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An art installation intended to show what one metric tonne of carbon dioxide looks like is seen on in Copenhagen on December 13, 2009.
An art installation intended to show what one metric tonne of carbon dioxide looks like is seen on in Copenhagen on December 13, 2009.

Bruce Anderson

How Obama shapes our environmental outlook Add to ...

I drafted several questions that Harris Decima included in a nationwide phone survey two weeks ago, the results of which have been released here over the last couple of days. In this final piece, the focus is on expectations of Canada at Copenhagen, blending economic and environmental matters, and what President Barack Obama means for expectations of our own government. Here's what we found:

• Half the sample (500 of 1,000 respondents) was read: "Canada should do as much as it can to solve the climate change problem." Ninety four per cent of the sample agreed with that statement. An unequivocal declaration of support for action, it would seem. But is it completely unequivocal?

• The other half of the sample was presented with "Canada should do as much as it can to solve the climate change problem, without putting too much pressure on the economy." Enthusiasm for this version of our commitment stands at 80 per cent.

In one sense, this is hardly revelatory: if offered the choice, people would like to have the best of all possible worlds. But it also reflects the same trepidation that affected support for Stéphane Dion's Green Shift. Voters evaluate government holistically, rather than looking at prosperity or sustainability in isolation. They want government to make reasoned choices, not only to embrace their passions.

The arrival of President Obama on the world scene has altered the dynamics of the debate, in ways that are important to Canadian politics.

• 74 per cent agree with the statement "Barack Obama will try to accomplish as much as possible in terms of environmental improvements." (Asked of half the sample)

• 60 per cent agree with this "President Obama will not be able to agree to do much to reduce emissions, given the weakness of the U.S. economy." (Asked of the other half)

Clearly, a lot of people are giving the U.S. President something of a bye on this round. He is so well regarded here, his values so broadly trusted, many will assume that whatever he proposes will be the best he can do, and likely as much as is possible. His predecessor has a much different relationship with the Canadian public, to put it mildly.

The idea that policy in Washington should determine environmental or economic policy for Ottawa usually riles Canadian voters. So when the Harper government says its climate policy will dovetail with that of our biggest trading partner, how does that argument land here at home?

Once again, the arrival of President Obama has changed our politics. By a margin of 59 per cent to 33 per cent Canadians agree with this statement "If Canada matches the kind of commitment the U.S. makes to fight climate change under President Obama, I will be satisfied."

Because most Canadians trust President Obama they can interpret our policy as aligning with someone who shares their concern with the planet, in a way they didn't feel with Mr. Bush in office. Describing our policy as mainly a question of economic self interest won't resonate as well as describing a partnership with a President who is seen to be progressive, but struggling with massive economic problems that we know affect us too.

Through this short series, I hope I've illustrated a few things:

• Canadians are quite concerned about the state of the planet and want to see the country push hard for solutions. But this is support for a direction, not the same as in depth knowledge of trade offs and rock solid attachment to individual solutions.

• People want governments to hear them, embrace their values, evince their passions, but they also expect governments will act prudently on their behalf, weighing pros and cons of different solutions with an eye on practicality and affordability.

• The audience for environmental matters is large, engaged, and still fluid. Opinions are subject to change based on information, advocacy, argument. The only views that will be ignored are those of people or institutions that appear not to care about the environment at all.

(Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

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