'Chump Factor' Holding Us Back

People ready to sacrifice if they don't feel alone.

By Tom Barrett 6 Jun 2007 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Why green shift is slow

When it comes to climate change, we're all a bunch of hypocrites. Sure, we talk big about doing our bit for the environment, but we're not willing to make personal sacrifices.

Or are we?

Maybe we're just grappling with the Chump Factor.

Certainly there's evidence to support the hypocrisy argument. Sales of carbon-spewing SUVs are going up at the same time we're telling pollsters that global warming is a big issue.

Last week, the Ottawa Citizen reported that pre-budget research done for the federal government advised that Canadians "are reluctant to sacrifice either financially or alter certain lifestyle habits for the sake of the environment."

And back in February, The Vancouver Sun reported that, based on its own polling, half of all British Columbians are unwilling to spend even the measly sum of $100 a year to save the planet.

It's not personal

But back up a minute. Do those numbers mean what they appear to mean?

Like all things having to do with measuring public opinion, the reality is not simple. Things can be interpreted more than one way.

Take that Vancouver Sun poll, for example.

Ipsos Reid asked 715 British Columbians if they were willing to pay a special $100 income tax that would go towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fewer than half said yes.

However, the man who did the poll, Ipsos Reid vice-president Kyle Braid, said in an interview last week that "I wasn't convinced that that meant a heck of a lot."

There could be a number of reasons why someone would tell a pollster they wouldn't pay a $100 climate-change income tax, Braid told The Tyee.

Many people believe that they are already doing quite a bit to fight global warming "and they see the responsibility here belonging to governments and corporations," Braid said.

As well, people tend not to believe that governments will spend their tax dollars wisely, he said.

The level of trust in the federal government to get good value from taxes is particularly low, Braid said.

People think "why give the money to the government to spend on this when I could do something in my own life with it," he said.

Slow to change

Braid said there's no question that Canadians care about climate change. What's less well-established is what we're prepared to do about it.

At this point, there is a fair bit of evidence about what Canadians say they'd be prepared to do to fight global warming. There's less hard data on what they are already doing.

And yes, Braid said, "there is a tendency for people to be overly optimistic about what they would be willing to do before the rubber hits the road."

Said Braid: "I don't think we've got to the point where we can say people have embraced taking action on climate change in their own lives beyond trying to correlate a bunch of things that they're already doing into the climate-change realm."

Recycling, for example, is something that many people have been doing for some time. A few years ago, Braid said, most people might say they recycled because they wanted to keep their city clean or they wanted to reduce waste.

Now they are apt to say they recycle to fight global warming.

"Nobody would have said that two years ago."

Intended sacrifice

When it comes to intentions, there is plenty of evidence that -- contrary to the federal government's research -- Canadians say they are willing to make sacrifices.

In the Ipsos poll discussed above, for example:

On a similar theme, almost two out of three respondents to a Strategic Counsel poll conducted in April for the Globe and Mail said they would devote between one hour and five hours a week "to greener living."

Almost two in five said they would spend up to 10 per cent more for an energy-efficient appliance; almost one in four said they would spend up to 20 per cent more.

A number of polls suggest, like this one, that people are understandably more willing to pay more for "sacrifices" that will save them money in the long run.

Hair-shirt vs. win-win

And it may be that the whole question of "sacrifice" is a bit of a red herring.

"I would say the very question, 'Are you willing to sacrifice?' that's bogus," said pollster Angus McAllister, of McAllister Opinion Research.

"If you asked, 'Are you willing to sacrifice your children's future?' you would probably get the answer No," McAllister said. "It's the hair-shirt religious approach to the environment as opposed to what most Canadians aspire to, which is a win-win approach."

McAllister does considerable polling on environmental questions and has learned that – as in all polling – the answers you get depend on the way you frame the question.

If you ask "Would you support a 10 per cent carbon tax on gasoline?" for example, about 30 to 40 per cent of respondents will say yes, he said.

If you ask about doubling the GST on gas guzzlers that aren't used for commercial or industrial purposes, about 70 per cent will agree.

If you ask about increased taxes and fines on polluters to pay for investment in alternative energy technology, you'll get 80 per cent agreement.

You might use these numbers to argue that people want someone else to pay for fighting climate change. But there's also an element of fairness here, McAllister argues.

'Chump factor'

Canadians are skeptical of taking what McAllister calls a "shotgun approach" to paying for the climate-change fight -- one where everyone pays the same, no matter how much they contribute to the problem. They believe it's more fair to have those who are most to blame pay the most.

Which brings us to what McAllister calls "the chump factor."

Most Canadians, he said, "think other Canadians don't give a damn about the environment." The feeling is less widespread than it once was, but it's still significant.

So if you're doing your best to reduce your carbon footprint, but everybody else is spewing greenhouse gases all over the place, you're going to feel like a chump when the government suggests you should pay higher taxes to fight global warming.

Obviously, everybody can't be right on this one. When it comes to protecting the environment, we can't all be above average, like we say we are. And we can't all be below average, like everyone else says we are.

McAllister said he's asked people if their friends and family are concerned about climate change. Why yes, they say, most people I know are concerned -- but most other people are not.

How do you know that?

Well, they say, I see it on TV.

Funny thing, that. McAllister said he's done surveys of journalists' attitudes towards the environment.

"And journalists are the most cynical of all in terms of Canadians and the environment."

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