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Will Voters Turn Politicians Green?

Global warming tops polls, but how much heat do officials really feel?

By Tom Barrett 2 Feb 2007 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Most people ready to pull their weight

Politicians are stumbling all over themselves to show us how green they are. But how deep is our infatuation with environmental issues? Will the next federal election really be fought over the issue of climate change?

A recent Strategic Counsel poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV suggests that Canadians are ready for tough action.

The pollsters asked: "Would you personally be willing to make major, minor or no real sacrifices to your current way of life if you thought it would help solve global warming?"

More than half the respondents said they would make major sacrifices. A further 38 per cent said they were ready to make minor sacrifices.

Substantial numbers said they support forcing consumers and industry to switch to alternative fuels (80 per cent), banning coal-fired generating facilities (62 per cent) and even rationing consumers' use of fossil fuels (56 per cent).

This isn't the first time that Canadians have been worried about the environment, though. We've said before that we were ready to make sacrifices, then gone out and trashed the planet some more.

Green waves of public opinion have come along at roughly 20-year intervals: in the late '60s and early '70s; in the late '80s and early '90s; and again today.

At the end of 1988, for example, Time magazine put "Endangered Earth" on its cover as "Planet of the Year."

Five or six years later, we were telling the pollsters we were worried about other stuff.

Worry lines

In an influential article written during the first green wave, U.S. economist Anthony Downs looked at the way public opinion builds around issues like the environment.

In Up and Down With Ecology: The "Issue-Attention Cycle," Downs argued that "American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long -- even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society."

(Although he was talking about the U.S., you can make a pretty good argument that the model applies to Canada as well.)

Downs wrote that various problems surface, dominate the public agenda for a short time, then -- "though still largely unresolved" -- gradually lose their hold on our attention.

Downs called this process the "issue-attention cycle," and argued that it followed five predictable steps:

1. The pre-problem stage. A problem exists, but is of concern only to experts and interest groups.

2. Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm. The public discovers the problem, is shocked by the threat it poses and demands that political leaders do something to fix it.

3. Realizing the cost of significant progress. The public discovers that the problem will be expensive to fix and will require significant widespread sacrifice.

4. Gradual decline of intense public interest. The absence of easy solutions produces three reactions:

"Some people just get discouraged. Others feel positively threatened by thinking about the problem; so they suppress such thoughts. Still others become bored by the issue. Most people experience some combination of these feelings."

5. The post-problem stage. The issue ceases to dominate public opinion, although the problem -- and attempts to solve it -- persist.

Downs argued that the cycle had little to do with the reality of the problem:

"Public perception of most 'crises' in American domestic life does not reflect changes in real conditions as much as it reflects the operation of a systematic cycle of heightening public interest and then increasing boredom with major issues."

Beware of boredom

Part of Downs's cycle is driven by a realization during the third stage that the causes of the problem also bring benefits to many people. Although cars cause pollution, for example, they also make modern life much easier and are seen by many people as indispensable.

Writing in 1972, Downs concluded that the issue of the environment had a number of things going for it that might hold people's attention. However, he added, "we should not underestimate the American public's capacity to become bored -- especially with something that does not immediately threaten them, or promise huge benefits for a majority, or strongly appeal to their sense of injustice."

You can look at Downs's argument in two ways -- on the one hand, it's true that the first two green waves of public opinion eventually washed away even as the state of the planet worsened.

But on the other hand, the first two green waves did result in government action on a number of fronts, from acid rain to protection for endangered species. And the fact that the issue keeps coming back suggests that even if people do become bored with an issue, they don't stay bored forever.

'Concern...not yet hardened'

Pollster Angus McAllister conducts The Environmental Monitor, a series of polls that have tracked Canadians' opinions on the environment for two decades.

While the environment is currently a hot issue, "concern is malleable and is not yet fully hardened," McAllister said via e-mail. Some Canadians are thinking about the environment for the first time in 15 years and, on issues like the Kyoto Protocol, are still "short on the details," he said.

"But the public are now into a period of learning and attentiveness...Public perceptions of federal leadership will be a major factor in determining how long this current run of environmental concern lasts."

Because the environment and global warming are complex issues based on scientific arguments that can be hard for non-scientists to follow, it is sometimes difficult for pollsters to determine exactly where public opinion lies.

Issues such as crime, poverty and government corruption are relatively easy for people to understand, said Mario Canseco, director of global studies for Angus Reid Strategies.

Wording matters

But the complexity of the environmental issue makes it difficult for pollsters to word their questions, Canseco said. This is important, because subtle changes in question wording can produce wildly different results.

About seven years ago, for example, two different polls asked Canadians for their opinions on new government spending. The firm that asked about "new spending on social programs" found that one-third of respondents wanted to spend more money.

Meanwhile, the firm that asked about "putting money back into health care and education" found that almost half of respondents were willing to spend more.

Neither answer was necessarily "wrong"; it's just that people attach different meanings to different words.

For example, said Canseco, "If you say 'global warming,' it sounds more like a doomsday thing. If you say 'climate change,' they go 'Well, maybe it's regular, maybe it's normal, maybe it's El Nino.'"

Similarly, he said, if a pollster talks about the "theory" of global warming, respondents are less likely to be concerned than if the phenomenon is presented as a fact.

'Forgive PM'?

Questions about Kyoto can be similarly tricky.

A question that suggests that Canada is not delivering on its commitment to an international treaty is likely to get a response along the lines of "Well, we should have delivered, this is just terrible, we should commit to it," Canseco said.

That's why you can find polls that suggest that Canadians strongly believe the Stephen Harper government should honour this country's Kyoto commitments, and other polls that suggest that Canadians maybe aren't so worried about the accord.

Recently, the CanWest newspaper chain reported that, as one headline put it: Voters will forgive PM for ignoring Kyoto.

In that poll, people were asked which of the following three statements best reflected their views:

The poll, by Innovative Research, found 31 per cent support for the first statement, 59 per cent for the second and six per cent for the third.

Yes on serious targets

McAllister said his firm finds a similar response when it asks about a so-called "made-in-Canada" approach to emissions control.

But that doesn't mean Canadians support a less stringent approach, he said.

"The data shows that a growing majority of Canadians are now 'very concerned' about global warming," he said. "However, they haven't thought about this issue for 15 years, so they are just ramping up on the specifics of Kyoto.

"When the details are explained to them, the primary concern of a majority of Canadians is meeting or exceeding the Kyoto numbers...

"Moreover, the increasing concern suggests that many may want to exceed Kyoto, regardless of whether the timeline is realistic."

So, while Canadians may be open to alternatives to Kyoto, they probably don't favour ignoring Kyoto's targets.

Some pollsters and pundits argue that people lose interest in the environment as an issue when the economy goes bad. The suggestion is that the environment is a sort of "luxury issue" that worries people only when their basic needs -- money, jobs -- are being met.

Although it's true that, generally speaking, interest in the environment has tended to dip in bad economic times, not everybody buys the argument.

Pollster McAllister argues that "economic crises alone will not necessarily make the issue fall off the radar. We know that the 1987 stock market crash and the 1990 recession did not make environment disappear."

Substantial numbers have told McAllister that they disagree with the argument that environmental protection causes unemployment.

Voters not clear on 'right party'

Simon Fraser University political scientist Michael Howlett is also skeptical that economic issues can override environmental concerns.

"The whole idea of sustainability and sustainable development and so on is specifically geared to avoid thinking about those things as zero sum," said Howlett, whose research interests include environmental policy.

Most people don't see the economy and environment as tradeoffs, he said.

"I don't think people say, 'Go ahead and pollute my hometown so I can get work at the mill.' I don't see any evidence of that."

So is the environment likely to decide the next federal election, as so many pundits and politicians seem to believe?

Keith Neuman, an Ottawa-based vice-president of the Environics Research Group, says it could be a significant issue, assuming no other issue emerges in the meantime.

"But I don't know if it's going to hinge on it," he said.

The environment is similar to health care, in that "everybody's concerned about it, but people can't clearly differentiate between the different parties," Neuman said.

"Their positions may not be distinct enough for people to say, 'This is the right party for the environment and not that one.'"

Even if environmental platforms play a large role in the next election, voters' choices may come down to credibility -- which party voters most trust to keep their green promises -- rather than the promises themselves.

Neuman said the election is unlikely to produce the sort of clear choice that voters faced in the free trade election of 1988, for example. In that election, the Progressive Conservatives were for free trade and the Liberals and New Democrats were against it.

"I don't know that we're going to see an anti-environment party," Neuman said.

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