Coming second was the economy, which was identified as a top concern by 25 per cent of respondents, while 16 per cent chose health care as their top concern.
The interactive phone survey of 1,812 adults was conducted over three days from June 28 to 30. Results are considered accurate within a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
A similar survey from February — albeit with a smaller sample size — found 15 per cent of respondents put the environment at the top of their list of concerns, a seeming shift that suggest voters are paying more attention to the political debate around climate change and extreme weather events ahead of the vote, said Forum President Lorne Bozinoff.
He said he believes a number of factors have combined to drive concern for the environment, including a bruising political argument over the federal government’s carbon price-and-rebate system that has been imposed in four provinces this year against the will of their right-leaning administrations.
But Bozinoff suggested the biggest factor is the increasing frequency of extreme weather, such as the major flooding this spring in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and intense wildfires in Alberta and British Columbia.
“I think people see these things and they’re linking it back to climate and back to the environment,” he said. “These are very, very vivid events.”
Digging further into the results of the survey, Bozinoff said the overall number masks significant regional differences — particularly between the Prairies, where the economy placed far ahead of the environment as the number one issue, and Quebec and Ontario, where the environment appears to be a more prominent priority.
That could pose a challenge for the Conservative party, which consistently has high polling numbers in the Prairies, but will need to make gains in areas where there is higher concern about the environment to defeat the governing Liberals this fall, Bozinoff said.
“It’s almost like we’re going to have two elections,” he said.
In April, scientists from the federal government released a survey of research that concluded Canada is warming at twice the global average because of climate change. Their report predicted that extreme weather events like heavy rains, droughts, wildfires and floods will become more frequent in the coming decades, and that collective action to slash global emissions can now only determine how much damage is done.
The report also echoed the conclusion of the last year’s landmark publication from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which called for “unprecedented” social and economic transformation to effectively eliminate annual emissions by 2050 and achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement to restrict global warming to within 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century.
In the face of this, federal parties have jockeyed in recent months over who has the best plan to fight climate change and protect the environment.
The Liberal government has defended its signature carbon pricing scheme, which enforces a minimum price of $20 per tonne of emissions across the country. It has also highlighted its commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, strengthen clean fuel standards and regulations for methane emissions, and $300 million earmarked for zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and purchase rebates.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have consistently attacked the Liberal carbon price as a tax-grab in disguise that will only increase the cost of gas and consumer goods. They argue they can reduce emissions without a carbon price, and point out that the federal government’s most recent projections say Canada’s current policies aren’t enough to meet the country’s emissions Paris Agreement commitment to slash emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
In June, after months in which the party was taunted by the government for not having a climate change plan, the Conservatives proposed a scheme that would force heavy industrial emitters to contribute unspecified amounts of money to clean tech research if they exceed a certain level of emissions. It also included $900 million per year for home retrofit subsidies.
The plan does not say how much it would reduce Canada’s emissions, but the Conservatives insist it offers the “best chance” at hitting the Paris target.
The New Democrats’ climate plan includes legislated targets to put Canada in line with what the IPCC report says is necessary. It also details $15 billion in spending over four years on public transit, green infrastructure, zero-emission vehicle subsidies and other initiatives the party says would create 300,000 jobs and put Canada on track to exceed its emissions target under the Paris Agreement.
The Green party would double Canada’s target to 60 per cent below 2030 levels, cancel all new fossil fuel development — including the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and multi-billion-dollar liquified natural gas developments in B.C. — and create “millions” of jobs by retrofitting all buildings in Canada so that they are carbon neutral within the next 11 years.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga