‘A gap between recognition and resolve’

December 13, 2023
Sign reading "Make Canada cold again"
Most Canadians believe humans cause climate change, but their commitment to making effective change is not so certain.

Climate change is simultaneously invisible and yet terrifyingly obvious. 

“It’s very abstract,” Erick Lachapelle says. “You can’t really see climate change in terms of [its] causes — greenhouse gases are largely invisible. The effects of you taking your car to work and having a climate impact are very distant in time and space,” says the Université de Montréal political science professor, who has studied Canadians’ attitudes toward climate change for a decade. “There are substantial time lags, so it’s difficult for Canadians to understand and piece together the causal relationships in climate change.”  

Yet the results of climate change have perhaps never been more unavoidable, as seen in this year of unprecedented fires, floods, heat and increasingly frequent “once in a century” storms. Sage’s series of articles on climate change over the past 18 months has demonstrated how Canadians across the country are being affected now, as some homes are burned to the ground on one coast and washed out to sea on the other, while lands to the North thaw and dry out with myriad consequences for those who live upon them.  

Surely Canadians are committed to urgent change?  

Not necessarily. A perplexing fact is that while it’s clear that Canadian opinions on climate change are changing in general, there remains a gap between recognition and resolve.  

In an online poll of 1,500 people conducted by Leger in September 72 per cent of Canadians said they were worried or very worried about climate change, and while approximately 60 per cent said they’d made some sort of change in their own behaviour, only 40 per cent said they’d make changes to their own behaviours if there were “a certain financial cost” to doing so.  

Online polls are not the most scientific, but the results broadly echo the findings of longer-term research — Quebecers generally are more concerned about climate change than are Albertans, for example, and young people generally are more concerned than are older people. 

Such differences in belief in the urgency of climate change, and the resolve to address it with individual behavioural change, consistently vary from coast to interior, from city to country, from young to old, from political left to right and within just about any other demographic segment one can measure.   

The variances are not uniform — a person in Calgary, for example, may have opinions more in line with a person in Montreal than with a person in rural Alberta, and an elderly man may agree with a non-binary teen, depending on where they live or, perhaps, who they vote for. (Lachapelle notes that approximately 10 per cent of Canadians outright deny that climate change is happening. “That’s stayed pretty consistent over time,” he says.)  

Wherever the skeptics are, and whatever the depth of their personal skepticism, they’re being studied by researchers such as Lachapelle who want to chart their opinions, and by others who want to change them.  

Lachapelle notes that while the number of Canadians who accept that “the impacts of climate change are here and now in Canada” has steadily increased in recent years, “the proportion of the population that feels they are personally at a great deal of risk from climate change impacts has been steady over time.”  

He calls this the “psychological distance of climate change” or the “optimism bias” (the same rationale that smokers employ to believe that “other people are more likely to be affected than ourselves”).

This bias exists even as daily newscasts are filled with images of Canadians being injured, made homeless or otherwise harmed by increasingly catastrophic weather events. 

There is no question that damage from natural disasters in Canada is increasing. With numbers for 2023 yet to come (but likely to be high), the Insurance Bureau of Canada has reported that $3.1 billion in insured damage claims in Canada made 2022 the third highest year for these claims in history. Here’s a grim context; nine of the 10 highest years for insured damage claims in Canada occurred in the past 12 years — only 1998, the year of the massive ice storm in Ontario and Quebec, otherwise makes the list.  

The year 2022 “saw disasters from nearly every part of the country,” the bureau reported. “Canada is increasingly a riskier place to live, work and insure. Governments have [paid] far too little attention to adaptation in the discourse over climate policy.” Even dispassionate actuaries are ringing the alarm bells for behavioural change.  The push for individual and local action parallels the ineffectiveness of much-publicized global efforts. Since signatories to the United Nations climate convention started holding COP conferences in 1995, the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased to 420 parts per million from 365. Another chart shows a decline in global biodiversity during the same period.  Federal Retirees member Neil Dawe says Canadians must ask themselves not what it costs to change their behaviour, but what it costs not to change.

“When Dawe says “change” he’s not talking just about taking fewer flights or buying an electric car… he’s talking about fundamental global changes.

Dawe, a biologist and former habitat manager and senior wildlife technician with the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, now volunteers as president of the Qualicum Institute, a sustainability non-profit, to try “to get a critical mass of people to recognize the major drivers of climate change and to demand change.” 

When Dawe says “change” he’s not talking just about taking fewer flights or buying an electric car. Like thousands of other scientists around the world, he’s talking about fundamental global changes, including a mass shift to plant-based diets, and away from a consumption-based economy and endless population growth. 

He points to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warning that, “Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Between 2000 and 2010, both drivers outpaced emission reductions from improvements in energy intensity of gross domestic product.” 

Dawe says, “It’s still difficult for me to understand why most people have yet to ‘get’ the drivers of climate change and, as a result, essentially nothing is being done to address them. (These) limiting factors… if not addressed, essentially negate anything else we do to address the issue. All other efforts will be for naught.”  

This may not be what Canadians want to hear about climate change, even as every year makes it easier for them to see the effects of that change. 

Erick Lachapelle wants Canadians to get past their “climate change silence” and start talking about it in their own homes and social groups. He says the young students he works with in university are more likely to talk about the need to change personal behaviours to combat climate change. 

“You know, 99 per cent of human behaviour is dictated by norms,” he says. “It’s difficult to talk about climate change [as] we don’t necessarily want to shame or guilt people in our social surroundings. We don’t want to talk about a depressing phenomenon, because it’s not really good news or a happy thing. It might lead us to forgo opening up that conversation in a social setting. 

“These norms can work in both directions and it’s this sense of, what’s the appropriate thing to do? …Once you have a few people kind of get the ball rolling, that could get more and more people involved.”


This article appeared in the winter2023 issue of our in-house magazine, Sage. While you’re here, why not download the full issue and peruse our back issues too?