At this time a year ago, climate change barely made it onto the public's radar screen. Among the issues of greatest concern to Canadians, the environment was rated the most important by only 4 per cent of people, far behind health care at 25 per cent and also trailing crime, corruption and the economy.
By this month, environmental issues had surged to the top of the worry list of 26 per cent of the people who participated in a poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV News. An Angus Reid survey produced similar results, with more than a third of Canadians ranking the environment as the number-one issue facing the country today. This helps explain why politicians who tap into those concerns, such as Opposition Leader Stéphane Dion, have gained so much traction. And why others, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have clambered aboard the bandwagon.
The rise of the environment as a major political factor is a global phenomenon, and the only question is whether it signals a permanent change in public attitudes or is a momentary blip that will fade as economies weaken, gasoline prices fall, weather conditions return to seasonal norms and other fears take hold in the popular imagination. Several times in the past, the environment has risen from the sea of voter concerns to become the issue of the day, rousing great passions among adherents and opponents of proposals to reduce carbon emissions, clean up the air and water and persuade industries and consumers to be less wasteful of energy and other resources. But when the problems that triggered the concerns -- acid rain, the depletion of the ozone layer and the Arab oil crises of the 1970s, for example -- abated, Canadian consumers and businesses quickly returned to old habits and the politicians moved on.
This time seems different. "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 Globe/CTV News poll.
In particular, a remarkably high percentage of people say they are willing to make personal sacrifices if it means protecting future generations from the potential ravages of climate change and environmental degradation. The Globe/CTV poll found that 72 per cent are willing to pay more for a more fuel-efficient car; 61 per cent would cut their automotive use in half; 73 per cent are prepared to fly only when it is essential; and 62 per cent could live with significantly slower economic growth. Only 9 per cent said they would make no real sacrifices in their lifestyles.
Talking about sacrifices is one thing; making them is something else entirely. Even as conjecture, only 31 per cent support significantly higher prices for gasoline or heating oil. And fewer than half of those polled favour slowing or cutting development of the Alberta oil sands. But the poll sends a signal that Canadians want tough action from political and business leaders, and that merely paying lip service to the problem will not be acceptable.
In the United States, even President George W. Bush, who has an abysmal record on the environment, told Americans this week that they have to face the "serious challenge of global climate change." That followed a U.S. poll which showed that 88 per cent of Americans regard global warming as a threat to future generations. In Australia, which is suffering through a major drought, the Opposition Labor Party has made big gains by championing the environment. With a platform that includes signing the Kyoto Protocol and taking tough action on climate change, Labor Leader Kevin Rudd has jumped into a 10-point lead in the polls over Prime Minister John Howard.
In Canada, the surge in concern about climate change has led to a strong expression of support for the Green Party and its environmental program, which was to be expected. Twenty per cent of Canadians say they are very or somewhat likely to cast their ballots for Green candidates, which seems quite a jump from the 4.5 per cent who actually voted for them in the last election, though even now the number of "very" likely supporters is only 4 per cent. And 27 per cent say they prefer the Green environmental plan, compared with 16 per cent who favour the Liberal platform, 12 per cent who side with the Conservative approach and only 9 per cent who opt for what the NDP has to offer. In fact, nearly a third of NDP and Liberal supporters say the Greens have the best ideas. How much of this will translate into real support on election day is an open question; the issue of Afghanistan, for one, may direct a number of ballots. But if the voters are true to their word, the Green wave could cost the New Democrats dearly in the next election and siphon enough votes from Mr. Dion's Liberals to help the Conservatives.
Whatever happens, climate change has taken hold of public attitudes in Canada, and this shift appears irreversible.