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Welcome to the new climate

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Taken as whole, it is hard to argue with Mr. Bennett when he says, “This is the issue of our generation.”

Pinpointing why environmental worries have suddenly become so important that Canadians are telling pollsters they're willing to contemplate even Draconian steps such as gasoline rationing is difficult to answer with a single cause.

Andrew Weaver is one of Canada's most influential thinkers on global warming, an expert on how oceans shape climate and editor of the prestigious Journal of Climate, published by the American Meteorological Society. At the end of a long interview, the University of Victoria professor is grasping for an event that would explain the abrupt change of public mood.

“This has happened since the spring. I don't know what it is,” Dr. Weaver says. He cites some possible causes, such as hurricane Katrina, or Canada's long string of freaky weather, or the widespread interest in An Inconvenient Truth, a film that nearly a quarter of a million Canadians saw in theatres last year.

But regardless of whether it's because of one event or many, Dr. Weaver says: “Right now it's resonating. It's the No. 1 issue in Canada.”

Among those Canadians saying climate change is happening, literally outside their homes, is Adam Zita, a naturalist at Ontario's Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre near Midland. He says early January was so warm that mosquitoes, the pests of summer, were still active. On the East Coast, blueberry grower Wendy Robichaud, who runs a farm near Truro, N.S., says winters are becoming so mild that they're often not cold enough to kill crop-threatening bugs.

The mood of the times harks back to the political awakening that launched the environmental movement in the 1960s, when the publication of Rachel Carson's book on pesticides, Silent Spring, and the heralded death of Lake Erie through pollution, became powerful symbols of an environment in trouble.

They eventually helped lead to programs to clean up the Great Lakes, the first modern pollution laws in Canada and the United States, and bans on DDT, among other far-reaching changes.

The Globe's polling has found that Canadians say they're in the mood for the same kind of dramatic actions to fight climate change.

More than half of respondents told the pollsters that Canadians would support banning electrical-generation plants that use coal, placing carbon taxes on industries, rationing or setting limits on the amount of fossil fuels consumers can use in any one year, and forcing consumers to switch to fuels that produce lower carbon emissions. Nearly half want to slow down or reduce the development of tar sands in Alberta. About one in three wants significantly higher prices for gasoline and home-heating fuel.

The views are backed by personal commitments. More than nine out of every 10 people say they're willing to make sacrifices, with 55 per cent saying they'd accept major ones and 38 per cent minor ones in the fight against global warming. Only 5 per cent say they won't do anything.

Clear majorities also say they would be willing to pay more for fuel-efficient cars, reduce the amount they fly, cut the amount they drive in half, and have the economy grow at “a significantly slower rate” to help clean up the environment.

While many Canadians say they want these kinds of grand actions, the Harper approach to climate change has been timid, such as Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn's announcement last Sunday of $300-million over four years to make residences and other buildings more energy-efficient.

Given predictions of a federal election before the year is out, Canadians may soon be able to test politicians against the lofty environmental expectations they've told pollsters about.

“There is a good chance that this will be the first time that we have climate change as a major election issue in Canada,” predicts Matthew Bramley, global-warming expert at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank in Ottawa.

Indeed, climate change may be the defining aspect of the campaign, as Mr. Harper, like Mr. Bush only a recent convert to the importance of things environmental, tries to fend off Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister and Kyoto champion, who is also competing on the issue with the NDP and a newly emergent domestic political force, the Green Party.

In trying to burnish his environmental credentials, Mr. Harper axed former environment minister Rona Ambrose and has pledged hundreds of millions for programs to fight climate change, reversing the course his government took in its first year in office of cutting environment spending.

Mr. Bramley thinks the government, by rejecting Kyoto and killing funding for such high-profile climate programs as the One Tonne Challenge, inadvertently helped create the widespread public anxiety over the state of the environment they're now scrambling to address.

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