19 october 2017

Even in Alberta, views on oil are changing: Steward

Catastrophic weather events have shifted the views on burning greenhouse gases and politicians will need to respond.

By Gillian Steward, Toronto Star. Tues., Sept. 19, 2017

The hard realities of climate change seemed to be everywhere this summer.

In Calgary smoke hung in the air and burned our eyes as ash fell on our cars from forest fires to the west and the south.

On a drive to the Okanagan, for almost 500 km smoke drifted close to the car or high above in mountain forests. The sun a mere bright blotch in a murky sky.

When I was in Kelowna a forest just across Okanagan Lake burst into flames.

In B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, people were burned out of their homes or forced to evacuate and wait for the winds and firefighters to decide their fate.

And of course, it was just over a year ago that the monster fire in Fort McMurray devastated the city and turned residents’ lives into a long nightmare.

In the Caribbean and southern United States killer hurricanes and floods were much, much worse than the 2013 flood in Calgary. But we know how long it takes to clean up, how many houses are deemed worthless, and the cost to the public purse for evacuation centres and reconstruction of roads, bridges, schools and other public facilities.

So it is not surprising a recent survey undertaken by Abacus Data shows the awareness of the dangers of climate change is accelerating among Canadians. And along with that alarm is recognition that the demand for fossil fuels must be substantially reduced if we are to curb the carbon emissions that fuel climate change.

A majority (59 per cent) of Canadians agree that they are recently more worried about climate change and that is influencing their view of how we should use oil. People in B.C. and Quebec are most alarmed. Ontario comes in at 56 per cent.

Even in Alberta, Canada’s biggest oil producer, more people would like to see demand for oil declining (38 per cent) in 10 years than would like to see it increasing (28 per cent). Looking out 30 years, 48 per cent would prefer to see oil demand in decline, compared to 20 per cent who would like to see it increasing.

The results also show how quickly Canadians are changing their views about the use of oil given the impact of carbon emissions on climate change.

Feelings about the construction of new pipelines to deliver Canadian oil to new markets have shifted dramatically in just three years. Negative feelings have not grown (21 per cent), but positive feelings (44 per cent) have dropped, while more people take a neutral stance (36 per cent).

On the question of demand for oil 10 years from now, equal numbers believe demand for oil will be rising (31 per cent) as believe it will be falling (32 per cent). But this is a striking 15-point increase in the number who believe demand will be falling, compared to results just last April.

So what effect will these shifting views having on Canadians’ support for various oil pipeline projects?

The survey reveals anxiety about pipelines is a function of two types of concern: 27 per cent are worried about the risk of spills, but for more people (37 per cent) it has to do with a desire to see a shift away from fossil fuels.

But yet, according to the survey, Canadians remain broadly inclined to believe Canada should continue to harness our petroleum resources and to build pipeline capacity if needed, even while ramping up investments and policies that will see the country shift toward more reliance on renewable forms of energy.

This is very much in line with the transition strategy of Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who both promote pipeline expansion while at the same time introducing policies designed to curb carbon emissions and encourage renewable energy.

But given how quickly Canadians’ attitudes are shifting, the transition phase may have to be much shorter than politicians first thought.

Right now most Canadians see oil pipelines as a benefit to the economy.

But will they still think that in two years? Three years?

After another summer of fires and floods?

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week. gsteward@telus.net

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