Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Canada: Do People Still Care?

LOST, LOST, Frontier Centre

The Harper government’s quiet confirmation last week that it will not support an extension of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 barely caused a ripple in Canada.

Ottawa, which had already announced it would not meet the binding emissions cuts it committed to under the first round of Kyoto, joined the U.S., Russia and Japan in rejecting an extension of the international agreement at the UN preparatory climate change conference in Bonn, Germany.

And few headlines were written about a report last week by the International Energy Agency that found fossil fuel emissions hit record highs last year, topping 30 gigatons, about 5 percent more than the previous record set in 2008.

Hot off a Conservative majority win and an election campaign that offered only boilerplate homage to climate change policies, it appears that global warming is not top of mind for many Canadians.

Indeed, it sometimes takes the mercury to rise to record-breaking heat, as it did in parts of Ontario last week, or wild weather events like tornadoes and the flooding in Manitoba and Quebec, to spark a renewed interest in the subject.

Of course, climate change is measured by centuries, not whether or not it rained on Victoria Day or the air conditioning kicked in a few months early. But those first-hand weather experiences make Canadians skeptical about global warming, says Peter Holle, founding president of theFrontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based public-policy think-tank.

His organization takes a strongly cynical stance on global warming and has recruited a slate of scientists who argue that cooling and warming cycles are part of the earth’s normal pattern.


“Carbon dioxide is not the pollutant source of global warming,” posits Holle, adding that Canadians are more focused on the economy than the environment.

That skepticism is being echoed in other parts of the world. In England, the government adviser in charge of overhauling the school syllabus has suggested climate should not be included in the school curriculum.

Tim Oates told The Guardian today the national curriculum needs “to get back to the science in science. “We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don’t date," he said. "We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."

Clare Demerse, acting director for climate change at the Pembina Institute’s Ottawa offices, says it’s only a matter of time before we’re all talking again about global warming.

“Climate change is not as trendy as it was,” she says. “But that’s normal. All issues go through a cycle where they are at top and then fall off and that’s where we are now. It will be back up there again.”

Demerse refuses to limit the climate change debate to a choice between the environment and the economy.

“The old school argument is you either have the environment or the economy, not both” she says. “But that’s not true anymore. With a sustainable economy you can have both.”

Though climate change may not be top of mind for Canadians, we’re still more likely to believe the issue is a real, ongoing concern than our American cousins. A joint study released in April found American belief in climate change declined in lock step with the shrinking economy between 2008 and 2010.

Canadians remained fairly consistent in their recognition of the issue, though it could also be argued that the recession’s impact was not as severe here as it was south of the 49th Parallel.

The study also found Canadians are more willing than our American cousins to pay for energy from renewable sources.

The biggest split in opinion was over the question of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme.

While most Americans do not support such policy options, a majority of Canadians said they would support them, even if it came with a cost of $50 per month in energy expenses.

That might be news to former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, whose 2008 platform promise to make polluters pay a carbon tax helped sink his election campaign. A companion policy, which sought to shift $15.4-billion in tax burdens away from individuals as compensation, was lost in the hue and cry.

The Conference Board of Canada reported earlier this month that while all three levels of government spend a lot money and time trying to adapt and anticipate what climate change might mean to them, they’re not coordinated and not going at it efficiently.

What’s needed, the report says, is a carbon pricing scheme like those in place in B.C. and Quebec. Alberta also has a program for large green house has emitters.

But as Dion learned, testing the resolve of the Canadian electorate on their climate change convictions can have steep political costs. For the Conservatives, there’s little incentive to rock this particular boat.