Do Canadians and Their Local Politicians See Eye to Eye on Climate Change?

Written by Ian Stecher and Jack Lucas

Climate change is one of the most talked about issues in Canada – with the environment having been identified by a Forum Research poll as the number one issue for most Canadians. Further evidence can be found in research published in 2016, which explored public opinion on the environment in Canada, and found that Canadians are both aware of and concerned about the impact climate change could have on the country. Researchers found that 83% of Canadian adults believe the Earth is getting warmer and 60% believe this warming can be attributed to human activity. Further, 70% of Canadian adults felt that their province had already experienced negative effects from climate change and 64% believed climate change will harm people living in Canada in the next 10 years. In another paper investigating Canadian public attitudes towards climate change, 84% of Canadians felt that local governments had at least some responsibility to take action against climate change – almost as high as the proportion of people who placed responsibility on the provincial and federal governments.

Municipal governments are not shying away from this responsibility to tackle climate change. Municipalities have direct influence over 50% of GHG emissions in Canada, according to the FCM, and, with hundreds of municipalities declaring climate emergencies and preparing climate change plans, evidence of the actions they are taking can be seen across the country. From Edmonton’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by 2030, to Toronto’s ambition to be entirely net-zero by 2050, to Moncton, Riverview, and Dieppe’s efforts to promote regional sustainability, municipalities from coast-to-coast are stepping up to combat climate change. These municipal efforts are also leading to exciting collaborations in the space, such as FCM and ICLEI’s Partners for Climate Protection program, a national network of 350+ municipalities, and Low Carbon Cities Canada, a plan to help cities reach their emissions reductions potential.

While it’s clear that Canadians are concerned about climate change and that municipalities are taking action to address the issue, we currently know little about the degree to which municipal politicians believe they should prioritize climate change policies. Using data from the 2020 and 2021 CMB annual surveys, we are now in a much better position to explore the opinions of municipal elected representatives across Canada on climate change. Combining these findings with recent public opinion data, we can also analyze the degree to which municipal politicians agree with their constituents on the importance of addressing climate change.

Our data suggest that Canadian municipal politicians are deeply concerned with climate change. Nearly 80% of councillors and mayors across Canada agreed that their municipalities should play a strong role in reducing the effects of climate change, even if it came at the expense of municipal revenues or required municipal resources. This data provides strong evidence that municipal climate action is a serious priority and concern among municipal politicians.

However, public opinion on environmental and climate policy varies substantially across Canada. Using survey data from the 2019 Canadian Election Study, we can map support for stricter environmental regulation across Canada, as we do in the figure above (this figure uses a technique called “multilevel regression and poststratification” to generate the local estimates from the national survey data). Using this question as a proxy for how Canadians feel about the importance of taking action against climate change, some clear trends on climate opinions in Canada become clear. First, there are strong levels of support for increased climate action in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, and much of Eastern Canada. The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba display significantly less support. Second, there is a significantly higher and more consistent level of support for increased climate action in denser, urban areas across the country, such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

Is there a relationship between these underlying public attitudes and municipal politicians’ support for local climate policy? In the graphs above, we plot Canadians’ attitudes on two 2019 environmental policy questions in the Canadian Election Study – support for the carbon tax and support for stricter environmental regulation – against politicians’ agreement or disagreement about the need for municipal action on climate change. These questions, while not identical to one another, provide us with some sense of the relationship between municipal climate attitudes and politicians’ own views. As is clear in both graphs, there is a positive relationship between the attitudes of politicians and their constituents. In regions where politicians believe strong climate action is needed, their constituents tend to agree. The reverse also appears to be true. In municipalities with strong support for carbon taxes and environmental regulations, local politicians tend to be very committed to climate action; in places with less support, municipal politicians are also somewhat less likely to be supportive of aggressive climate policies.

In short, Canadian municipal politicians are overwhelmingly supportive of municipal action on climate change – and the strength of those views is related to their constituents’ opinions on climate policy and environmental regulation. Understanding that municipal mayors and councillors care deeply about combatting climate change, and that their views are often in alignment with their constituents, helps us understand why many municipalities across Canada are committed to taking strong action in the fight against climate change.

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