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opinion

Pas dans ma cour is as alive and well in Quebec as "not in my backyard" is in the rest of Canada.

Quebeckers, by a margin of 69 per cent to 25 per cent, understand the reality of climate change: It exists and is caused by human activities. Doing something about climate change is another matter, however, according to findings from a recent survey in Quebec that offers lessons for the rest of Canada.

Quebeckers are in favour of expanding renewable energy sources, provided they are not built close to where they live (with the exception of solar panels and wind turbines) and that it won't cost them more as consumers of energy. Only 11 per cent favour a nuclear plant, while 60 per cent oppose high-tension transmission lines, in a province dependent for more than half its power on hydro.

Almost half of Quebeckers favour a project for natural-gas pipelines and drilling for natural gas, but only one-quarter favour such a project near them. Proponents of the proposed Energy East oil pipeline through Quebec to New Brunswick take note: By a margin of 54 per cent to 36 per cent, Quebeckers oppose the idea of oil pipelines.

These numbers come from a comprehensive survey of Quebeckers' attitudes toward climate change done by Léger Marketing for two Montreal-based think tanks, CIRANO and the Trottier institute. The survey of more than 1,000 residents found the same sort of opposition to paying more for renewable energy that has cropped up elsewhere in Canada (see Ontario).

Sixty-one per cent of Quebeckers say they would not pay $50 a month more to support the development of renewable energy sources. Half would oppose any increase at all. Even in a province blessed with abundant hydroelectric power, most Quebeckers would not pay another cent to support more renewables. Renewables are fine, Quebeckers seem to be saying, as long as we consumers don't have to pay for them.

Would the reaction to higher prices be terribly different in other provinces? Look at the political paddling the Ontario Liberals took in some rural seats for the construction of wind turbines and flow-through tariffs to subsidize wind (and solar) power. The least that can be said is that higher energy prices risk a political backlash, although the government that implemented a carbon tax in British Columbia won re-election.

Quebec and Ontario have agreed to join California in a cap-and-trade market for carbon credits. The system is not yet running, and it is impossible to predict how it will work. Politically, cap-and-trade is less risky than a carbon tax because the costs are borne by carbon producers. But, of course, eventually producers will push those higher costs to consumers. Then we shall see the reaction.

A carbon tax is off the table in Quebec and across Canada, except in British Columbia. But the Léger survey shows what might happen in Quebec – and the same reaction would likely occur across Canada – were a tax imposed and the price of gasoline were to hit $2 a litre.

Asked how they would react in that event, and given a number of options, Quebeckers say they would buy a more fuel-efficient car (38 per cent); shop closer to home (28 per cent); buy an electric car (24 per cent); use more public transit (19 per cent); car pool (18 per cent); drive more slowly (17 per cent). In other words, most Quebeckers (though not all) would respond to the new reality of higher-priced gasoline. Which is exactly what proponents of a carbon tax predict.

Getting from widespread resistance to higher prices to implementing a carbon tax, with the eventual adjustments in lifestyle and transportation choices, is a bridge too far for anyone in politics today. Even in British Columbia, the pump price is nowhere near $2 a litre. Cap-and-trade (and the federal Conservatives' promised, but never realized, regulations on the oil and gas industries) seems politically safer.

The Léger survey illustrates the lack of a serious appreciation of fundamental energy facts in Quebec. The population consumes energy, is surrounded by it, lives in a province that produces vast amount of hydro and could exploit natural gas by fracking and oil by drilling in the St. Lawrence River.

Yet, only 11 per cent of Quebeckers say they have a "great" or "very great" understanding of the energy situation in their province. The rest say the issues are too complicated, they don't have time to consider them or they are not interested.

Would the numbers be different anywhere else in Canada?