Montreal

Are Quebecers hypocrites when it comes to climate change?

By many measures, the environment is an issue that matters to Quebecers. But will that be reflected on election day?

They talk the talk, but do Quebecers walk the walk when it comes to going green?

A woman holds a sign in Montreal, Sunday, April, 22, 2012, during a rally to mark international Earth Day. Thousands are expected to take part in a march through the city calling for concrete action on climate change on Sept. 27, 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

When they step into the voting booth, will Quebecers put their votes where their mouths are when it comes to climate change?

By many measures, the environment is an issue that matters to Quebecers.

Later this week, tens of thousands are expected to take part in a march through Montreal calling for concrete action on global warming. Polls routinely put the environment at the top of Quebecers' lists of most pressing issues and, according to research at the Université de Montréal, climate change is as important in many rural areas as it is in cities.

Quebecers who took part in CBC's Vote Compass also prioritized the environment as an election issue more than citizens of any other province.

"The people of Quebec feel a lot more ownership for Quebec than, I think, the rest of Canada feels for their own local environment," said Ben Clarkson, English spokesperson for La Planète s'invite au parlement, one of the groups organizing the Sept. 27 climate protest.

"Quebec sees itself as having a relationship to the land."

'Like any other North American'

But that isn't quite how they behave, said Prof. Pierre-Olivier Pineau, chair of energy sector management at the business school HEC Montréal.

While Quebec is the province with the lowest per capita emissions, that's largely due to the fact that the province's electricity is produced without fossil fuels — and not because Quebecers are inherently more environmentally friendly, Pineau said.

"Quebecers behave like any other North American," he said.

"They will eat meat — that has a higher greenhouse gas impact. They travel about more and more by SUV. That also has a big impact. There is no difference in terms of behaviour between Quebecers and other Canadians."

Cars idle in a traffic jam near the Anjou interchange in Montreal. Quebec SUV and truck sales have climbed 246 per cent since 1990, while the number of car sales has fallen by 28 per cent. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Pineau co-authored a 2018 study that found Quebec SUV and truck sales have climbed 246 per cent since 1990, while the number of car sales has fallen by 28 per cent.

According to Statistics Canada, Quebecers bought approximately 3,387 light trucks (which includes SUVs and minivans) per 100,000 people in 2018. The Canadian average is 3,796.

The Conference Board of Canada, a non-profit and non-partisan think tank, gave Quebec a "C" grade on waste generation and a "D-" on energy consumption and intensity.

However, Pineau said there is general agreement among Quebecers that climate change is an issue that needs addressing.

"Maybe it's hypocrisy, maybe a misunderstanding of what's needed," Pineau said. "But Quebecers do have the aspiration to fight climate change and be good from an environmental perspective."

He said that even if Quebecers are not, individually, acting to reduce their emissions, the sentiment does "translate into some political support for big goals."

Choices, choices 

But does that mean environmentally conscious parties will win big in the voting booth?

Not necessarily, said Jean-François Daoust, a post-doctoral fellow at McGill's Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. Daoust, who studies voter behaviour, said it's rare to see a correlation between an issue's importance and voting patterns.

"For example, 62 per cent of Canadians said that they attribute a lot of attention to the environment in 2015," Daoust said. "But that did not reflect at all at the voting booth as an advantage for the Green Party."

He pointed out that during the 2018 provincial election, the environment ranked as one of the top issues for Quebecers. Voters still went on to elect a majority Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, "which is not necessarily the party that is associated with proactive environmental action," he said.

The CAQ scored the lowest among the province's major parties on a report card prepared by environmental groups. 

Why the difference? Even for voters passionate about the environment, Daoust said, the issue isn't necessarily top of mind when it comes time to vote.

And Clarkson said focusing on individual actions doesn't help in the fight against climate change.

"What individual actions can I take to stop the burning of the Amazon?" he asked.

"Individuals don't achieve things. Movements achieve things. The banning of child labour was not ended by an individual."

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington U.S., Sept. 18, 2019. Thunberg is scheduled to participate in the Sept. 27, 2019 protest taking place in Montreal. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Clarkson said that, regardless of how many people come out to protest on Sept. 27, he will only consider the event a success if the government meets their demands by creating "enforceable laws to transform society" and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

"We have a long, long journey ahead of us to create an industrial system where we can live on this planet long term," he said.

"It's not going to be won in a day. But we can get started now."

About the Author

Laura Marchand is a web and radio journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter at @Marchand_L.

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