September 3-10, 2007

Environmental issues remain top-of-mind for Canadian public

By: Colin Isaacs

U.S. public opinion polls are currently all over the map when it comes to environmental issues. While some show that Americans are maintaining a high level of concern about the environment, others are indicating that public environmental concern has begun to decline from a high point reached last winter. As most of us often do, many corporate policy leaders are choosing to believe those polls that support their own opinions.

While the mixed polls are the subject of much debate among public policy analysts, it is quite likely that concern about the environment is declining among Americans. There are several reasons. Most importantly, economic concerns are on the rise. The U.S. federal government has a huge debt and the sub-prime mortgage crisis is bringing the problems of excessive borrowing home to many American families. An aging population is beginning to learn first hand about the problems facing health care. Past experience shows that when faced with more immediate threats, environment disappears from most people's immediate agenda.

In addition, in those states where environmental concern is highest, state governments have adopted aggressive programs to address the subject. There is nothing better than aggressive government action to diffuse an issue. State environmental actions have even gone so far as to challenge federal policies, something that has, in this case, enhanced the state reputation at the expense of respect for the federal government. A few corporations have also adopted high profile green initiatives, adding to the perception of many in the public that environmental issues are being addressed effectively.

In Canada, the situation is quite different. With the possible exception of Afghanistan, there are few looming issues that are likely to suppress public concern about the environment in the short term. As in the U.S., federal actions to address environmental concern have been inept. Unlike the leading states, there have been few provincial initiatives which have effectively addressed the public's environmental concern. Corporate environmental actions, though present, are often poorly communicated and are viewed through the ever-present Canadian skepticism about the private sector.

Any Canadian business leaders who hope the environment is a passing fad are likely to be disappointed. This fall, a plethora of national and international reports and conferences on environmental topics, as well as some extreme weather events, will keep the environment in a prominent position in Canada's media. We are already seeing significant growth in the number of environmental spokespersons and the frequency with which they are interviewed. Many of them are quite poorly informed or are, at best, repeating common environmental mantras. This does not reduce their effectiveness in keeping environment on the national agenda.

With an election in Ontario which has energy and environment among its multiple themes, continuing ineffective communication and management of environment issues in Ottawa, Canada's adoption of an unpopular international position against climate change targets, and a looming debate about disposal of spent nuclear fuel which could easily reopen a national NIMBY syndrome with anti free trade overtones, companies that have not formulated an effective environmental strategy may well find that the topic is of increasing importance to their business.

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