Fresh off the recent municipal election last spring, one of Vancouver’s city councillors visited my geography class on “urban environments” at the University of British Columbia. As a part of her engagement with our class, she gave a town-hall style Q & A on the role politics plays in environmental issues.
When it was my turn to ask a question, I chose to bring up climate change, asking what she would do to address the issue if she were hypothetically given the chance to control all the levels of government in Canada simultaneously. Her first answers included policy suggestions to restrain consumer behaviours: ideas such as no longer allowing the purchase of new combustion engines by a defined date. She talked about the importance of carbon pricing, shifting subsidies from the oil and gas industry toward retraining for “green” jobs and municipal tools like green building regulations. She stopped after a few minutes of talking and the class was silent. She had our attention.
After my question, the Q & A continued down the path of climate issues. My classmates asked questions ranging from how Vancouver planned to address rising sea levels to whether the changes students make in their individual lives really have an impact on climate change. In retrospect, watching my whole class ask questions and give responses to the councillor on climate change was instructive as a cultural analysis of my generation.
I remember thinking that the views different students expressed were an indicator for the direction Canada will be going over the medium and long terms. There was a bit of pushback to some of the councillor’s ideas. But that pushback was always with respect to the scope of her policy suggestions, not the underlying assumption that the environment was fundamentally important to preserve and that the government needed to have an active role in stewarding and protecting it. That view seemed self-evident to every student present.
I was raised in a generation where environmental thinking and lessons on stewardship were taught from kindergarten onwards. Accordingly, my peers have a deep environmental consciousness. We tend to value the environment more highly than other generations. And as my demographic group grows up and establishes itself as a voting bloc within Canadian society, that environmental consciousness will shape Canada’s public life more and more.
I realize an anecdotal story about my class or reflections on my childhood aren’t representative of Canadian’s views at-large, but the idea that millennials across the country prioritize environmental policy more highly than previous generations has data to support it. The 2017 Environics Research Group study entitled Canada 150 Climate Change Survey found that 57 per cent of Canadians think the country should be more active in addressing climate change. But the catch is: more than 70 per cent of my millennial peers (ages 18-34 in the survey) agreed.
As these millennial voters – and eventually Gen Z voters with similar priorities – become the dominant force in Canadian politics over the next several decades, the environment could become the underlying story that colours every policy discussion. For example, I predict the public policy atmosphere in the future will incorporate environmental thinking as a lens through which every piece of legislation is examined in the same way gender has become widely used in the current Liberal government (e.g. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy). In this scenario, every line item in the federal budget could be debated on the merits of sustainability because voters would expect as much.