New Poll Pits Canadian Against American Perceptions of Climate Change

America versus Canada might conjure up images of hockey. However, the Brookings Institution put out a new study that looks not at hockey but perceptions of climate change. The findings show that there are some key similarities and differences between the two countries’ citizens.

The report, released earlier this month, summarizes the results of polls taken in both countries. Overall, results shows Canadians are more accepting of the science of climate change than Americans by a long shot.

The Results

Eighty percent of Canadians accept that the globe is warming while only 58 percent of Americans do. Conversely, the percent of Americans who don’t believe the globe is warming is nearly double that of Canadians.

In both countries, political affiliation plays a role in determining views on climate change. Conservatives were much less likely to accept the reality of a warming world. However, the differences are much more dramatic in the U.S. with Republicans significantly less likely to think climate change is occurring.

What’s interesting, though, is how liberals in each country compare. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats in the U.S. are on board with climate science. But in contrast, around 90 percent of the members of Canada’s four more liberal parties* are. U.S. Democrats are actually more on par with Canada’s Conservatives, 64 percent of whom accept the reality of climate change.

Which of these groups is closest to the people who know the most about climate change i.e. climate scientists? It turns out liberal Canadians. A 2010 report showed that 98 percent of climate scientists accept the evidence that humans are causing climate change.

So how do 42 percent of Americans manage to justify such a high level of disagreement with the experts? By believing scientists are overstating the case of climate change of course. Currently, about half of the American public believes scientists are masters of embellishment. In comparison, only about a third of Canadians subscribe to this view.

All of this leads to some perhaps unsurprising answers on how much each group of citizens is willing to spend to mitigate climate change. Nearly 60 percent of Canadians were willing to pay up to $50 a month for cap and trade while only 18 percent of Americans were.

So What?

The survey is the first of its kind to do a cross-country comparison between the US and Canada. It reveals some pretty stark differences when it comes to accepting that climate change is happening. What might the cause for difference?

I spoke with a colleague who is a citizen in both countries. Her take? The difference in media between each country is a major factor. In the US, opinion often passes as fact, particularly in the case of Fox News. In contrast, Canada recently decided not to let Fox News set up shop in part because in Canada there are pretty stringent laws about actually telling the truth if you’re a news channel. Surprisingly, Fox didn’t pass this litmus test.

Unfortunately for the U.S., that means Americans are exposed to a lot more opinion about climate change than their Canadian counterparts. The result of this is clear in the poll results.

The other big difference between the two countries is the role of special interest money. The influence of the billionaire Koch brothers in proliferating climate denial in the US has been well documented. They’ve recently set up shop in Canada, too, but they’re far behind the curve in comparison to the work they’ve done in the US.

This isn’t to say that Canada is a bastion of progressive climate change action. Tar sands are being extracted at ever-increasing rates. Canada also owns the dismal title of biggest emitter per capita.

And despite having an informed and willing citizenry, Canada shares an unfortunate similarity with the U.S.: a lack of political effort to address climate change. The Canadian Senate killed a climate bill last year under very contentious circumstances. Perhaps they were following the lead of the U.S. Senate, where a climate bill also died earlier last year.

Canada also happens to be holding elections on May 2. Yet the leaders of all the parties have been distinctly quiet about addressing climate change. Ditto for Barack Obama in the U.S., who only mentioned climate change four times in his energy speech a few weeks ago.

If there’s one silver lining in this scenario, it’s that young people in both countries care far more about climate change than older generations. As they become a larger part of the voting public, it will hopefully translate into a political system more proactive about climate change.

*For American readers unfamiliar with Canada’s political system, there are five major parties. Or four if you were watching the Leader’s Debate last night (which is comparable to presidential debates in the US). For readers looking to better understand the Canadian political system, the Wikipedia page on Canadian politics is pretty solid. The Awl also recently published an interesting piece on the current state of Canadian politics and the recent string of minority governments.

Photo credit: scazon/flickr

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