In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of British Columbians who refer to the environment as the most important issue facing the province has remained in single digits.
Concerns about health care, housing and the economy have dominated the landscape before, during and after voters cast their ballots in the provincial election.
That different generations are primarily worried about other matters does not mean that our appetite for environmental protection is nonexistent. When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked the province’s residents about their personal environmental concerns, majorities of residents expressed an interest in preservation.
About two-thirds of British Columbians say they are personally concerned about three specific problems: the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs (66%), air pollution (65%) and the pollution of drinking water (also 65%).
There is a major difference on this issue when political allegiance is reviewed. The proportion of voters who are personally concerned about global warming or climate change climbs to 72% among those who supported the BC New Democratic Party (NDP) and the BC Green Party in last month’s election. Among those who cast ballots for the BC Liberals – the party that implemented the first carbon tax in North America in 2008—it drops to 52%.
Six other issues are also identified as personal concerns by more than half of British Columbians: the contamination of soil and water by toxic waste (60%), deforestation (58%), the extinction of plant and animal species (also 58%), the depletion of fish stocks through overfishing (also 58%), the loss of tropical rain forests (55%) and the maintenance of the supply of fresh water for household needs (also 55%). Across the province, only 7% of residents are not worried about any of these issues.
British Columbians who yearn for environmental stewardship may take solace in the outcome of the presidential election in the United States. Joe Biden has vowed to return his country to the Paris Agreement, bringing back a focus on renewable energy and climate change mitigation that was absent under Donald Trump.
When British Columbians are asked about the level of attention that their own representatives are paying to the environment, the results are dissimilar. While 44% believe the provincial government is striking the right tone, the proportion drops to 38% for both federal and local administrations.
In addition, 41% of British Columbians think Ottawa is not paying enough attention to the environment, compared to 38% for local governments and 35% for Victoria.
The provincial government does slightly better than the others, but there are differences on some key demographics. Two in five women in British Columbia (40%) want Victoria to do more, along with 39% of residents aged 55 and over and 45% of BC Green Party voters. BC Liberal voters are more likely to believe that the provincial government is doing too much (16%) than those who voted for the BC NDP (7%) and the BC Greens (6%).
More than 12 years after the introduction of the provincial carbon tax, just over a third of British Columbians (37%, down eight points since we asked in 2019) think it has led people to be more mindful of their consumption and change their behaviour.
It is also important to note that 64% of British Columbians say the carbon tax has not negatively affected the finances of their household. The groups that are more likely to report setbacks adjusting to this situation are those aged 35 to 54 (40%), residents of northern B.C. (49%) and BC Liberal voters in the last provincial election (45%).
British Columbia has seen remarkable generational gaps on other issues. During the last campaign, young adults focused on housing, homelessness and poverty, middle-aged voters picked the economy and jobs and those over the age of 55 expressed concerns about health care.
When British Columbians are asked to concentrate specifically on environmental issues, age plays a role in defining priorities. British Columbia’s baby boomers are more likely to personally worry about environmental problems – including climate change – than the province’s youngest voters. However, residents aged 18 to 34 are more convinced that policies like the carbon tax have already shifted behaviours. We will need to revisit these questions when our pre-pandemic lives return to see if the trends hold.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from October 29 to October 31, 2020, among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.