The sense of urgency around climate change is trending up

New tracking shows Canadians leaning toward climate action. But there are challenges, too, from polarized views to a lack of trust in some information sources.

Monica Gattinger is Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Chair of Positive Energy, and a Full Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies

Nik Nanos is the Chair and CEO of Nanos Research and Chair of Positive Energy’s Advisory Council.

It has been over a year since the pandemic struck and governments restructured the economy and society around physical distancing. COVID has dramatically altered our day-to-day lives; it has also altered our policy priorities. In early 2020, the environment was the number one policy issue on Canadians’ minds. Four months into the pandemic, the environment had fallen behind COVID, the economy and health care.

Since Summer 2020, the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program and Nanos Research have tracked Canadians’ climate ambition in the midst of the pandemic. Do people think it is a good time to be ambitious in addressing climate change? What is driving their views?

Our latest round of tracking shows that Canadians continue to lean towards climate action, and the sense of urgency to act is growing. We have been asking Canadians on a scale of zero to 10, where zero means absolutely the worst time and 10 absolutely the best time, how good a time it is for Canada to be ambitious in addressing climate change. Our latest results show that one in two Canadians believe now is the best time to be ambitious about climate change (7-10) rather than an OK time (4-6, about one in five) or the worst time (0-3, about one in four). The results remain relatively consistent across time. Across all three surveys, we observed greater support for climate ambition among Québécois and Atlantic Canadians, women, and ideologically left-leaning Canadians, with less support among Canadians in the Prairies, men, and ideologically right-leaning Canadians.

(Nanos Research)

We scratched beneath the surface by asking respondents why they gave the answer they did. Here, we see a clear trendline. As the pandemic continues, the public appears increasingly sensitive to the urgency of climate change. The first time we asked this question, 21 per cent of respondents said, “We need to act now, climate change can’t wait”. In the latest round of tracking, this number is up to 39 per cent. No other response has seen this type of growth. Here, the results are fairly conclusive: Canadians feel greater urgency to act on climate change now than they did in the early months of the pandemic.

But not all Canadians are ambitious about climate, nor do they see the urgency to act now. Using the zero to 10 scale helps to show the strength of disagreement among some Canadians on this issue. Here, our survey results reveal a troubling pattern: each time we’ve asked the question, between 34 and 39 per cent of respondents answered either 0 or 10 (split about evenly between the two categories). In other words, a sizeable number of Canadians hold very strong opinions either for or against climate action. What’s more, when we break out the data across regional, partisan or ideological lines, the percentage of those answering 0 or 10 jumps even higher. Polarized views like this are challenging for the political system to deal with. When peoples’ opinions harden in this way, they’re less likely to be open to compromise and change.

Looking forward to the federal budget, our 2030 targets, and beyond, policymakers and decision-makers must navigate this context carefully. One crucial piece of this is understanding which segments of the public trust them when they speak. We asked respondents to use a scale of 0 to 10 to rate how much they trust a variety of information sources on climate change.

Peer-reviewed science / researchers are by far the most trusted sources on climate change, with more than three in four Canadians scoring them between 7 and 10. Environmental organizations and traditional news media were the next two most trusted source (52 per cent and 43 per cent of respondents answering between 7 and 10). For public sector sources, Canadians distinguish between government agencies and politicians, trusting agencies three times more than politicians (38 per cent versus 12 per cent). Industry is trusted about the same as politicians—not very much. Social media is by far the least trusted information source, a somewhat reassuring finding for those concerned about misinformation.

(Nanos Research)

Interestingly, trust in peer-reviewed science and researchers holds across ideological, partisan and regional lines. This is good news as it suggests Canadians will look to research and science to inform their views. That said, our findings suggest that ideologically right-leaning Canadians are less trusting of all information sources. In our November survey, we asked Canadians what information sources they trust for climate issues. The most common response among ideologically conservative Canadians was none. This is a challenge.

Building public confidence in decisions will be crucial to charting Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change. Our findings show that Canadians’ level of climate ambition is holding steady during the pandemic and the sense of urgency is growing. Yet the size and strength of opposition is large and concentrated enough to challenge initiatives that have majority support. Understanding the nature and scope of opposition, and mobilizing trusted information sources, will be vital going forward.

Source: Positive Energy/Nanos Research, RDD dual frame hybrid  telephone and online random survey, February 28th to March 4th,  2021, n=1016, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.  Report details at www.nanos.co | https://www.uottawa.ca/positive-energy/

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