Conservative Politicians: Climate Change Laggards?

Taylor Crane Rodrigues 

Donald Trump, tweeter-in-chief, has openly claimed for years that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese “to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) and Conservative leadership candidate Brad Trost received cheers and applause at a recent leadership debate when he said, “I don’t believe climate change is a real threat.”

North American conservatives have traditionally represented voters who are skeptical of, or are apathetic towards climate change. But an increasing share of North Americans are coming to accept the scientific consensus that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, and are agreeing that governments should do something about it. If conservative politicians don’t change their tune, they risk drifting off into political irrelevance.

A 2015 survey conducted by Pew Research Centre, an American nonpartisan fact tank, found that 69 per cent of Americans, and 84 per cent of Canadians, support limiting their country’s greenhouse gas emissions [1]. Generally, the further left someone is on the political spectrum, the more likely they are to support government efforts to combat climate change, and the more right-wing someone is, the less likely they are. Despite this correlation, 50 per cent of American Republican voters and 76 per cent of Canadian Conservative voters want their respective government to further restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

Given what we know about public opinion trends, savvy politicians should give greater attention to protecting the environment and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Concern for the environment, including concern for climate change, tends to move counter-cyclically with concern for the economy. When the unemployment rate is high and money is tight, the public is more willing to accept industrial pollution and lax environmental regulations to spur economic growth. But when unemployment is low and the economy is booming, the public is more willing to pay slightly higher prices to protect the environment.

The graph below illustrates this relationship in Canada. The left axis is the percentage of Canadians who want more federal government spending on environmental protection, and the right axis is the national unemployment rate. A slightly weaker relationship exists south of the border.


Sources: Canadian Opinion Research Archive and Statistics Canada

The U.S. unemployment rate was 4.8 per cent last month, almost hitting a 9-year low, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that it will continue to fall over the next couple of years. Canada’s unemployment rate is higher at 6.9 per cent, but the price of oil and other commodities are expected to surge this year and encourage job creation. So, given what we know about public opinion trends, savvy politicians should give greater attention to protecting the environment and mitigating the effects of climate change. Otherwise, they may risk being punished by voters in the next election cycle.

Yet, immediately on taking office, the Donald Trump administration deleted every mention of climate change and global warming from the White House website and promised to eliminate America’s climate change protection plan. And the Conservative Party of Canada, currently being led by Interim Leader Rona Ambrose, launched a petition last month against the Government of Canada’s proposed national carbon tax.

Obviously, there are political issues other than environmental issues. Donald Trump was able to ride a populist wave of anger about immigration, globalization, and the decline of manufacturing to Electoral College victory. He won despite his unpopular climate change policies—not because of them. MPs Brad Trost and Kellie Leitch are in for a shock if they think that importing “Trump-style” climate-change policies are going to advance their political careers in Canada.

Should the government command rigid energy efficiency standards or just put a steep price on carbon? Maybe a mix of both?

Conservative leadership candidate, Michael Chong, and Patrick Brown, Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, both seem to understand this and are embracing carbon taxes as a policy instrument. Chong is running on a platform of replacing environmental regulations, such as vehicle efficiency requirements and green electricity subsidies, with a carbon tax and income tax cuts. Brown is promising to replace Ontario’s complicated cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme with a revenue-neutral carbon-tax. They both accept that climate change is a problem that the government should deal with, but are embracing a market-oriented solution: put a price on carbon and let the free market find the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We can debate about the best ways to mitigate climate change. Should the government command rigid energy efficiency standards or just put a steep price on carbon? Maybe a mix of both? But belief in climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Politicians need to realize that the majority of voters in each major political party want government to act on climate change, or voters will put them out of a job.

[1] The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here.

Taylor Crane Rodrigues is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Certificate in Ethics with Distinction from the University of Western Ontario. His professional interests include fiscal policy, health policy, environmental policy and libertarian paternalism.