The False Dichotomy – Economic Growth versus Environmental Protection

For decades, environmental advocates have been telling the public that resource development poses severe risks to the climate and that we should delay, if not halt, various extraction and transportation projects. Business interests respond, in turn, by telling the public that if these projects are subject to exhaustive environmental regulations and review, jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer. For the public, the debate has been reduced to a forced choice that pits the interests of the environment directly against the interests of the economy.

Earnscliffe recently conducted a far-reaching study into attitudes towards energy, environment and clean growth. In it, rather than forcing a choice between the environment and the economy, we posed two separate questions which asked Canadians to indicate the priority they believe the government should place on addressing climate change and getting natural resources to market. When you look at how individuals respond to both questions we find that very few Canadians feel that it is a zero-sum game between the environment and the economy and fewer still believe that one deserves attention while the other deserves none. Indeed, over 70 per cent of Canadians give both addressing climate change and getting resources to market either an identical or at least similar priority score. On the other end, only one-in-four offer divergent scores where they rate one priority very high and the other very low.

What these results indicate is that while advocates for the environment and the economy are shouting from opposite end zones, the vast majority of Canadians are sitting between the forty-five yards line. Given this, it is no wonder that our study also indicated middling levels of trust and credibility for NGOs, governments and sectoral representatives. To date, no one’s argument has completely won over the public.

Over 70 per cent of Canadians give both addressing climate change and getting resources to market either an identical or at least similar priority score.

“Over 70 per cent of Canadians give both addressing climate change and getting resources to market either an identical or at least similar priority score.”

 

Not only does this indicate that it is time for environmentalists and business interests to modulate their messaging and start offering the public win-win rather than win-lose solutions, it also should give them insight into why neither side has prevailed in this debate. Indeed, the sad irony in this saga is that not only are LNG, pipeline and other resource projects all stalled, but the fact of the matter is that we have done very little to improve our carbon emission and address climate change either. In other words, as two sides have waged a one-sided argument to support their case, neither have been able to advance the interests of their side. And the reason for this should also be clear – because neither advocate has public opinion on their side, the government is under absolutely no pressure to grapple with these complex issues in any kind of meaningful way, and instead their path of least political resistance is to kick the can down the road …. to the detriment of both a cleaner environment and a stronger economy.

trust

“We find that when it comes to trust in handling environmental issue responsibly, the Canadian natural gas industry has lower levels of mistrust.”

And what has the Canadian Gas Association done to deserve this stern lecture? Well, our research suggests that the gas industry may actually be the most credible player to move this discourse onto a more even plane. As part of the growing distrust in all traditional sources of authority, we find that the public is no longer willing to accept arguments uncritically from any source – in other words, the issue is no longer who is the most trusted, but who is the least mistrusted? And to this question, we find that when it comes to trust in handling environmental issue responsibly, the Canadian natural gas industry has lower levels of mistrust than all of the oil and gas refinery industry, the oil, pipeline and nuclear industry as well as the federal and provincial government. While having the lowest levels mistrust might not be much to brag about, in the temper of our times, it might be the best one can expect.

Allan Gregg is among Canada’s most recognized and respected researchers, strategists and social commentators. He has played a central role in dozens of campaigns over the last thirty years. He founded Decima Research in 1979, co-founded the Strategic Counsel in 1995 and was the Chair of Harris-Decima from 2007 to 2014.

Allan is a recipient of the Public Affairs Association Award of Distinction. In October 2012, he was inducted into the Canadian Marketing Hall of Legends and the same year, he was named as Adjunct Professor to Carleton University’s Schools of Public Administration and Political Management.