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Canada’s Climate Change Election: Will Extreme Weather Drive the Vote?

As Canada’s federal election moves into its first full week, one of the looming questions is how and whether voters’ concerns about climate change, extreme weather, and environment will translate at the ballot box.

In a September 8 editorial, just days before the campaign officially began, the Globe and Mail recounted how quickly climate has arrived as a key campaign issue. In the 2008 federal election, the paper recalls, “green promises looked like a political dead end,” and then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s vaunted Green Shift was a bust. In 2015, “the question of climate change was not among Canadians’ top priorities,” with the economy and health care uppermost in voters’ minds.

What a difference four years can make.

“As we head into the 2019 election, a new Angus Reid poll conducted in August has found that environment and climate change are together seen as the top issue facing the country,” the editorial notes. “They were cited by 33% of people surveyed, ahead of health care at 20% and the deficit at 15%. The economy—with unemployment at record lows—comes in at 14%.”

The Globe traces a couple of the key demarcation points along the way, including last year’s blockbuster 1.5°C pathways report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the rise of the Green New Deal as a major focal point in U.S. politics.

The editorial cites some of the conflicting strands and strains in recent opinion polling: 69% want climate change to be a top priority for whoever forms Canada’s next government, but 58% feel the same about further fossil development, and only 52% of those who are concerned about climate change support carbon pricing. Earlier research had Canadians supporting carbon reductions but not so keen to pay for them. And last week, the Angus Reid Institute reported that 53% support the intensely controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

“Do they want to have their cake and eat it too?” asked Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin. “You bet, that’s what humans do. At Quebec separatism’s height, comic Yvon Deschamps said Quebecers want an independent Quebec in a strong and united Canada.”

But however complex and nuanced, realistic or unrealistic those views might be, “how Canada grapples with climate change will be at the top of the election agenda,” the Globe says. “Polls show that Canadian voters care about climate change more than ever. The question to be answered this fall is what they want the next government to do about it.”

One way of unlocking that puzzle, according to two of the country’s leading climate opinion researchers, is to understand the role of extreme weather in shaping Canadians’ voting intentions.

“With an election looming and climate change a burning issue, will Canadians’ experience of extreme weather shape the outcome?” ask public opinion researcher Erick Lachapelle and engagement specialist Jim Boothroyd, in a post last week for The Tyee. “Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives seem to be betting it won’t. Others are counting on biblical floods and the clouds of smoke from wildfires to push voters into the arms of parties promising radical action.”

Lachapelle, associate professor at l’Université de Montréal, and Boothroyd, managing director of Vancouver-based non-profit EcoAnalytics, conclude that “the latter might be nearer the mark; but it’s complicated—and that many are allowing preconceptions to cloud their judgment.”

On the “gateway” understanding that prompts people to support more aggressive climate action, Lachapelle and Boothroyd see public opinion moving in the right direction: between 2011 and 2018, the proportion who see human activity as a principal driver of climate change has increased from 40 to 65%. Over the same period, the percentage accepting the “solid evidence” that climate change is happening rose from 80 to 90%.

But the role of extreme weather in shaping those views is more complicated. “Canadians are increasingly likely to cite unusual weather as a reason to believe that global temperatures are on the rise,” they write. “However, whether people are actually changing their beliefs based on extreme weather is less clear. In fact, the evidence is also consistent with people selectively interpreting local weather in a way that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs about this increasingly political topic.”

In their research, Lachapelle and Boothroyd collected respondents’ views on whether global temperatures are rising, then compared their perception of local temperature changes with Environment Canada weather readings. 

“What we found is revealing,” they write. “When average summer temperatures were unusually low (2.0°C below the 30-year norm), nearly all respondents accurately reported lower temperatures in their local area. As the average summer temperature trended upward to 4.0°C above the norm, those with a high level of confidence in the reality of climate change were almost certain to recall a warmer summer. But only 30% of climate change skeptics accurately recalled a warmer summer.”

Which means that, “the less you believe in climate change, the more likely you are to ignore climate signals like warmer temperatures.”

The researchers uncovered a similar disconnect in public attitudes to flood risk. “Among the majority—77%—of Canadians who reported no recent flood experience, 81% said they did not live in an area prone to flooding. Yet, of the 23% who had recently experienced a flood, no less than 52% said they did not live in an area vulnerable to flooding.”

But as the pace of intense flooding, wildfires, and drought picks up, “people may be connecting the dots,” they add. “Recent research, based on 2018 data from New Brunswickers who had experienced a record-breaking flood event, shows them more willing to discuss climate change adaptation and, yes, mitigation—and alter their attitudes and behaviours.” They were more likely to see climate as a “very serious problem” already affecting Canadians, more willing to spend C$10 to $20 per month on extra insurance, and 10% more likely to strongly support a carbon tax.

“We cannot say whether these effects are large, long-lasting, or causal, but they point in the same direction,” Lachapelle and Boothroyd conclude. “Though some Canadians may interpret extreme weather through the prism of prior beliefs and values, actual experience of floods and, possibly, other climate-related natural disasters might increasingly drive us to update our beliefs about the severity of climate change, alter our behaviour, and support policies that seriously address this global threat.”

Which means that, with Election Day 2019 just five weeks away, “politicians would be wise to take heed.”