Climate concerns now top security and health
One in four label environmental issues as most important
Globe and Mail, Jan. 26, 2007
Anxiety about environmental change has climbed so quickly within Canadians' consciousness that it now overwhelms terrorism, crime and health care as society's greatest threat, says a poll that kicks off a major Globe and Mail examination of the issue.
The Globe and Mail/CTV News survey delivers a number of messages for politicians, including a warning that the government not abandon Kyoto and a desire that Canada make a significant contribution to resolving global warming.
But the overarching finding is the speed with which Canadians have accepted that global warming is a large problem. The issue will also have a profound effect on the next election, as voters decide which party has the best plan to fix the problem.
"It's developed a top-of-mind salience the likes of which we've never seen before," said Allan Gregg, chair of the Strategic Counsel, which conducted the survey. "In 30 years of tracking, we've never had over 20 per cent saying they think this is the most important issue."
According to the poll, 26 per cent of Canadians say the environment is the most critical issue facing the country, up from 12 per cent in July, and up from 4 per cent one year ago. By contrast, health care was chosen by 18 per cent of voters, terrorism by 6 per cent and crime by 3 per cent. Other issues of great importance in the past also place well below the environment. Government corruption, for example, was chosen by 1 per cent of respondents, down from 8 per cent.
"Canadians are convinced that it's real because they touch it," Mr. Gregg said. "Secondly, people know that the life of conspicuous consumption is out of control. They've been hearing it long enough."
The results foreshadow an election in which global warming will be a deeply contested issue that could end up realigning the left-of-centre vote.
The poll finds, for example, that 20 per cent of Canadians are very likely or somewhat likely to vote for their local Green Party candidate when the next election rolls around, compared with 4.5 per cent who voted Green last time. Another 27 per cent believe the Greens have the best plan for the environment, compared with 16 per cent for the Liberals, 12 per cent for the Conservatives and 9 per cent for the NDP.
Ironically, potential support for the Greens could end up benefiting the Tories, depending upon who the Greens steal support from.
Currently, 30 per cent of New Democrats and Liberals surveyed say the Greens have the best plan for the environment, said Mr. Gregg, while 36 per cent of Bloc voters pick the Greens. The Tories appear to have the least to lose to the Greens, with only 20 per cent saying they have the best program.
"It has the potential to split the vote of everyone but the Conservatives," Mr. Gregg said. "In a perverse way, lots of activity on this issue may not hurt the Tories, even though they're the least competitive on it."
The rising importance of the Greens may also mean that denying Green Party Leader Elizabeth May a spot in the national election debate will be extremely difficult.
The poll may also be somewhat troublesome for Mr. Harper's decision to separate his government from the Kyoto Protocol.
On that issue, 63 per cent of respondents say the country should continue to try to achieve targets under the accord, to which Canada is a signatory. Another 30 per cent say the government should stick with the Tory promise to pursue a "made-in-Canada" plan that the Tories promoted in last year's election.
"I think that what this is picking up is that it's wrong for us to turn our backs on targets," Mr. Gregg said.
Given the figures, opposition parties would do well to support Kyoto on the election trail while "pillorying these guys for being quitters."
Mr. Gregg said it may be difficult for Mr. Harper to re-embrace Kyoto lest it appear an insincere effort to win votes.
But the Prime Minister might have some success by fixing on other methods to reduce greenhouse gases in an effort to convince Canadians that he cares about the issue. It is a tactic he has already begun to employ.
It's still unclear, however, whether Mr. Harper's appointment of John Baird as Environment Minister is part of a plan to fix the issue, or whether the Prime Minister has appointed the intensely partisan Mr. Baird to undermine the credibility of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister.
Canadians are also surprisingly bullish on the size of the contribution their country can make toward reducing global warming, Mr. Gregg said. The poll found that 44 per cent believe the country could play a significant role, while 46 per cent said it would be a minor one.
"One of the hallmarks of Canada, historically, was the belief that not only does the world not affect us very much, we didn't affect the world," he said.
He said the numbers suggest that, even if larger nations such as the United States and China aren't part of Kyoto, Canada must take an international role.
The poll surveyed the opinions of 1,000 Canadians between Jan. 11-14 and is accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Green with worry
Canadians are clearly worried about the environment and what the future holds, according to the latest poll conducted for The Globe and Mail/ CTV.