How the pandemic has changed our views on climate change

Posted on Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Author: Nik Nanos

Nik Nanos

Chair, Advisory Council
Positive Energy

Originally published by The Globe and Mail on August 7, 2020

There’s a school of thought that, when it comes to fighting climate change, the notions of a greener future and strong economic growth are irreconcilable. These are the people who insist you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Others insist you can have it all, and that it’s indeed possible – if not paramount – to have both a healthy planet and a healthy economy.

During the first 60 days of 2020, before the pandemic effectively closed the economy, Canadians said their most important issue of concern was the environment. Now, Canadians are not only more concerned about the pandemic (28.7 per cent), but also the state of the economy and the job market (20.8 per cent) and health care (9.6 per cent). Just 6.1 per cent of Canadians cite the environment.

However, the environment still looms as a longer-term issue that demands action. It is the timing and nature of this action that divides Canadians.

In a new survey by Nanos for the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy initiative, by a margin of 1.5 to 1, Canadians felt now is a good time for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate change, even if there are costs to the economy. Forty-five per cent of Canadians rated it either a 7, 8, 9 or 10 on a scale out of 10, where 10 was absolutely the best time. Meanwhile, 29 per cent of Canadians rated it a 0 to 3, where 0 is absolutely the worst time.

This means that, even though a plurality of Canadians currently tilts toward environmental ambition, it remains an extremely divisive issue with only about one out of four Canadians with an ambivalent opinion.

 

A look at the distribution of opinion suggests that one-third of Canadians are polarized at both extremes, with just as many Canadians thinking it is absolutely the worst time as Canadians thinking it is absolutely the best.

Canadians are also very divided by region. Quebec and the Prairies are polar opposites, with people in the Prairie provinces much more likely to say it is absolutely the worst time to address climate change while Quebeckers are most likely to say it is the best time.

 

When asked to explain, Canadians who wanted to wait asserted that no action should be taken until the economy has recovered, and that there were other more important priorities such as health care and finding a vaccine for COVID-19. Those seeking immediate action believe that addressing climate change can’t wait and that the pandemic is a good opportunity for change.

The research suggests the pandemic has had a material impact on the views Canadians have on what is more important – protecting the environment or growth and creating jobs. Nanos tracking for the University of Ottawa reveals that, in March, 2015, 67 per cent of Canadians felt that “protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs,” whereas 24 per cent said “growth and creating jobs should be the top priority, even if environment suffers to some extent.” In July, 2020, those numbers had narrowed dramatically – 49 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively.

 

When it comes to striking a balance and coming up with solutions to support both the environment and the economy, most Canadians believe the federal government should take the lead. About two out of three Canadians believe the federal government, not the provinces, should lead decision-making when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is true in every region, except the Prairies.

These are the views based on research conducted during the pandemic. And they contrast with the views held before the pandemic. The question now is: How will changes in the economy, and the fight against COVID-19, continue to influence the views of Canadians as to whether this is a good time to be more ambitious on the environment?

Canadians are gripped with economic uncertainty because of the pandemic. This is increasing their polarization when it comes to reconciling the environment and the economy. The record-high identification of the environment as a top issue of concern coincided with an exceptionally low unemployment rate and a steady economy.

In this moment of fragility, our ability to restore economic prosperity may be a key factor in determining whether Canadians support immediate action on the environment. It’s too early to tell whether Canadians can have their cake and eat it, too.

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