According to a poll released this week, the cost of living is far and away the biggest concern for Canadians right now.
Thirty-four per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by Leger in late May and early June — commissioned by Clean Prosperity, a climate policy think tank — said inflation should be the top priority for the federal government. Another 23 per cent said it was the second-most important issue.
Climate change, meanwhile, was the most important issue for just 12 per cent of those polled, behind health care (18 per cent) and housing prices (13 per cent).
But it would be a mistake to assume economic and pocketbook concerns have again reduced climate change to a fringe concern.
Inflation and high gas prices make “climate action a tougher sell and particularly tough if the government is seen as prioritizing climate over affordability measures. But I think the right strategy is to pursue both simultaneously,” Michael Bernstein of Clean Prosperity said via email this week.
“Put another way — if voters are given a choice between a party that is prioritizing affordability and one prioritizing climate change, I think it’s pretty clear they’d choose affordability. But if a party is trying to maximize chances of winning the next election, it should pursue both.”
Freeland criticised for emphasizing climate action
The public’s understandable concerns about the day-to-day cost of living explains why Conservatives were so eager to criticize Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland when she suggested recently that high gas prices are “a reminder of why climate action is so important and why, as a country, we have to work even harder and move even faster towards a green economy.”
After that comment was clipped and posted to Twitter, Conservative leadership frontrunner Pierre Poilievre tweeted that Freeland had confirmed “that high energy prices are a deliberate policy of the Liberal government.” The Conservatives’ finance critic and transport critic posted similar messages and the party followed up this week with a video that claimed “high gas prices are exactly what the Liberals want.”
Freeland confirms that high energy prices are a deliberate policy of the Liberal government.<br><br>They want you to pay more. It’s <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/JustinFlation?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#JustinFlation</a>.<br><br>And, if Liberals remain in office, the worst is yet to come. <a href=”https://t.co/AQZuyyRQdf”>https://t.co/AQZuyyRQdf</a>
The national price on carbon that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced in 2019 does increase the price of fuel and that increase is meant to push consumers and industry toward cleaner and more efficient options. But it’s not just an additional levy for the sake of raising prices.
A carbon tax also can account for the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels — a cost that is not otherwise accounted for in the market price of oil. Current official estimates put the “social cost of carbon” at about $50 per tonne — equal to the current carbon price in Canada.
Regardless, the federal carbon tax isn’t the main driver of current gas prices — it adds about 11 cents per litre, two cents more than it did last year. Conservatives also tend to ignore the fact that nearly all of the revenue from the tax is rebated to households in provinces where the federal policy applies.
But current concerns about affordability might still offer a warning to Liberals and other proponents of climate action about how understandably sensitive Canadians are to changes in the cost of living. If not for the rebate, the carbon tax could be a much more vulnerable target. Policies like the clean fuel standard might be harder to defend in the years to come.
Trudeau challenges Conservatives on climate
Trudeau seemed to want to turn the tables on the Conservatives when he spoke to reporters in Nova Scotia on Thursday.
“There are very few people in this country who still think that you can have a plan for the economy without having a plan for the environment,” he said after announcing federal investment in a new wind farm. “Most of those people seem to be running for the Conservative leadership.”
Within the Leger/Clean Prosperity poll there are findings that support Trudeau’s position.
Fifty-four per cent of respondents strongly or somewhat agree that they couldn’t vote for a party unless it had a “strong plan for addressing climate change,” while 70 per cent strongly or somewhat support the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Forty-eight per cent of those polled agree with the statement that failing to take climate action now would lead to higher costs later, while 37 per cent argue that now is not the time to introduce climate policies that might increase the price of some products.
And Freeland has a point — the current situation should provide added motivation to do the things that need to be done to reduce emissions, like expanding wind and solar power and supporting the use of zero-emission vehicles. If much of the current trouble is tied to our reliance on oil, using much less of it would make sense.
“Inflation driven by a high oil price makes reducing our dependence on volatile fossil fuels and accelerating the shift to energy efficiency and renewables all the more urgent,” said Caroline Brouillette of the Climate Action Network.
Keith Stewart, a strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said that while high gas prices and inflation are “grabbing a lot of political and media attention and thus distracting from the climate emergency” at the moment, “in the medium to longer term they will accelerate the transition off of fossil fuels.”
In the past, Stewart notes, spikes in the price of oil left consumers with few options. Today, however, alternatives like electric cars are widely available.
Leaders can’t choose between inflation and climate
But political leaders still need to offer answers to immediate problems like inflation. If Freeland’s comments about climate action weren’t necessarily wrong, they were more vulnerable to criticism because of lingering doubts about whether her government is doing enough to respond to the cost-of-living crunch (in her typically long answer to the question, Freeland did acknowledge the pressures families are feeling).
Better short-term answers would make it easier to talk about long-term challenges.
At the same time, climate change is no longer just a long-term issue. The only thing that might have distracted Canadians from the price of gas this summer was news of the destructive and deadly heat wave that swept through western Europe.
The summer of 2022 is telling political leaders that they can’t afford to ignore either the cost of living or the cost of climate change.