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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 5, 2013.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Canadians want the Harper government to take a leadership role on climate change and give the Prime Minister poor marks for his approach, says a new poll released Wednesday by a progressive think tank in Ottawa.

The survey – sponsored by Canada 2020 and the University of Montreal – found a high level of belief among Canadians that humans are contributing to global warming and that the federal government should take the lead on combatting climate change.

About 59 per cent of respondents agree climate change should be a top priority for the Conservative government, while half gave the government poor marks on it.

The survey shows that "Canadians want leadership on climate change," said University of Montreal political science professor Erick Lachapelle, who helped organize the poll. "But there is a governance deficit in Canada right now with respect to what Canadians want and what they are actually getting in climate policies."

The poll surveyed 1,503 Canadians between Oct. 10 and Oct. 20, with a margin of error of 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

It comes as Environment Minister Leona Aglukaqq prepares to travel to Warsaw next week for the annual United Nations summit on climate change. Ministers are hoping to make progress on a range of issues as they aim for a new global treaty by 2015, one that would replace the Kyoto Protocol.

In the poll, 76 per cent said they favoured Canada signing on to an international treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, with a similar number saying they'd support such a move even if countries such as China were not part of it.

Ottawa insists that any new treaty must include all major emitters, including the United States and China, if it is to be fair and effective.

While some provinces are taking individual action to implement policies to fight climate change, Canadians want Ottawa to take more action to reduce emissions, Mr. Lachapelle said. "There is an expectation that the federal government should be leading on this issue." The government could be vulnerable on these issues in the upcoming election because they are clearly important to the public at large, he added.

A slim majority of respondents said they would support a carbon tax, even if were to increase their energy bills by $15 a month. And they are even more enthusiastic if the money it generates would be channelled to the renewable energy business. "Once Canadians have an idea of the cost and what the money will be used for, there is more traction [for a carbon tax]," he said. "The conventional wisdom in Canada is that carbon pricing is the third rail of Canadian politics – touch it and die – but there is evidence to say this is not exactly true."

Andrew Heintzman, president of green investment firm Investeco Capital, said those results underline the potential for using a carbon tax as a means to invest in innovation at Canadian companies. Indeed, "a carbon tax forces the entire economy to be innovative," he said.

Canadians appear to be open to using the funds generated from a carbon tax to finance the development of clean technology, "why don't we use this as a tool to consider a new way to encourage innovation in our country," he said.

Mr. Heintzman said there are many companies in Canada that are in favour of putting a price on carbon, and want to see some stable policies on that issue. "Businesses already get this," he said, "but they are scared of saying it publicly." Those companies "should be encouraged to speak up," he said.

Tom Rand, an adviser at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, said channelling money from a carbon tax to clean technology innovation would help give Canada "first mover advantage" in what is going to be a huge global industry. There is already a large clean tech sector in Canada, he said, but it mainly involves smaller companies. "There is a burgeoning under-the-radar clean tech industry in Canada that is significant and poised to grow."

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