Calls for climate action from the group Extinction Rebellion. Photo: Sebastian Dooris/Wikimedia Commons

Last month, as part of the research for a book I am writing on mobilizing Canada for the climate emergency, I commissioned an extensive national public opinion poll from Abacus Data.* The full results of the poll can be found on the Abacus website here.

I share highlights and my analysis below. Big picture: the results are hopeful and indicate a high level of support for bold and ambitious climate action. Canadians support systemic solutions that go well beyond what our governments have so far been willing to undertake.

First, a little background on why I commissioned this poll.

For years, far too much of the political oxygen and polling on climate change has been consumed by the carbon tax/pricing debate. While carbon pricing is an important tool, it alone is not going to get us where we need to go, and the topic has distracted us from the scale of action needed. Additionally, too often polling questions individualize the challenge and solutions, rather than focusing on collective and governmental actions. Past polling has tended to over-test people’s willingness to change their personal behaviour or to pay a carbon tax. But people increasingly understand that these “solutions” are not sufficient. People rightly feel cynical when presented with voluntary solutions that don’t match the scale of the challenge, and that others around them are not undertaking. When climate polls do tackle policy changes, most have tended to test incremental options rather than bold, system-change solutions. The questions we ask, and the solutions we propose, matter.

My forthcoming book will explore the gap between what the science says we must do to confront the climate emergency and what our politics currently seem prepared to entertain. The current challenge, as I see it, is that the climate solutions we need consistently encounter a political wall; the prevailing assumption within the leadership of our political parties appears to be that if our political leaders were to articulate (let alone undertake) what the climate science tells us is necessary, it would be political suicide. And so they don’t.

But is that prevailing assumption correct? That’s what this poll sought to test.

In framing the challenge, communications specialists often recommend against using an emergency or wartime frame. They contend that the public does not respond well to an alarmist or fear-based approach. Similarly, most official government climate plans, the product of careful focus-group testing, barely mention the climate crisis, but rather focus on positive messaging.

But the reality is that we do face an emergency, and we do need a wartime-scale response. And we in Canada have lessons to draw on. It has long been my view that recalling the speed and scale of our historic wartime mobilization can be a source of inspiration (not fear) in the face of the climate emergency. In undertaking this poll, I sought to determine whether or not this framing would resonate among the Canadian public and whether there is an appetite for systems-level solutions.

Poll results (and my analysis)

My main takeaway from this national opinion survey of 2,000 people is that the public is ahead of our politics. A large share of Canadians is already deeply worried about the climate crisis, and they are increasingly ready for bold and ambitious actions. In the wake of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last October, combined with recent weather events, we may well be witnessing a shift in public opinion.

Here are some of the highlights from the poll:

The Canadian public is increasingly worried about climate change. Three-quarters of respondents said they were worried, with 25 per cent saying they “think about climate change often and are getting really anxious about it,” and a further 49 per cent saying they “think about it sometimes and are getting increasingly worried.” In contrast, only 19 per cent say they don’t think about climate change often, and only 7 per cent either don’t believe climate change is real or something for us to worry about.

Stunningly, 42 per cent believe climate change is now “an emergency,” while a further 20 per cent believe it will be likely be an emergency within the next few years, for a combined total of 62 per cent. Even in Alberta, which registered the lowest level of support for this view, a combined total of 47 per cent of people believe climate change is either an emergency or will likely be one in the next few years.

People are deeply anxious about what climate change means for the fate of our children and grandchildren. When asked if climate change represents a “major threat to the future of our children and grandchildren,” 81 per cent responded that it does (49 per cent strongly agree and a further 32 per cent agree). Even 67 per cent of Albertans agree with this statement.

For a majority of Canadians, climate change is no longer an abstract threat impacting people somewhere else or at some time in the future. They see it happening here and now. When asked: “To what extent have you or someone close to you experienced the effects of climate change (such as living with the consequences of changing weather patterns or severe weather events such as flooding, wild fires, droughts or intense heat waves)?” three-quarters of respondents said they or someone close to them had experienced the effects of climate change (13 per cent of respondents said “in a major way,” while 37 per cent said “to some extent,” and a further 23 per cent said “in a minor way.”) Only 21 per cent said they had not experienced climate change at all, while 6 per cent reported being unsure.

People are ready for a major transition. Forty-four per cent of respondents said, “In the future, we should produce energy and electricity using 100 per cent clean and renewable sources, such as hydro, solar, wind, tidal and geothermal,” while a further 37 per cent support shifting in that direction but don’t believe getting to 100 per cent is possible. Even in Alberta these numbers clock in at 28 per cent and 47 per cent.

The wartime frame resonates with many. My book is exploring mobilization lessons from the Second World War — the last time we faced an existential threat and responded at the scale necessary. So, I wanted to test the resonance of that frame. The poll reveals that a large share of the Canadian public connects with this approach. When asked about the statement: “The climate emergency requires that our governments adopt a wartime-scale response, making major investments to retool our economy, and mobilizing everyone in society to transition off fossil fuels to renewable energy,” 58 per cent of respondents responded positively (21 per cent strongly agreed while a further 37 per cent agreed). Younger respondents (those between 18 and 44) were even more inclined to agree (with agreement levels closer to 65 per cent). This wartime frame found particularly high resonance in Quebec, with 68 per cent supporting this proposition.

People are ready for bold policies to move us off fossil fuels. The poll listed a series of six major policy moves and asked people if they agreed or disagreed with these actions. The six policies, along with the results, are shown below:

These results are quite stunning. As of yet, no federal or provincial government in Canada has been prepared to move this ambitiously. Yet the results show that when one combines “strongly support,” “support” and “can accept,” we find the public’s willingness to get behind bold actions to reduce greenhouse gasses range from a low of 67 per cent to a high of 84 per cent.

Zeroing in on the policy of banning all new buildings and homes from using fossil fuels for heating by 2022 (just a few short years away), a full 78 per cent of Canadians are comfortable with this idea (55 per cent either support or strongly support, with a further 23 per cent willing to accept this policy). Seventy-four per cent support or are willing to accept phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels over the next two to three decades (50 per cent support, with a further 24 per cent willing to accept such a move). Indeed, even in Alberta, 27 per cent support or strongly support phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels, with a further 21 per cent willing to accept this move.

The “can accept” folks are notable. My take is that these are people who are still unsure of how ambitious we can be, but with the right kind of leadership — the kind of bold leadership Canada saw in the Second World War — they could be brought along.

Also of note, 57 per cent of those polled believe the federal government is currently doing too little to combat climate change. And 75 per cent of people either support or strongly support the idea of “our governments making massive investments in new green infrastructure, such as renewable energy (solar panel fields, wind farms, geothermal energy, tidal energy), building retrofits, high-speed rail, mass public transit, and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as reforestation.”

  • The more a bold and transformative climate plan is seen as linked to an ambitious plan to tackle inequality, economic insecurity, poverty and job creation, the more likely people are to support it. In addition to people’s concerns about climate change, they are also very worried about inequality and affordability. So, when these social equity issues are tackled as part of a climate action plan, support for bold action to reduce GHG emissions rises dramatically.The poll listed five policy actions that could help with the transition, including extending income and employment supports to those more vulnerable during the transition, and increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help pay for the transition, and asked people if such policies would make them more or less supportive of bold and ambitious climate actions. Those five policy options and the responses are shown below.