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Is a deal in Copenhagen crucial to Canadians?

Climate-change demonstrators hug a police officer during a march that drew tens of thousands in Copenhagen on December 12, 2009.

The idea of a global pact to ease environmental pressures has long sounded like a good one to most voters in Canada. And, as concern about the health of the planet has mounted, so too has the sense of urgency about achieving a breakthrough of this nature.

In the second of a three-part series on environmental attitudes, I want to explore some of the contradictions and nuances in public opinion. I drafted several questions that Harris Decima included in a nationwide telephone survey two weeks ago, the results of which are released here.

Yesterday, we looked at how Canadians feel the world is doing at addressing environmental concerns. Today, let's examine how they feel about the need for an agreement in Copenhagen.

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Half of the sample (500 of the 1,000 respondents) was read the following: "Whether there is a binding climate change deal in Copenhagen is crucial to the future of the health of the planet." Seventy one per cent agreed with that statement.

The obvious, and not incorrect conclusion, is that the most Canadians expect world leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to make a determined effort to make something better happen at this conference than resulted from the last one.

But that finding reveals only one aspect of how people feel about the need for a deal.

To find out how people might react if a deal can't be reached in Copenhagen, the other half of the sample was presented with this statement "Whether there is a deal in Copenhagen or not is not critical, as there will be other ways and opportunities for countries to agree on how to deal with environmental issues." A majority, 62 per cent, agreed with that statement.

Looking at these two pieces of information together provides a slightly different read than looking at either one of them individually. Here's my take:

• Most Canadians would like to see a climate pact and would like to see Canada do what it can to make this happen. Failing to try would carry political consequences. Mr. Harper's government is not punished in the polls because the planet is warming, but loses a pound of flesh every time voters think Conservatives couldn't care less about the issue.

• While the desire for a deal is widespread, failing to conclude a deal will disappoint but not plunge us into total despair. More likely, it will make people feel that we need to work harder to build political consensus, and change consumer and business behaviour. People will not decide that there is no point in trying, quite the contrary. Arguably, the failure of Kyoto became the foundation for a broader effort to protect the planet.

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• The data I described yesterday shows that alongside fear about the health of the environment is a nascent optimism that some positive changes are starting to take place around the world. This early stage optimism helps explain why some feel that the fight to save the planet won't be lost if there is no deal in Denmark. Those who think some progress is already occurring are 13 points more likely to feel that Copenhagen is not the last chance for the planet.

Sceptics of polls may argue (a few did yesterday) that these results show how question phrasing can produce any result. And it's true that social science has documented a "yea-saying" effect, a tendency for people to agree with a statement more than disagree with it, but this effect should not be exaggerated, and in this case the design chosen helps reduce that analytical risk as it applies to arguments on various sides of the same issue.

I believe that this approach to exploring opinion reveals that most people have predispositions and preferences about modern environmental issues. But at the same time, most have not become dogmatic about specific solutions, and don't feel expert enough to know if, for example, 350 parts per million of carbon is the right number, what the base year for greenhouse gas measurement should be, or what the pace of reduction needs to be to avoid a tipping point.

While concern for the planet won't go away any time soon, beliefs about exactly what needs to be done about it are susceptible to influence and change. This is occurring all the time and, on one level, is why effective communications matters so greatly.

Tomorrow: What Canadians expect from Copenhagen

(Photo: Climate-change demonstrators hug a police officer during a march that drew tens of thousands Saturday in the Danish capital. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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