Survey Shows Canadians Confused about Climate Science

People who don't know what causes global warming won't know how to stop it

Environmental groups, scientists and government seem to be failing, quite catastrophically, to educate the public about the cause of climate change, leaving Canadians ill-equipped to act or to judge the actions of their political leaders.

That conclusion seems inescapable in light of a new national survey sponsored by public relations firm Hoggan & Associates and The Climate Project-Canada. The survey, conducted March 7 to 10 by the national polling firm McAllister Opinion Research, shows that 79 per cent of Canadians say they understand climate science “fairly well” or “very well.” Yet, when questioned further, nearly half of those respondents could not correctly identify greenhouse gases or CO2 emissions as the cause.

In one depressing way this makes complete sense, because the survey also shows that 52 per cent of respondents still believe there is a significant scientific debate about the causes of global warming.

This, again, is a tribute to the kind of people that the DeSmogBlog writes about all the time - people like Dr. Fred Singer or Dr. Tim Ball, people who show no hesitation about taking money from the energy industry and then campaigning in public for inaction on global warming.

Those who would deny climate science outright have clearly lost momentum: the vast majority of Canadians now accept that climate change is happening and that humans are (in a way many of them find mysterious) to blame. But people who don't understand the science are in a poor position to judge whether new climate policy is appropriate - which could explain another aspect of the new poll.

Environment - especially climate change - is still the “top-of-mind” issue in Canada - the first issue that most Canadians mention when you ask them what is their current principal concern. But while 29 per cent of Canadians chose environment first a year ago and 23 per cent named the environment in November 2007 and in January of this year, only 20 per cent cited environment in this poll.

There are two likely explanations for this change.

First, Canadians may just be starting to worry about something ELSE more. The gathering economic crisis in the U.S. has not yet dampened the Canadian economy - but it will and 17 per cent of Canadians now nominate the economy as their biggest concern.

The second explanation for the decline in concern about climate change, however, is rooted once again in public misunderstanding.

A poorly informed public is easier to spin - every autocrat who ever tried to silence a free press knows this to be true. So, Canadians who don't understand climate science are much more likely to accept recent pronouncements by Canadian governments - at the federal and provincial levels - that they are taking “tough” new stands on global warming. With the exception of the British Columbia and Quebec governments, which have begun to experiment with policies that may actually be effective in reducing CO2 emissions, government action in Canada has been merely embarrassing. And yet Canadians are starting to relax.

Another explanation for the current state of affairs comes again from the survey - and relates once more to the campaign of disinformation. While 52 per cent of Canadians believe in the fictional scientific dispute about climate change, 53 per cent also believe that they are being intentionally misled by industry. That might seem positive, if you didn't ask the next question: How many people think that environmental organizations are also “manipulating the facts.”

The answer there is 20 per cent.

And a further 18 per cent believe both industry AND environmental groups are bending the facts. Add those numbers all together and you have 91 per cent of all respondents saying the someone, or maybe everyone, is trying to spin them on climate change.

Small wonder that more people have not started to take significant personal steps to address global warming. They think they're alone in being sincerely concerned and that others are using corrupt tactics to push them around.

One last point on the effect of people's confusion: when asked what is the most important thing that can be done to address global warming, most people suggest driving less. Very few people, comparatively, point to regulating the development of the oil sands - which is the largest single point source for CO2 in Canada and the fastest growing. So, again we have a population in paralysis. If you live a 40- to 80-minute drive from work, it's pretty tough to “drive less.” The basic structure of our cities and our society limits Canadians' immediate options.

But it doesn't limit government options - or it shouldn't.

And THAT should be the point we take away from all this: environmental groups, scientists, government officials and anyone in industry who has an ounce of integrity should turn their attention immediately to raising Canadians' understanding of the basic science of human-generated greenhouse gas. An informed public will be harder to spin, and easier to engage in serious and successful actions to limit our CO2 emission - and to show the world how that can be done affordably, sustainably and quickly enough to make a difference.


It’s not only the “denier scientists” who are to blame, but some of the media (like the National Post and the Sun papers) that publishes their opinions and industry-fed PR garbage. It is their fault for this confusion and not the fault of true scientists like Drs. Weaver, McBean, etc. or environmental groups.

Oh, the Globe & Mail has it’s moments, too, and not just from that twit, Margaret Wente, either.

Guess I have to rethink my post of the other day, though I still can say I’ve yet to meet anyone from that 52%.

I think not only education on climate change is necessary, one also needs to educate the public on denialism and denialist tactics.

Unfortunately even Al Gore’s movie doesn’t delve very much into this dark side.

Frank Bi, fact-addict and anti-lie bigot

“Al `Fat Al’ Gore [is fat]” – Harold Pierce

Not just the Sun newspapers, but all those owned by its parent, Quebecor Media, are sharing the syndicated Sun columnists:

Daily newspapers:
Barrie Examiner
Belleville Intelligencer
Brantford Expositor
Chatham Daily News
Cobourg Daily Star
Cornwall Standard-Freeholder
Kingston Whig-Standard
Niagara Falls Review
North Bay Nugget
Orillia Packet & Times
Owen Sound Sun Times
Pembroke Daily Observer
Peterborough Examiner
Port Hope Evening Guide
Sarnia Observer
Sault Star
St Catharines Standard
Sudbury Star
Timmins Daily Press
Welland Tribune

Other newspapers:
Bancroft This Week
Barrys Bay This Week
Colborne Chronicle
Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin
Community Press - Eastern Edition
Community Press - Quinte Edition
Community Press - Western Edition
Dresden Leader
Dunnville Chronicle
Elliot Lake Standard
Espanola Mid-North Monitor
Fort Erie Times
Gananoque Reporter
Haliburton County Echo
Innisfil Examiner
InPort News
Kingston This Week
Kirkland Lake Northern News
Lindsay Post
Markdale Standard
Midland Free Press
Minden Times
Napanee Guide
Niagara Advance
Niagara News - Thorold Edition
Pelham News
Pembroke / Petawawa News
Petrolia Topic
Picton County Weekly News
Sault Ste. Marie This Week
The Post
Trenton Trentonian
Wallaceburg News
West Niagara News

Sun Media Corporation’s publications:
Le Journal de Montréal
Le Journal de Québec
The Ottawa Sun
The Toronto Sun
The London Free Press
The Winnipeg Sun
The Edmonton Sun
The Calgary Sun

Free commuter dailies:
Journal 24 heuresTM, Montréal
Journal 24 heuresTM, et 24 HoursTM, Ottawa
24 HoursTM, Toronto
24 HoursTM, Calgary
24 HoursTM, Edmonton
24 HoursTM, Vancouver

Community dailies in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta:
The Recorder and Times - Brockville, Ontario
Stratford Beacon Herald - Ontario
The Daily Herald Tribune - Grande Prairie, Alberta
St. Thomas Times-Journal - Ontario
Fort McMurray Today - Alberta
The Daily Miner and News - Kenora, Ontario
The Daily Graphic - Portage La Prairie, Manitoba
Simcoe Reformer - Ontario
Woodstock Sentinel Review - Ontario

Do you make a buck from every paper printing your diatribes, Lorrie Goldstein?

When I think about media concentration (in Canada, at least) I am inclined to think about CanWest Global, but this list reinforces how much the diversity of voices has been lost in mainstream media.

It's not merely a problem because Quebecor (like the Sun chain before it) is embarrassingly willing to dictate editorial policy across the whole organization. There are two other concerns:

1. These sprawling media empires tend to promote “businesspeople” rather than “newspaper people.” And business people are hired to care about selling papers, by the easiest means possible. If that means catching reader attention with a mix of crime stories and commentaries dedicated only to stirring the pot, no worries.

2. There has been a loss of community accountability.

In the olden days, all these papers were owned by publishers who lived in the towns in question, who went to the local church or rubbed shoulders at the Chamber of Commerce or the Lions Club, or even the local hostelries of ill-repute. The spouse (it was always a wife in these bad old times) would be on a series of guilds and boards and the couple would be subjected to constant community “input” - to which they would almost inevitably respond in one way or the other.

Often that just meant giving the local auto dealers a freebee whenever some dolt in the newsroom put a car crash photo on the same page as a Ford ad. But sometimes it meant giving more attention to issues of public importance. And sometimes it resulted in a pink slip for some fool who valued quotability above evidence or good sense (Margaret Wente, are your ears burning?) and who finally pushed the limit too far.

Today, publishers don't answer to their communities, they answer to some distant head office. There is no social correction overriding the dispassionate (and conscience-free) concern for the bottom line.

Perversely, I think all these properties are losing relevance as a result. In concentrating on profit, rather than value, the whole operation is being diminished. But, as Exxon has proved, shortsightedness can be a fabulously profitable business strategy in the short to medium term.

The same transformation you describe in the delivery of news applies to a wide range of activity in society, removing us further and further away from direct contact between us and the reality. It’s not unlike thinking about meat as a sanitized cold lump wrapped in styrofoam and shrink wrap instead of a warm-blooded cow, a pig or a chicken. Think of us all sealed in our cars with our air-conditioning, GPS and state-of-the-art sound systems, insulated from anything like real weather or discomfort. Too deep for me at the moment – best get back to work!

Fern Mackenzie

Richard’s comment also got me thinking in that direction, Fern. When the feedback loop gets large, the self-correcting mechanism might become less efficient (because the connections aren’t obvious to folks). I tend to think of things like this in terms of pollution. Heavy metal pollution from disposal of high tech stuff isn’t seen as a big problem by the people disposing of it because the material is sent far away. There would be a quicker response if the pollution affected the consumer more directly. Likewise the atmosphere – people would demand cleaner burning fuel if the pollution wasn’t distributed to others but instead exerted its effects solely on the consumer. Interesting that it also works regarding poisonous work in the media.

“Likewise the atmosphere – people would demand cleaner burning fuel if the pollution wasn’t distributed to others but instead exerted its effects solely on the consumer.”

Carbon-emitted taxes would help. And visible emissions.

> “a new national survey sponsored by public relations firm Hoggan & Associates…”

One thing you should have mentioned: “The DeSmogBlog team is led by Jim Hoggan, the president of the public relations firm James Hoggan & Associates.”

> “Environmental groups, scientists and government seem to be failing, quite catastrophically, to educate the public ”

One excellent tool for educating the public would be the Naomi Oreskes talk “The American Denial of Global Warming”, online at
The DVD’s available for $25.

The only problem is that the people who most need to see it aren’t those who’ll seek it out online, and UCSD-TV policies at present don’t allow the DVD to be rebroadcast on other noncommercial TV stations. This situation needs to change.
I’ve tried, but I have no leverage to make the change happen - perhaps others could help, by contacting Dr. Oreskes or UCSD-TV and requesting it? Please?

Perhaps nobody commented on the by elections here because they didn’t want to be considered partisan hacks. So I’ll be the hack, having volunteered some hours for the Green Party in Vancouver this weekend. (I took some time off work to show a sign to passing traffic; another sign-holding Green volunteer who stood beside me teaches business at a local college and does courses in China as well.) The Green candidate won the endorsement of a local paper (Georgia Strait), tripled the proportional vote from the previous election, and was the only one to garner more votes in absolute terms than in the previous election. His main issue was a tax shift from income to carbon. To me, this poll indicates that some progress is being made despite the efforts of others to confuse the issues.
A simple analysis from the Idealist Pragmatist:

In the last general election our local Green did extremely well, and I know that in many Ontario ridings they made huge strides. I regularly bombard my MP (Conservative) and John Baird with letters. I doubt it will affect their actions, but at least they are going to know we’re out here!

Fern Mackenzie

Jim, would it be at all possible to see the poll details?

The article implies that climate change, and the causes are 100% known. I personally am not completely convinced that we have the whole picture, and what our influence is. I guess that puts me in the uninformed Canadian category that believes there is still, or at least still should be, scientific debate. To claim that climate change is due entirely to CO2 emissions and human activity seems too simplistic to me, and a claim that can not be tested/proven.

The fact that you claim it is so well understood and imply that any one who questions this is in denial shows your bias and the fact that many people try to spin the debate in either direction. It is rare, if not impossible, to find a non-biased opinion on anything. When you close your mind to any arguments contrary to your own, it ceases to be a scientific debate at all. You should always listen to your opposition, not matter how strongly you believe, this is not religion.

Now, before the flames begin, I am not denying that we have an impact on climate change, but I also am not convinced that we are as significant a factor as we are told. This being said, I take public transit, I compost, I even voted for the green party. I strongly believe that we need to reduce our waste/pollution, but propaganda is not the way to go about it.

You sound like a denier/delayer posing as someone you’re not.
If you were indeed an “uninformed Canadian” you would, or at least should be asking questions instead of saying there “should still be scientific debate”, calling it “a claim that can not be tested/proven”, accusing those here of “bias” and throwing religion into the mix.
There is still scientific debate going on, but now the debate is how bad the climate change is going to be and how soon.

I dont consider myself an uninformed Canadian, but according to the article anyone that believes there is still scientific debate is. There are many scientists that do not support the common belief that we are the root of climate change.

The reason that I mentioned religion is because many people, of both viewpoints, believe what they do out of pure faith, not empirical data. If I was shown good evidence that we are causing global warming I would alter opinion. However, the majority of the claims are made based on mathematical models that attempt to predict climate change. These models are only as good as the assumptions they are based on, of which I am not convinced. There have also been cases where the data was manipulated or perhaps misinterpereted (ie. the famous hockey stick model).

The world has been warmer than the predicted temperatures in the past, CO2 used to be much higher than it is today. It was only 40 years ago that they believed in global cooling. Are we that much better at reading the future than they were then?

There are many scientists that do not support the common theory. The fact is that no one knows for sure, to think otherwise is simply foolish.

but each of the points that you make has been recycled countless times and answered countless times by people who understand the issues. Are you new to the discussion? You don’t seem to be keeping up with the state of the discussion or you would be aware of this. Do the reading.

Fern Mackenzie

Perhaps they have been recycled many times because the answers are not satisfactory. There are many people that do not buy the explanations, some of them being experts in the field. However, please enlighten me, please send me in the right direction so that I can read about it. Although you likely believe that I have already made up my mind, I would like to read the evidence. Do you have a good link that discusses it (most that I have found do not actually discuss any actual data, they just rant).