Breaking out of the echo chamber: Public views about energy and climate


The road to net zero was never going to be smooth. But some have had the sense that recent bad news has, paradoxically, been cause for optimism. In addition to the record-setting temperatures, the past few years have seen floods, fires, and droughts – including an impending drought in Alberta that has triggered unprecedented water-sharing negotiations. The silver lining of all this calamity is that there has arguably never been more of a mainstream consensus among leaders, decision-makers and media that climate change is real and demands action.

Back in 2021, our Journey to Net Zero report found a gap between the experts and the public on the urgency of the need for climate action. We predicted this would put Canadians at odds with the transition to a decarbonized economy. Three years later, we wanted to know: has there been any shift in people’s view of the urgency of the problem and the need for solutions? Yes, but in a surprising direction.

The Canadian Environmental Barometer is Environics’ syndicated study focused on climate change and energy issues. In our recent 2024 edition, what is notable is declining prioritization of the environment relative to the economy, despite alarming signals from the planet. Given the affordability issues Canadians have been facing recently – amply covered in the media – the fact that the economy is top-of-mind for many may not be surprising. But the pattern we see today is different from the last financial crisis.

Back in the 2008-09 recession, seven in ten Canadians wanted the federal government to push ahead with both economic and environmental initiatives, while three in ten wanted the sole focus to be on economic security. In 2024, with Canadians in another economically challenging situation, the public is split 50%-50%. There’s been an increase of 20 points in those who want the federal government to focus entirely on the economy. Note that this change in policy priorities does not reflect declining belief in the seriousness of the threat from climate change. Canadians’ belief that climate change is a real and serious problem remains unchanged. They just see it as a lesser priority than pocketbook issues.

The roots of the economic crises in the two periods are different – each a complex mix of factors, but today more evident to households in terms of a direct impact on the affordability of groceries and housing. But the stronger emphasis on economic concerns today does call into question the idea that if people just see climate effects with their own eyes, they’ll demand action.

Moreover, we find declining trust in governments to deliver serious progress on climate change. Canadians increasingly believe effective climate action will come from industry and businesses changing how they operate. (We’ll cover the growing expectations of business in greater depth in a future article.)

Climate-focused conversations happening in Canadian media, government and industry circles today are complex and high-level. Lately, they have centered on arguments about policy levers like carbon taxes and the Clean Electricity Regulations. It’s easy to forget that many people don’t think about these topics daily or understand them very well. Rather than the details of policies and tax initiatives, they need a reminder of why leaders are doing these things and how such actions connect to their everyday lives. What is missing is a story of positive momentum and change – how governments at all levels, industry sectors, businesses and individual Canadians are rising to the occasion and striving to climate-proof Canada’s future.

If your organization is making strategic decisions and developing communications and engagement initiatives related to these issues, you can benefit from anchoring these efforts in an accurate picture of what Canadians know and think, and how public perspectives are evolving over time.

Download a preview of the 2024 Canadian Environmental Barometer report and learn how you can use our research to stay plugged into public expectations of your organization.

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