A recent poll suggests the number of Americans who don't believe in global warming jumped significantly over six months of 2013, a shift that occurred even as climate experts around the world voiced near unanimous agreement that the phenomenon is both real and man made.
But other studies say Canadians take a different view – that the number of us on this side of the border who believe average temperatures are climbing has increased in recent years and that we are gradually accepting human activity as the culprit.
Érick Lachapelle, a political science professor at the Université de Montréal, said Canadians are "more convinced, more concerned, and more willing to pay" to curb emissions, relative to people in the United States. That is backed up by ongoing research being conducted for Canada 2020, a left-leaning think tank based in Ottawa which released a new report on the subject on Tuesday.
In January, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released the results of a poll conducted in late November in which the number of Americans who said global warming isn't happening rose to 23 per cent, up seven percentage points from April. Yale officials surmised that the skepticism may have been driven by incorrect interpretations of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made public in September that said average global temperatures had plateaued over the past 15 years.
On one hand, the report pointed out that scientific consensus around climate change had been strengthened, said Dr. Lachapelle. Ninety-seven per cent of climate scientists now agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. On the other hand, the authors of the report had to admit that there was some kind of a pause in the temperature escalation. While they attributed that to oceans soaking up the heat, climate-change deniers used the information to strengthen doubts in the minds of Americans who were already unsure about what is going on.
But Dr. Lachapelle said Canadian and American attitudes do not mirror one another. The Americans, he said, are up and down on the issue while Canadians' views are much more stable.
A poll comparing beliefs about climate change in the two countries that was also conducted last November suggested that 81 per cent of Canadians believe temperatures have been getting warmer over the past four decades. Just 12 per cent of people in this country disagreed with that observation, suggested the poll that was organized for Canada 2020 by Dr. Lachapelle.
Meanwhile, only 61 per cent of Americans who took part in the same survey said temperatures had increased over 40 years, and 25 per cent – a number that was statistically the same as the finding of the Yale poll – disagreed that the earth is getting warmer.
In both countries, there is a split along political lines. But the Canada 2020 poll suggests Conservatives in this country are only slightly less likely than American Democrats to believe in global warming while the Republicans are far more skeptical.
Even small-c conservative icons like Preston Manning, the former leader of the Reform party, have been urging action on climate change. "I think there is slow progress," Mr. Manning told reporters in Ottawa last weekend. "I would just like to see it go faster."
Dr. Lachapelle said people naturally seek out information that is consistent with their previously held perceptions. There seems to be a "fundamental value cleavage" between Canada and the United States and, in the United States, it is easy for climate-change deniers to get their views validated by media sources like Fox News, he said.
"Fox News is more likely to cite global-warming skeptics or scientific authorities that claim to be global-warming experts that are skeptical of a rise in a rise in global temperatures, or at least man's cause behind them," said Dr. Lachapelle.
But that does not mean, he said, that there is a consensus in Canada that has made it easier for Canadian politicians to take action against global warming.
Although the levels of belief in climate change are relatively higher in Canada than in the United States, said Dr. Lachapelle, 15 per cent of Canadians argue that global warming is happening but it is part of a natural cycle and another block of us believe in man-made global warming but do not agree it is a major problem.
"If there was a big consensus in Canada around climate change," said Dr. Lachapelle, "our policies wouldn't look the way that they do."
Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Josh Wingrove also contributed.