Climate Change Opinions in Canada and the United States

The Wilson Center held an event to review and analyze climate change opinion in Canada and the U.S. in view of 2015 shaping up as an important year for climate policy. The year has already featured President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) Final Rule and Pope Francis’ statements about American responsibility for addressing a warming planet in his historic speech to the Congress.


The federal government in Canada, however, has remained noticeably silent about implementing plans to substantially reduce Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Only the Obama administration has unveiled policies to implement substantial emissions cuts. The Harper government—now voted out of office in Oct. 19 parliamentary elections—had set ambitious targets, but had not released a plan on how it would meet them.


The Wilson Center event assessed:

  • Whether these diverging policy trajectories reflected differences in public perceptions of the climate change problem
  • The state of public opinion on climate change in Canada and the U.S.


The results from two recent surveys—National Survey of Canadian Public Opinion on Climate Change (NSCPOCC) and the National Survey on Energy and the Environment (NSEE)—administered identical questions to representative samples from the Canadian and American populations.


The survey responses show strong evidence of global warming temperatures, but substantial gaps in global warming knowledge, such as warming trend causes, and the public’s reluctance to pay for more renewable energy.


In regard to the “perception gap,” Canadian and American attitudes towards climate change have actually narrowed in 2015.


In the U.S., 70 percent of the people polled perceive the existence of solid evidence for rising global temperatures, similar to the 72 percent recorded in 2008. In Canada, 82 percent of the population believes that climate change is real, representing the closest level of alignment in Canadian and American beliefs.


Despite the high level in Canada, the perception gap among Canadians is actually growing, while narrowing in the U.S. In both countries, the majorities state that they trust climate scientists and respect the scientific community’s conclusions.


While the consensus gap on the reality of climate change is shrinking, the source of climate change is still up for debate. Of the 70 percent of Americans who believe in climate change, only 39 percent attribute it to anthropogenic causes, which has enormous implications for policy support.


Exploring the difference in national averages can potentially mask other differences within population segments. For instance, all Americans—including Republicans and independents—are less likely to be skeptical of global warming than in prior years. In Canada, global warming skepticism declined among all partisan and undecided voters, but not among Conservative party voters.


Eric Lachapelle explored the consensus gap between the scientific community and the public, and how this can impact people’s political decisions. Nothing in the data suggests that public opinion pressures the government to act, and looking beyond perception, there is quite a bit of skepticism.


He elaborated on the various degrees of climate skepticism:

  • Denial – belief that there is no evidence of global warming.
  • Causal skepticism – doubt that humans have a role in global warming, and therefore less supportive of politicians who want to address global warming.
  • Consequential skepticism – doubt that global warming will have serious consequences for themselves personally. This creates different political implications because if there is less of a threat, people will be less motivated to do something about it or make it an election issue.
    • In Canada, as a northern nation, temperatures are rising at a faster rate and there is more evidence of climactic events such as drought and fires that are individually difficult to attribute to climate change, but collectively are evidence of global warming.
  • Response skepticism – doubt in the individual or collective capacity to do something about climate change. Lachapelle commented that this is the most dangerous type of skepticism.
    • A question was asked about support for a carbon tax, and how effective a carbon tax would be. Lachapelle said that carbon taxes are seen by economists as the simplest, most efficient way to put a price on carbon. If you ask the public how effective they think this policy would be, only 20 percent would support it. If people don’t have confidence in a policy’s credibility, they are less likely to support it.


KnowledgeThe self-assessed public understanding of global warming in both countries is low.


Only one-fifth of both Canadians and Americans said they know “a lot” about global warming. The majority of citizens in both countries strongly or somewhat trust climate scientists as a source of information about global warming, but public perceptions in both countries are out of step with the prevailing scientific view on the role of humans in global warming.


Mitigationthere appears to be a gap between the likely cost of transitioning to less polluting forms of energy and the public’s willingness to pay.


When substantial segments of the Canadian and American public don’t see a human role in global warming, they most likely will not be willing to support policies that require them to alter their emissions-generating behavior and make any short-term investments for future benefits. When asked about their willingness to pay for more renewable energy to be produced, responses indicated much lower than any transitional costs to significantly expand renewables.


Barry Rabe discussed renewables and the public response to the federal government’s required reductions under the CPP within individual states, stating that states had three ways to respond. They can come up with their own plan for meeting the federally-required reductions, they can accept a Federally Imposed Plan (FIP), or they can refuse to cooperate.


Americans from various states were asked about how they would like their state to respond to CPP, and there was a stronger base of support for solar over wind on the path towards renewables.


Rabe also discussed his research on whether public officials should take a stance on climate change. He said that political figures that have taken bold positions on climate change and been rewarded for it politically are hard to find.


He added that when you compare Canada and the U.S., Canada is not doing as much as its trading partners, and it needs to be more in step on its environmental regulations. The U.S. appears to be doing more in terms of public discussion and policy implementation.


Furthermore, he said Canadian policymakers tend to wait to see what the U.S. will do. The Canadian response on the vehicle rail pipe emissions came after the U.S. acted.


On the topic of mitigation and a carbon tax, the surveyors analyzed the actual understanding of what a carbon tax or cap and trade system would mean. Lachapelle said that only a quarter of the population in both countries say they know “a lot” about global warming, which is worrisome. Policies and solutions are difficult to implement when people are not well informed about the problem. For the carbon tax specifically, people find it easier to understand than cap and trade programs.


In the Canadian survey, Lachapelle said, half of the respondents were asked about how effective a carbon tax would be was and how likely would it be to harm the Canadian economy.


The other half was asked about a cap on pollution. The two questions were framed identically aside from those terms, but the survey asked specifically about a carbon tax that would apply to fossil fuels. The responses showed that support for a price on pollution was higher than for a carbon tax.


Lachapelle elaborated that they are really the same policy. A carbon tax is puts a price on carbon pollution, so if the public was well-informed, there wouldn’t be a statistically significant difference in the support for the two policies.


Rabe added that researchers have been looking at not just the cost imposition, but if there is revenue from the tax or if optioning is used under the cap and trade. How would the results change if people know how the money will be spent? Support may go up or down depending on how the money is being used. The number one thing people want is money from a cap and trade program to be reinvested into other programs that reduce GHG emissions, giving credibility to the policy.


A question was asked about why the American belief in global warming is trending upward if something happened in 2008 to create the highest surveyed level of belief. Rabe answered that extreme climate events are the biggest contributors to the changes in American opinion about climate change.