Allan Gregg

Allan Gregg, Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group is among Canada’s most recognized and respected researchers, strategists and social commentators.

Doug Anderson

Doug Anderson, Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group is a seasoned researcher on public affairs and public policy issues.

Canadian views on energy, the environment and addressing climate change have evolved dramatically—and in many surprising ways—in recent decades. Arguably, there is no part of the economy that has been more directly implicated and impacted by these changes than the fuels sector. This article explains how we got to here and how opinion may evolve in the future.

In recent months, Earnscliffe has undertaken multiple studies on Canadian public opinion on issues of relevance to the fuels sector and we have also reviewed recent studies published by others. Taking it all together, several insights emerge.

Environment is a value, not a department. While important divisions in opinion remain, there has been a steady move towards consensus on some core themes relating to addressing climate change, growing the economy in general, and the role of Canada’s energy resources in particular. One of the most important is that regardless of their views on specific policy alternatives, Canadians agree that protecting the environment is a value that must be pursued. Put simply, any meaningful debate surrounding the environment is now likely to revolve around the means of achieving this goal not the end.

Put simply, any meaningful debate surrounding the environment is now likely to revolve around the means of achieving this goal not the end.

Canadians now seek compromise not conflict. The public has been presented with a forced choice in recent decades as advocates and experts have pitted environmental interests directly against economic interests. Today however, we find that there are very few Canadians left feeling that it is a zero-sum game between the environment and the economy and fewer still believe that one deserves attention while the other deserves none.

Indeed, most Canadians now agree there is a moral obligation to address climate change and a majority reject the notion that “protecting the environment means less economic growth.” On the other side of the ledger, Canadians also recognize the significant contribution that natural resources bring to employment and the economy and loathe to support any measures that debilitate these sectors.

With this increasing tendency to recognize the benefits and drawbacks of both pro-environment and pro-development arguments, the bulk of Canadians are now much more inclined to prefer compromised approaches—what has sometimes been called Canada’s preference for “pragmatic incrementalism”—that make some progress towards the goal of a cleaner environment while embracing compromises that would avoid causing harm to the economy.

Emission reduction is necessary, but not necessarily “that” way. The vast majority of Canadians agree that there needs to be at least a partial replacement of traditional fuel sources with clean energy sources, even as they recognize that cleaner energy may be more expensive. There is also a widespread belief that a move towards clean energy represents more economic opportunity than risk for Canada.

However, any specific policy initiative designed to promote such a transition invariably raises doubts that tend to erode initial levels of enthusiasm or support for a move towards clean tech.

So we note, for example, that while Canadians are favourably disposed to a transition away from combustible engines to electric vehicles, they find it completely “unrealistic” that this change could happen any time soon and balk at any forced measures that might artificially shorten this timeline.

The current example of the federal government’s announcement on pricing carbon is another excellent example of where there is initial consensus on the objective, but eroding support for the measures necessary to implement the policy.

Canadians reject the notion that nothing can be done and at the same time seem uncertain about the options available and the role they can play in finding solutions.

Three-legged stool: effectiveness, cost, and consumer sacrifice. In our recent syndicated study, Earnscliffe Insights on Energy, the Environment and Clean Growth, we found that while the majority displayed a willingness to see a price put on carbon, the level of endorsement of this approach is closely tied to the sense that pricing carbon will actually make a difference.

If the efficacy of pricing carbon is credibly shown to be lower than expected or promised, Canadian support for doing so will, in all likelihood, begin to decline.

Similarly, if the “ask” is that polluters pay, and if it turns out that the definition of “polluters” include consumers rather than exclusively corporations, Canadian support for pricing carbon also erodes.

And if it turns out that effectively and cost-effectively achieving emissions reductions requires a change in lifestyle or behaviour that poses a significant sacrifice on the part of the consumer, the consensus around taking action will be similarly threatened.

Each of these perceptions of effectiveness, cost and personal sacrifice represent legs on a three-legged stool. Removing any one results in a collapse. Success in the form of public consensus results when all three are seen as adequately balanced.

Seeking a preferred path forward. Besides being conflicted and cross-pressured, Canadians also freely acknowledge that they possess little knowledge about various solutions that governments, businesses or they themselves should pursue to solve a problem that clearly concerns them. They want to “do the right thing” but their emotional commitment to this course is tempered by both pragmatism and worries about the cost implications for them of pursuing little-understood alternatives. They reject the notion that nothing can be done and at the same time seem uncertain about the options available and the role they can play in finding solutions.

In the end, because of these conflicting impulses and divided opinions, we can expect the public to apply continued pressure on government but not in a particularly focused or coherent way. Leadership will come, not from the general public, but from those who can convince the public that their preferred path forward is superior to the status quo.