Climate change could chill Liberals’ chances in next federal election


Last month, about 200 governments around the world agreed to set newer targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland. The actions of the Canadian government have been met, in the political spectrum, in the same manner as in previous years and under different administrations: it’s either too much or too little, depending on who you voted for.


Environmental policy was one of the cornerstones of the Liberal campaign in 2015. An ability to connect with disenchanted centre-left voters in urban centres allowed the party to win a majority, one that included their best performance in British Columbia since 1968.


It is too early to tell how these voters will react this year. They may be dissatisfied with specific decisions taken under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s watch, including the approval (and later, purchase) of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The fate of the governing party will revolve around reconnecting with these voters who wanted a change in Ottawa.

Last month, Research Co. asked Canadians about their views on environmental issues, economic development and government performance. The results point to a voting public that has already taken sides, and one that may not be swayed by policy proposals.

Across the country, three in five Canadians (60%) think global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.

A significantly smaller proportion of Canadians (15%) think global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by natural changes. Almost one-in-five (18%) say global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven.

Canadians aged 18 to 34 (68%), Quebecers (also 68%) and British Columbians (64%) are significantly more likely to say that climate change is caused by man. These demographics are essential for the success of the Liberal Party in 2019. Younger voters may feel less inclined to vote for New Democrats or Greens in their riding if they believe the incumbent government is taking proper action on climate change.

While the number of Canadians who do believe climate change is an unproven theory is small, the proportion reaches 23% in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 22% in Ontario and 21% in Alberta. Three of these four provinces are currently governed by premiers who have opposed the federal government’s carbon tax. The other –Alberta – implemented its own carbon tax a few years ago.

The path to victory for the Liberal Party may not include the Prairies, where they won just 12 seats in 2015 (compared to 44 for the Conservatives), but Ontario is essential in any calculation that keeps Trudeau at 24 Sussex Drive. Campaigning with Kathleen Wynne will be very different from campaigning against Doug Ford.

Canadians, as a whole, are feeling positive about the economy, in spite of the usual threats (such as oil prices) and some unusual ones (Donald Trump in the White House). This feeling has not affected the views of Canadians on environmental stewardship.

When asked to choose between protecting the environment, even at the risk of hampering economic growth, or fostering economic growth, even at the risk of damaging the environment, Canadians prefer the former by a 3-to-1 margin (66% to 22%).

As expected, the environment is paramount for Quebecers (76%) and British Columbians (67%). Still, there are two groups that go way above the Canadian average on believing that economic growth is more important than environmental protection: Albertans (34%) and Conservative voters in the 2015 federal election (40%). These are not voters that will be influenced by discussions on climate change.

The last layer of analysis is government performance. Half of Canadians (49%) say the government is paying the right amount of attention to the environment – including 59% of Liberal voters from 2015.

Three in ten (31%) Canadians believe Ottawa is not doing enough, including 38% of those aged 18 to 34. Only 14% of Canadians believe the federal government is paying too much attention to the environment, a proportion that, unsurprisingly, reaches 31% in Alberta and 43% among Conservative voters from the last election.

The few Canadians who believe climate change is a theory were not primarily Liberal voters four years ago and show little signs of moving now. However, there is an inherent danger for the Liberals if younger voters decide that the environment will be their key issue this year. If they move to the New Democrats or the Greens, they may decide the size and colour of the next government.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.