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Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadians chagrined over status as climate-change dawdlers Add to ...

On the eve of major UN climate change talks next month in Copenhagen, a major survey of Canadians has found that more than three quarters of the public feel embarrassed that the country hasn't been taking a leadership role on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The view that Canada is an international laggard when it comes to dealing with emissions blamed for global warming was felt across the country, even in oil-rich Alberta, the province that would likely bear the highest financial costs of complying with any rules to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

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The survey was compiled by Hoggan & Associates, a Vancouver-based public-relations firm that was researching Canadian attitudes toward the environment and sustainable development for a number of major corporations and other entities, including BC Hydro, Desjardins Group, Alcoa, and the David Suzuki Foundation. It is to be released next week.

Although Canadians say they are concerned about the environment, the survey found it ranked as the No. 3 issue after the state of the economy and health care.

But Hoggan also did a second survey of a group of about 1,000 people it termed "thought leaders," or top members of business, universities, government and the media, and found that for these people, the environment was the most important issue, followed by the economy. The tracking of elite opinion was done because it often foreshadows views that eventually spread to the general public.

The finding that most Canadians are dismayed over the country's record on climate change is a message to federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice and the Conservative government, says Jim Hoggan, president of Hoggan & Associates.

Even in Alberta, 65 per cent of respondents agreed with a statement that "it's embarrassing that we are not doing more to curb emissions." Support for the view favouring more action was highest in Quebec, at 86 per cent.

"I think they underestimate the levels of people's concerns about our international responsibility," he said in an interview.

Mr. Hoggan, who is also chair of the Suzuki Foundation, said the Conservatives have been out of step with public sentiment on climate change virtually from the moment they took office in 2006. In his opinion, this represents a potential vulnerability for the government.

Early on, the Conservatives repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, the current international agreement on controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, to which Canada is a signatory. And rather than develop an independent Canadian position on combatting global warming, Mr. Prentice has said he wants to tailor domestic action on emissions to policies developed in the U.S. by the Obama administration.

"I still kind of scratch my head and wonder why the Conservatives don't have a strong sustainability platform, because I think they'd get a majority hands down and they won't have this issue" working against them, Mr. Hoggan said.

Even though the economy is in the doldrums, a substantial majority said that in tough times governments and business need to make a "top priority" of both economic and environmental issues, such as climate change. That view was held by 67 per cent, compared to the 33 per cent who felt that during a slump, the best course would be to fix the economy first.

"People, they don't buy this old argument that we have to take care of jobs now and once we have the prosperity, we can take care of the environment," he said.

The polling also found an overwhelming majority of the public shares the assessment of the scientific community that global warming is a major threat to the planet. A total of 72 per cent thought the impacts of climate change "are going to be very serious," compared to 28 per cent who agreed with the statement that such concerns "are exaggerated."

There was also strong support for the view that "most scientists agree that human activity is the primary cause of climate change," a position held by 62 per cent of the public, compared to the 38 per cent who felt there was "still much debate" among researchers.

The survey also found a great deal of public skepticism about corporate environmental claims, with 83 per cent believing that most company pronouncements on their sustainability claims "are more for public-relations purposes than actual results." Only 17 per cent thought companies that talk about sustainability "are truly committed to achieving results."

The survey was conducted on line in April and involved 4,368 Canadians. The company hadn't released the details earlier to allow the businesses that purchased the information to use it before it was divulged publicly, according to Mr. Hoggan.

The top issues Canadians said need to addressed, according to the general public surveyed:

Issue

%

Economy

39

Health care

22

Environment

12

Poverty

4

Crime, drugs

3

Taxes

2

Education

2

The top issues Canada needs to address, according to elite decision makers:

Issue

%

Environment

32

Economy

23

Health care

10

Education

7

Poverty

6

Infrastructure, transit

4

Governance, leadership

2

Compiled by Hoggan & Associates

 

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