the Trudeau Foundation shows Canadians rank environmental issues like climate change as the number one challenge facing the country in the future — ahead of the economy, unemployment, health care and taxes.
This public sentiment is poorly reflected in the federal government's current position on climate change. Even among the government's so called "base" of Conservative supporters, four in 10 accept the science on climate change as conclusive — almost double the number that consider themselves to be climate skeptics.
One of the clearest findings from these recent surveys is that Canadians look to Ottawa for leadership. A survey published by Canada 2020 shows that more than eight in 10 Canadians believe the federal government should take the lead on combating climate change. And the Trudeau Foundation survey shows the public places a greater priority on working harder with other countries to address climate change (45 per cent) than on expanding international trade (27 per cent), providing more aid to developing countries (26 per cent), or doing more to fight terrorism abroad (17 per cent).
But the absence of leadership at the federal level is taking its toll on what Canadians believe they really can expect from Ottawa. Previous surveys stretching back almost a decade show the public looks first to government to take the lead on climate change, rather than relying on voluntary actions by industry and consumers. But their confidence in government has declined noticeably over the past year, reversing an earlier upward trend dating back to 2008.
Because climate change is an international challenge, it is understandable that we look to Ottawa to take the lead. What is less well-known is that action on climate change is, in fact, happening at other levels of government.
Ontario eliminated coal-fired power in favour of clean energy, resulting in the single largest reduction of carbon pollution in North America. British Columbia's carbon tax took effect in 2008 and has helped reduce the province's emissions by 19 per cent per capita compared to the rest of Canada. Over the same period, the B.C. economy outperformed most of the country. Now the B.C. government has joined Washington, Oregon and California to create the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy; their plan is to prioritize clean energy and innovation through a strong economic incentive provided by a carbon tax. These jurisdictions collectively represent 53 million people, and an economic region with a combined GDP of $2.8-trillion — making it the world's fifth-largest economy.
At the municipal level, Vancouver's urban planning stands out for creating a vibrant downtown community while reducing global warming emissions. In the past 20 years, the population has increased by 27 per cent and employment has grown by 18 per cent; in the past decade, emissions decreased 11 per cent, and traffic to the downtown core decreased by 15 per cent since 1995.
We should recognize and publicly celebrate these important steps being taken by our civic and provincial leaders. But this kind of leadership is critical at the federal level and on a global scale. At home, the federal government needs to prioritize clean energy and eliminate billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies. On the international stage, the federal government should get back in step with Canadians and work with other countries to come up with a constructive international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is what Canadians want to see happen.
Keith Neuman is Executive Director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research. Ian Bruce is Science and Policy Manager at the David Suzuki Foundation.
This column was originally published on the Globe and Mail's website.