The clock is ticking for the planet – and for leaders who ignore persisting public concern

BY Sarah Roberton

As 2022 winds down, the world is taking stock of the results of two major international conferences on urgent global issues: climate-focused COP27 in Egypt and biodiversity-focused COP15 in Montreal. My read is: we have (finally) acknowledged the problems, held lots of negotiations and set some good targets, but follow-through remains elusive.

Inadequate action not only risks falling short of our professed goals, it risks falling out of step with public opinion. Which begs the question: are we approaching the conditions necessary for the proverbial tipping point?

Data consistently shows that the Canadian public is worried about climate change and biodiversity loss, want these issues to be priorities (alongside other priorities) and want our institutions to deliver real progress. Such views come through strongly in recent surveys Environics has conducted for WWF-Canada, Greenpeace and others – but these findings are in line with a longstanding body of research. In surveys and focus groups for governments, private sector business and non-profit organizations, and in response to questions in many forms, public concern about the environment remains a consistent theme. The concern is not dissipating; Canadians are not becoming inured to the problems, nor disengaged despite the interminable arguments about solutions.
About five years ago at a conservation conference in Alberta, I presented some data showing this general pattern of findings from our own syndicated Canadian Environmental Barometer study. Afterwards, a clearly frustrated audience member approached me: if the public cares so much about the environment, why aren’t they doing something about it?

It seems a common reaction to dismiss the research as untrue – or not meaningful, like an unserious resolution to exercise more or eat better – if Canadians are not acting in a way consistent with their stated beliefs, either through their personal actions (e.g., behaviour change, donating to environmental organizations) or their political ones (i.e., voting choices).

Do Canadians mean it when they tell researchers they care deeply about nature and climate, or should we doubt their sincerity or seriousness? The prevailing wisdom is that if enough of the public (or consumers) demand something, governments and business leaders will turn their attention to it. For example, it is pretty clear that Canadians are unhappy with the current state of their health care system, which is buckling due to a shortage of health professionals, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic. This has led to a finger-pointing battle of responsibility between provincial premiers who want more healthcare dollars and a federal government that wants more accountability from the provinces for the results of that healthcare spend. Politicians are responding to public concern, but the responses don’t amount to solutions – so far.

Similarly, in the case of climate change and biodiversity loss, public demand for action is not being met with adequate urgency. Here again, the issue is not a lack of a public desire, it is that leadership is underestimating (and at worst, ignoring) public signals. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to allow 7,400 acres of protected Greenbelt to be developed is a conspicuous example of this failure to respond to clear public will (evidenced in strong public disapproval in publicly available polling).

It’s unclear at what point the public will finally feel a line has been crossed. The last time environmental issues topped the public agenda was in 2019, when Greta Thunberg led climate strikes in cities across the globe. Since then, we have been hit with a pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis. And yet, concerns about the state of our environment have not dissipated – they are bubbling up from just under the surface. The fact that these concerns have persisted for so long alongside relatively tepid action from leaders may give them a sense that the environment is not a real public priority; that it can remain safely on the back burner. They would be wrong to think so – and they’ll only become more wrong as the effects of climate change intensify and the public opinion context gets hotter (pun intended!). Survey results from BC after the 2021 heat dome and subsequent flooding and from Atlantic Canada after Hurricane Fiona have shown how climate-related disasters amplify concerns.

My advice for 2023? Whatever you do, don’t misinterpret lack of political will as accurately reflecting a lack of public demand for action. Like both climate change and biodiversity loss, public concern is not going away.

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