Matt Gurney: The numbers don’t back up any claim that climate change sank Scheer

Since the votes were tallied up after last week’s election — where the Liberals were reduced to a minority while the Conservatives came up short, in a big way, in Greater Toronto — one of the major talking points has been that the Tories were hurt by their lack of a climate-change plan. They had a plan, of a kind, but not one that relied on the broad kind of carbon taxation favoured by the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens. And this, Canadians have been assured by left-leaning politicians and many of my fellow media commentators, is a big part of why the Tories lost.

I’ve been really eager to see some polling on this. Not just on overall levels of support for carbon taxation, or the kind of lame analysis that simply adds up all the support parties X, Y and Z got and declares that a supermajority of Canadians support any policy those parties share. Voters are complicated, and make decisions for a lot of reasons. Before we declare that a lacklustre climate-change plan sank Scheer, I want to see some numbers that focus on that precise issue.

The Toronto Star has declared that we have them. But a close read of said numbers leaves me decidedly unsold.

A close read of said numbers leaves me decidedly unsold

Two days ago, the Star published an op-ed by Peter Loewen, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Michael Bernstein, the executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity. The men cite exit polling data they collected and conclude, “If Conservatives are going to win elections in the future, they will need to advance a more credible plan on climate change — and that begins with not only accepting, but embracing, the reality of the carbon tax and rebate.”

The headline the Star‘s editors put on it is even more declarative: “Poll shows climate change sunk Scheer — and could cost Ford.”

Strong stuff! But the numbers don’t quite live up to the hype.

From the Star op-ed:

We found that voters who turned away from the federal Conservatives were overwhelmingly concerned about climate change. Of the voters who did not vote for Scheer’s Conservatives, 20 per cent said they would have considered supporting the party. Among this Conservative-friendly pool of available voters, 77 per cent said climate change was among their top voting issues.

Those same voters were unimpressed with the Conservative platform on climate change, giving it an average grade of D. 

I won’t quibble with the raw numbers — I’ll take it on good faith that their polling is sound. But I’m not as blown away by the findings as Loewen, Bernstein and the Star‘s headline writers seem to be. Equally valid interpretations would have been, “Huge majority of non-Conservative voters were never going to vote Conservative” or “Better climate-change plan might, but not certainly would, have brought over 15.4 per cent of non-Tory voters.”

Don’t get me wrong, 15.4 per cent of non-Tory voters voting Tory could have made a difference. But we’re talking a subset of a subset here — only a fifth of those who voted for someone other than the Tories was even theoretically open to voting for Scheer, and only three-quarters of those cite climate change as a top voting priority. That term itself isn’t a slam dunk. As noted above, voters are complicated and vote for many reasons. I’d be much more interested in finding out if a carbon-tax-based plan would have flipped some of that 20 per cent to the Tories. Put another way, of that 20 per cent of “Conservative-friendly” voters who didn’t vote for Scheer, how many were stopped from doing so because of the Tory climate-change plan and nothing else?

The evidence does not fit the sweeping conclusions being made here

In some cases, it probably would have mattered. But the evidence does not fit the sweeping conclusions being made here.

Especially in light of another bit of evidence: while most Canadians cite climate change as a pressing issue, they don’t want to do much about it. Just last month, Ipsos released a poll showing that roughly half of Canadians don’t want to spend even a single penny in either taxes or added costs to reduce carbon emissions. Another 30 per cent were only willing to pay up to an annual maximum of $200 to stop something the majority of us apparently believe is an existential threat to human civilization.

Would a better climate-change plan have helped the Tories? Probably. Would it have made a huge difference? Or even a meaningful one? It’s hard to look at these numbers and answer yes.

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CORRECTION: This blog has been updated to properly reflect the findings of the Ipsos poll.