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I am getting used to hearing a familiar refrain about the idea of a carbon tax in Canada: “It’s a tax! It’ll kill jobs!”

It’s proof of the success Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have shown in communicating and framing the issue to Canadians. Tories, though, use the description “job-killing tax on everything”.

His government is under no real political pressure to do anything more than tinkering around the edges on climate change – and why should it? A poll  done by environment Canada earlier this year suggests that there is a lot of public hostility to a carbon tax. Most of us see a carbon tax primarily through the lens of personal economic security.

The relevant question in that poll, however, seems to suggest the issue is fundamentally one of “What will it cost me?” It reads (the underline is mine):

I’d like to know how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements. Please use a 10-point scale, where 10 means you strongly agree, and 1, means you strongly disagree.  Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The results indicated that 43.5 per cent of respondents were on the “strongly disagree” part of the scale, while only 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” side.

I wonder what the response would have been if the key part of the question was more like this:

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to help replace the energy generated by fossil fuels with cleaner energy and reduce the impact of global warming and also to help Canada to adjust to the inevitable low-carbon economy.

Ok, this is slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the point. When you contextualise issues not as transformational, but instead as a raid on your pocketbook for some intangible benefit (“Sure, we want to protect the environment, but not if it makes gas and groceries more expensive.”) you can see why more than 43 per cent are strongly opposed.

What if those who are actively involved in debates on climate change and reducing fossil fuel emissions consider the former approach; you can tax carbon and use it to support and develop the technologies that will provide us with clean energy. But that’s just the tree-hugger take on a carbon tax; even growing numbers of companies in the oil and gas sector think it’s sensible policy.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a Jeffrey Simpson column, where he examines Australia’s carbon tax and its lack of catastrophic economic impact. In the column, Simpson suggests – and this is hardly a new idea – that a carbon tax is the most efficient market mechanism to shift behaviour and reduce emissions.

But when so many people see a carbon tax as a bottom-line pocketbook issue, it’s no wonder that it seems a long shot – no matter how appropriate it is as public policy, and no matter how many in the oil patch think it’s an idea whose time has come.  Unless, of course, those who support a carbon tax, including the oil and gas sector, start contributing more actively to the public debate and challenging the misperception of a carbon tax. Yes, it’s a complex issue, but some voices carry a lot of weight. I think they should be talking more about this, and they should be doing it loudly.

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