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Canadians want action on climate change but majority are socially disengaged

Canadians are more likely to be concerned about the impact of climate change on future generations than the personal harm it could cause them now. Experts say after last year's heat dome in B.C., that's something Canadians may want to reconsider.
A polar bear atop a melting glacier is a "classic image" that co-author Jennifer Carman says could be contributing to Canadian's dissociation with climate change.

It's official—the vast majority of people worldwide agree climate change is happening. 

In Canada, a recent report found nearly 90 per cent of Canadians surveyed responded "yes" when asked if climate change is occurring, and almost 80 per cent said climate change was "somewhat" to "extremely" personally important to them.

The international report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications identifies several public opinions on climate change held by people in different regions across the world. The survey of 108,946 active monthly Facebook users collected data from 192 countries between March and April.

Jennifer Carman, a co-author and postdoctoral associate at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said the data revealed two major trends in opinions: one of global unity and one of global diversity. 

Setting the regional differences aside, Carman said the most important unified opinion was one that's positive but easily taken for granted.

"There's a really strong consensus that climate change is happening," Carman said. "That question has basically been settled globally."

In Canada, with a sample size of 1,026 survey respondents, the report revealed a variety of public opinions, including wide support for clean energy and a green economy, as well as a lack of interest in climate activism and individual responsibility.

Who should lead the campaign for change?

Renewables are in, and fossil fuels are out, according to the public opinion of surveyed Canadians. 

Over three-quarters of Canadians surveyed said they support a national increase in renewable energy. Simultaneously, nearly 70 per cent said they support reducing fossil fuel usage. 

If taken, these changes to Canada's energy habits could be conducive to reducing climate change. As the report indicates, this is something Canadians think would be good for the economy.

Approximately 70 per cent of surveyed Canadians said reducing climate change would either improve or have no effect on economic growth and job opportunities.

But if Canadians are serious about breaking up with fossil fuels, who are they holding responsible for making these changes?

The "government" and "businesses" make up almost 70 per cent of responses from Canadians when asked who is most responsible for reducing climate change. Only about 20 per cent of that responsibility fell to individual people, according to the report.

These statistics align with the 70 per cent of respondents who said climate change should be a high government priority in Canada.

Stephen Thomas, a climate solutions policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, said these findings are consistent with his organization's observations over the last few years.

"Canadians do see a clear role for the federal government and for companies to take on the biggest part of the work in avoiding the very worst of climate change," Thomas said. 

This placement of responsibility on either the government, businesses, or the individual, could be due to the cultural values of a country or where the responsibility of its social good lies, Carman said.

In Canada, Thomas said, it's likely a reflection of what Canadians are exposed to in terms of messaging around who's responsible for climate change. 

As a systemic problem, Thomas said climate change needs systemic solutions.

Individual consumer actions can only go so far, he said, until the government needs to be pushed towards action on a larger scale.

Collective climate action is out, at least for adults

So which citizens are eager to rally government and businesses to take climate action? Apparently, not even half of those surveyed.

According to the report, 42 per cent of Canadians said they were unlikely to participate in an organized climate action group. Another 16 per cent said they were unsure, and only seven per cent of Canadians said they were already participating in a climate action group. This leaves 34 per cent contemplating the decision to join a climate action group. 

Thomas said this lack of interest can occur because Canadians who aren't embedded in the climate solutions industry can lose sight of themselves in climate action opportunities. 

"I think that Canadians need to see themselves in the solutions and need to see clear benefits in taking this sort of action," he said.

Canada isn't alone in its low enthusiasm for organized climate action. Europe, South America and the rest of North America all saw numerous single-digit percentages of respondents already participating in such groups.

Comparatively, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia & the Pacific, two regions where the impacts of climate change are being felt more severely, up to 40 per cent of respondents said they're already involved in a climate action group. 

While these numbers may reflect the disconnect Thomas mentioned between individual consumers and climate solutions, Carman said there are still a few caveats with this data that are important to remember. 

The first is that the survey only includes people aged 18 or older.

​​"That means that we're not capturing the youth movement," Carman said. "So we might be undercounting in some places."

Additionally, Carman said the low percentages of action-takers in large countries such as Canada and the U.S. need to be put into perspective alongside the smaller countries surveyed. 

When this data is collected at a national level, even relatively small percentages can represent millions of people, Carman said. 

"Keeping that in mind, when you have millions of people who are currently involved in the climate movement, that really shows there's a strong base for potentially making change," she said.

Concern for the future, disconnect in the present

For now, climate change remains an issue commonly projected onto future generations of Canadians. 

Approximately 60 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they think climate change will harm future generations a "great deal." Meanwhile, only around 20 per cent of respondents said they believe climate change will cause a "great deal" of personal harm to them.

While around 80 per cent of Canadians surveyed did say they felt climate change is a "very" or "somewhat" serious threat where they live over the next 20 years, panic does not appear to be overwhelming present generations.

The popular image of climate change in each region could have a lot to do with this, according to Carman. 

In Canada, almost 50 per cent of respondents said they hear about climate change at least once a week. Carman said the fact that the issue is common knowledge could mean it remains distant in public perception.

Carman gave the example of the image of a polar bear sitting atop a melting glacier. She said this is one of those "classic images" that people in countries like Canada associate with climate change.

"For a lot of people, that's what they think of when they think of climate change," she said. "It's far away, it affects other people, and it affects future people." 

This means that even when Canadians are experiencing climate change, such as increased temperatures or extreme flooding, Carman said people aren't connecting their personal experiences to the global issue. 

Thomas said he hopes to see this disconnect improve in the wake of recent deadly climate impacts, such as last year's heat dome in B.C.

"The truth is that climate change is a problem for the future. And climate change is a problem right now," Thomas said.

The work Canadians do now will have huge impacts on future generations, according to Thomas. Still, it's vital to recognize that climate change is already being felt in Canada and B.C.

"As these impacts continue to happen, they'll become more clear to more people living in Canada," he said. 

"This is a reminder for us that we need to get to work right away, to avoid the very worst of what these climate impacts could turn into."

While all signs may point toward 'go' for Canadians to take serious climate action, Thomas said the scope of action that needs to be taken is something to consider.

"The scope and scale of solutions that we need are very large in Canada and around the world," he said. "So it is taking us a while to really reckon with and realize that that level of action is actually necessary. But it is necessary."

The good news? Thomas said many of the solutions and technologies Canadians need to move forward, such as those in the renewable energy industry, are ready to go.

"If we do this thing right, we'll leave no one behind… [including] folks who have already been left behind in the runaway inflation and the cost of living impacts we're seeing today." 

"We have an opportunity to make some of those problems go away as we as we reach for these climate solutions."