TORONTO — Ontario's government sought the pulse of the public on environmental issues shortly after releasing its climate plan — and the results were not a ringing endorsement.
The Progressive Conservative government cancelled the cap-and-trade program introduced by the former Liberal government to lower greenhouse gas emissions and is fighting Ottawa's carbon tax, which comes into effect Monday.
Their climate plan, unveiled in late November, establishes a fund called the Ontario Carbon Trust, which aims to entice companies to invest in initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and proposes to make large industrial companies pay for pollution if they exceed certain emissions standards.
As part of monthly public polling commissioned by the government, Ipsos asked a series of questions in December on the environment, the results of which were obtained by The Canadian Press through a Freedom of Information request.
Just four in 10 respondents could recall reading, seeing or hearing something recently from the provincial government on the environment.
Of those people, 50 per cent cited the carbon tax as what they had heard about, followed by "using the Greenbelt for business development" at 14 per cent, "removal of environmental red tape for businesses" at seven per cent, "removal of programs to promote green energy sources" at six per cent, followed by "do not believe in climate change" and "lowering emissions" at four per cent.
Andrea Olive, an associate professor of political science and geography at the University of Toronto, said the top responses are all about removing environmental programs, rather than taking action on the environment.
"I would imagine Doug Ford's cabinet, looking at this, this is not the news they wanted...coming on the heels of their climate plan," she said.
Further, when respondents were asked for their opinion on what they had heard from the government on the environment, 45 per cent had a negative impression, versus 27 per cent with a positive impression. The rest were neutral.
Amanda Galbraith, a principal at communications firm Navigator and a former Conservative staffer, said those numbers wouldn't raise alarm bells for her if she was in government.
"Historically, Conservatives have not had a ton of success in campaigning and governing and running on environmental issues," she said. "It's definitely not a front-and-centre issue that this government is putting forward. I'm guessing that's because frankly their voters don't see it as a major priority."
Galbraith said the government is positioning itself for when people have to start paying more once the carbon tax is in effect.
"I think the ground is going to shift considerably in the next six months as the carbon tax — the rubber hits the road," she said.
While 89 per cent of people said they are very or somewhat concerned about climate change, 80 per cent also agreed that a carbon tax will increase everyday costs.
Environment Minister Rod Phillips would not agree to an interview on the polling data, but has often said a carbon tax is not necessary to fight climate change, and that his plan will meet all the federal government's targets.
But Dianne Saxe, who ceases to be Ontario's environmental commissioner Monday after the government eliminated the office, warned recently that the state of climate policy in the province is "frightening."
"At a time when climate damage is accelerating, Ontario is turning away from the things that we know work," she said, while delivering her last report.
Saxe is critical of the government's cancellation of a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases, as well as the cancellation of electricity conservation programs and a growth plan that she says increases urban sprawl and therefore reliance on transportation fuels.
Keith Stewart of Greenpeace said the polling data suggests people are serious about climate change and don't support the government's plan.
"I really think that the Ford government is behind the curve on this and they seized on the attack on the carbon tax as a kind of, like a stand in for saying we're for the little guy, we're going to lower the gas price — a populist measure that people can readily understand," he said.
When respondents were asked to select two environmental priority areas, climate change was an overwhelming top answer, and number two was reducing garbage and improving recycling. The government recently published a discussion paper on reducing litter and waste, including weighing a single-use plastics ban.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said it's an issue that people can relate to more directly.
"They know they're losing the public opinion on climate change, so I think they see shifting to litter as a way to try to bolster the challenges they're facing on the environmental file," he said.
Ipsos polled 1,000 people between Dec. 7 and 20. The results are considered accurate plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press