OTTAWA–While environmental issues are top of mind for Canadians as the federal election approaches, voters are leery of proposals that would see them personally pay more to combat climate change.
New data released by the Public Policy Forum’s Digital Democracy Project suggests Canadian voters rank the environment second only to the economy in terms of their top political issues, and that there is widespread support among the electorate for reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Support drops off pretty sharply, however, when voters are asked to actually do something about it.
“It’s a general human phenomenon that we don’t align personal sacrifice with personality priorities. I mean, that’s why people don’t exercise, right?” said Peter Loewen, a University of Toronto political science professor and survey lead for the Digital Democracy Project.
“I think what’s happening here, frankly with the carbon tax, is the government has chosen an instrument that’s very visible, in which the cost can be expressed and the cost can be exaggerated, but the cost is very understandable to citizens.”
The environment and climate change are expected to be central issues in the upcoming federal election campaign. The Liberal government has brought in a carbon levy of $20 per tonne of emissions this year, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attempted to walk a line between action on climate change and support for the country’s natural resources sector, notably through the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
The Conservatives oppose the carbon levy and, while they promise to crack down on heavy industrial emitters, are offer no targets for emission reductions.
The good news for the Liberals is that not only is the environment a major political issues for Canadians — with 17 per cent of respondents saying it’s the most important issue to them — but there is strong support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A full 74 per cent of respondents said they’re in favour of Canada reducing emissions, with the most popular policy tool being renewable energy subsidies (72 per cent). A majority (57 per cent) support increased regulations to cut down on pollution.
The bad news is that increasing the price on carbon — the Liberals’ signature environmental policy — is a “non-starter” for a large segment of the Canadian electorate, according to the report’s authors. Only 36 per cent said they would support increasing the carbon tax.
The survey also tested how sensitive Canadians are to increases in the carbon price by asking how willing they were to pay a little more at the gas pump. Respondents were broken up into three groups — one group told a carbon tax would increase the cost of gasoline by five cents a litre, another group by 10 cents, and the final group by 15 cents.
“At five cents, 42 per cent of respondents are estimated to oppose a carbon tax, but this rises to 51 per cent at 15 cents per litre,” the report found.
“This finding illustrates the political perils of using carbon taxes to secure emissions reductions needed to meet Canada’s international obligations.”
Opposition to raising the carbon price was clearly split along partisan lines. A majority of Conservative voters opposed the carbon price at any cost, while supporters of the left-leaning Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc Québécois were unresponsive to a hike in the price.
“This lack of responsiveness to the price could possibly be because these respondents are more willing to accept sacrifices needed to reduce emissions,” the report’s authors wrote.
“(But) non-partisans appear to behave more like right-leaning partisans. At five cents, they share a similar level of opposition to the carbon tax as left-leaning partisans (41 per cent each). However, they move toward majority opposition at 15 cents (53 per cent).”
The Digital Democracy Project surveyed 1,554 voting-aged Canadians in an online survey between Aug. 17 and Aug. 23, and the data was weighted by region, age and gender. The polling results are considered accurate within one to four percentage points, depending on the question, 19 times out of 20.
The survey also studied the Twitter conversations of approximately 950 political candidates, 450 journalists covering politics, 300 third-party groups, and members of the general public using political hashtags like #cdnpoli or #elxn43.
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That data showed a serious disconnect between the political issues the public finds most pressing and the issues that journalists talk and write about.
While 20 per cent of respondents ranked the economy as the most important political issues, followed by health care and the environment, those topics received little discussion by political journalists. Instead, journalists (and political candidates) mostly focused on ethics — likely due to parliamentary watchdog finding that Trudeau broke ethics laws in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“The journalists in our sample were less than half as likely to tweet links to stories about the environment than stories about ethics,” the report’s authors wrote. “This probably reflects less a lack of interest in the environment than it does underscore an endemic feature of political journalism — namely, an overriding professional interest in scoops and scandals.”