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BC Election 2019 Category
Election 2019

To Win, Politicians Must Woo Voters with Action on Climate

Digging deeper into Canadians’ attitudes to environmental issues. First of two.

James Boothroyd 10 Sep 2019 |

James Boothroyd is managing director of EcoAnalytics, based in Vancouver.

Psssst: Candidates, campaigners, politicos.

For the first time in many years — perhaps ever — environmental protection and the small matter of a global climate emergency could be big ballot box issues in the Oct. 21 election.

That means understanding exactly what voters think about these incendiary issues, and what they care about, could be critical to the success of politicians and parties.

Our nonprofit environmental initiative, EcoAnalytics, has been tracking these issues for years on behalf of major environmental groups — David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace, Pembina Institute and others — and we would like to share some findings, things to keep in mind as you craft your platforms, knock on doors and grow hoarse at all-candidate meetings.

First, let’s look at environmental protection generally.

That’s important for politicos, right? You want to know who really gives a toss about the water we drink, zooplankton, grizzlies, the biosphere and all those ecosystems that underpin our economy and, well, us all.

The answer is a lot of us. Two out of three people told us protecting the environment is “very important” to them. They were mainly women and youth aged 18 to 35.

But beginning two years ago we went beyond the basic questions and looked at where Canadians stand on environmental issues in terms of their values, attitudes and behaviour. This analysis, titled Shades of Green and led by Marjolaine Martel-Morin, a PhD candidate at l’Université de Montréal, identified which groups of Canadians would be most and least receptive to communications about protecting the environment.

Using a nifty tool called latent class analysis to look for clusters of like-minded responses in a sample, we found that Canadians tend to fall into five groups: True Greens (32 per cent); Potential Greens (37 per cent); Reluctant Greens (19 per cent); Eco-Indifferent Individuals (two per cent); and Skeptics (10 per cent).

Skeptics are mostly men on the political right, greying at the temples. Twice as many men as women fall into this category of naysayers. They report that they are well informed about environmental issues and aren’t too worried — nearly half of them say the so-called ecological crisis facing humanity is greatly exaggerated and that governments are already doing too much on the environmental front.

Though relatively few in number, they have probably had more influence, as we know that older Canadian men tend to vote — and can be generous in sharing their opinion.

Eco-Indifferent Canadians, even fewer in number than the Skeptics, are not quite so opinionated, very unsure of what they believe, and don’t think much about the water and ecosystems when shopping at Costco or going about their other daily business.

Canada’s Reluctant Greens, by contrast, say that protecting the environment is important to them. They tend to think, however, that the state of the environment has not changed much in the last decade and believe that the government is already doing enough.

Potential Greens, the largest cluster in our Shades of Green spectrum, are evenly split between men and women, support environmental protection but are not unduly concerned about its current state. Only one in three strongly agree that human attempts to interfere with nature — suppressing forest fires, sucking bitumen out of sand, building vast tailings ponds — often have disastrous consequences. They report, however, that they feel pretty uninformed about environmental issues, and only one in three support environmental organizations (donating, signing petitions, volunteering and so on).

Some Potentials could, however, be coaxed into the most engaged cluster, Canada’s True Greens.

Almost 40 per cent of women in this country are True Green (compared to 26 per cent of men), and unlike the other clusters, True-istas (men as well as women) are more likely to have university degrees. They also consider themselves very well or well informed about environmental issues, do stuff to protect Mother Nature and are older and more leftish than Potentials. Two-thirds say they have boycotted certain products for environmental reasons in the last year, most of them say they speak about environmental issues frequently with friends and family and six out of 10 give money to environmental groups, volunteer for them or sign their petitions.

Candidates willing to campaign for serious climate action and environment protection will, therefore, find support among Potentials and True Greens — almost 70 per cent of Canadians. And Potentials are a target category for all parties, as they are fairly well off, financially, and younger than the True-istas — and as we know all parties are keen to attract (or deter) younger voters.

They are also pretty radical, at least in terms of talk.

Potential Greens, for example, tend to agree almost as strongly as True Greens with these statements: Oil companies should be accountable for the damages they cause (85 per cent); energy projects should require the consent of Indigenous peoples (74 per cent); and the right to a healthy environment should be enshrined in Canada’s Constitution (83 per cent).

And, one more thing, politicos: Potentials are more suggestible than True-istas. Framing experiments, for example, show that the views of this group can be more easily shaped by narrative framing — that is, they are more susceptible to carefully crafted frames that speak to their psychological tendencies.

One example: we tested two frames for communicating about the protection of terrestrial and freshwater areas in Canada: a gain frame and a loss frame. One group was informed that 10 per cent of Canada’s terrestrial areas and freshwater was protected, the other that 90 per cent of Canada’s terrestrial land and freshwater was not protected. Then we asked each group how much land and freshwater the government ought to protect. Potentials were the most powerfully influenced by the negative “loss” frame (which focused on the possible loss of 90 per cent of Canada’s land and freshwater). It’s noteworthy, though, that this frame prompted respondents of all Shades of Green to call for higher levels of protection than the “gain” frame.

By contrast, True-istas are more worried — thinking about the orca J-pod, clearcuts and the 11 years separating us from climate apocalypse, they are less likely to be swayed by crafty narratives. No matter how you politicians put it, True-istas will support bans on single-use plastics and a federal carbon tax.

So, in swing ridings of suburban Vancouver and Toronto, politicos of a green tinge will want to be getting out the vote among not just those educated older True Greens, but women and young Potentials as well.

Coming soon on The Tyee: Are extreme weather events shaping national opinion about climate change? EcoAnalytics investigates.  [Tyee]

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