On Monday, the day the Paris climate-change conference opened, Beijing recorded its most polluted day ever. Over the last five years, from 2000-15, however, the share of China's population that considers climate change a "very serious problem" dropped from 41 per cent to 18 per cent.
This finding, reported by the respected Pew Research Centre, was part of a troubling trend: the more carbon-polluting per capita the country, the least concerned are their populations about climate change. That list would include China, of course, Russia, the United States, Australia and our very own Canada. By contrast, countries that pollute the least – in Latin America, Africa and Asia – are the most worried.
The demonstrators demanding action on the streets of Paris, and elsewhere around the world, are therefore not at all representative of world opinion or in most cases of opinion in their own countries. (Anyone seen demonstrations in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia?)
All is not lost, however, in public attitudes for those who want action on climate change. Perhaps paradoxically, Pew did find majority support in almost every country for limits on greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Majorities also say lifestyle changes will be necessary, although they were not asked what kind of changes. These are among the challenges interpreting climate change opinion in Canada and other countries. Questions are asked in the abstract. They tend not to be tied to tradeoffs, specific situations or placed in relative importance against other public policy objectives. Someone might agree that climate change is "important," but how important next to, say, tax levels, health care, education, terrorism?
Take a recent finding from one of Canada's most respected polling firms, Nanos Research. Nanos – and this would be reassuring to advocates of action – found that 72 per cent of Canadians agree strongly or somewhat that the science or climate change is irrefutable. Only 17 per cent disagree, although some of them are strident and noisy about it.
Then Nanos reported that 63 per cent of people would be "willing to pay more for certain products in order to help Canada meets its environmental commitments." What products? How much more? And would the money actually help produce a result, because a lot of money has already been spent with only a marginal impact on emissions.
Consider another Nanos finding: 55 per cent would support "new taxes on fossil fuels," but 59 per cent support "growth in the oil and gas sector." We want more growth in fossil fuels and we want more taxes simultaneously. Really?
Renewables are hugely popular, but these energy sources are usually asked about in the abstract. What happens if the price of electricity soars (as it has in Ontario) in part because of renewables? Do people like that result? Maybe, maybe not.
Or what to make of this finding published by The New York Times/CBS News: A majority of Americans would support a binding international treaty to limited emissions? Sounds encouraging, except that the U.S. delegation in Paris is not seeking a binding treaty because it knows any treaty would be rejected by the Senate. Forget about pricing carbon through taxation. Only one in five Americans in the New York Times/CBS News poll favoured increased taxes on electricity, with six in 10 "strongly opposed."
In Canada, it would appear that support for climate change action has returned to levels before the 2008-09 recession. That is what the Justin Trudeau government senses. Having won the election (with a shade less than 40 per cent of the vote but the NDP on side) it intends to proceed on all fronts to improve Canada's woeful record of reducing emissions.
Provincial governments must sense this change in public opinion, too, for some of them are moving ahead and all seem willing to join with Ottawa to forge some sort of national plan. The shape of that plan remains unknown, but at least all partners seem willing, even anxious, to talk.
British Columbia has a carbon tax – the best plan in Canada. Alberta just announced a multifaceted plan. Quebec and Ontario are going to have cap-and-trade systems that will be bureaucratic, somewhat arbitrary and full of exemptions and special deals.
Polls today are merely indicative and often show contradictory results. Only when actual measures are implemented, the costs of these measures are known and felt, and the results are analyzed, can sensible assessments of public opinion be taken.