Freakish weather and a constant drumbeat of warnings about global warming, pollution and toxic chemicals have given environmental issues a vigorous shove from near the bottom of the public agenda right to the very top.

A poll conducted by the Strategic Counsel for CTV News and The Globe and Mail shows a startling rise within the past 12 months in the importance attached to this issue.

Just over a year ago, on Jan. 4 and 5, only four per cent of Canadians specified environment as the most important issue.

In contrast, 25 per cent put health care at the top of the list.

By last week, however, 26 per cent of survey respondents listed the environment as the top issue, dropping health care to second place with 18 per cent.

"The most significant finding out of this poll, I would say is the fact that the No. 1 issue is the environment ... this issue has just taken off like wildfire," pollster Tim Woolstencroft of The Strategic Counsel told

"A quarter of the general public is saying this is down to one issue and its exceeding healthcare for the first time, which is really amazing," he added.

Despite the late arrival of more traditional winter weather, Canadians have not forgotten that cold is not what it used to be.

"People have a direct experience with global warming right now," Strategic Counsel chairman Allan Gregg told CTV News.

Whether it was an unseasonably warm Christmas or news that the polar bear could be an endangered species, Canadians are recognizing global warming as a big problem, activists say.

"The public debate has changed from the idea of 'Is it happening or isn't it?' to 'OK. Let's get over it. We see the evidence. What are you going to do about it?' I think there has been that shift in the past year or two," said Stephen Hazell, Sierra Club of Canada executive director.

With environment at the top of the public agenda, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on the government to fend off criticism of its green plan, Woolstencroft said.

The public's shift in attitude has forced a new focus upon the federal government that some Conservatives are calling a "Three-E approach"

"Energy, environment and the economy. Getting the blend right is pretty important to people. They want to make sure you look after the environment, that they can afford to drive their cars but they still have a job at the end of it," Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl said.

The government's new environment minister says Canadians can expect action.

"This issue has been studied to death. I think there is certainly is a desire on our part to move forward and take realistic concrete action," Environment Minister John Baird said.

Pundits pointed to Baird's appointment earlier this month as a sign that the Harper government needed a new approach on the file.

"I don't think there's any question that the rapidity with which this item has come on the public opinion agenda has surprised the political elites in this country and the Conservatives in particular," Gregg said.

The shift in the public agenda also puts a pressure on the NDP to find ground with the government and work together on an aggressive environmental program, Woolstencroft said.

The Strategic Counsel poll also found that 83 per cent of Canadians agree that global warming has the potential to harm future generations while 14 per cent felt it didn't.

According to the poll's findings, 63 per cent believe Canada should try to keep its commitments under the Kyoto agreement. But 30 per cent felt those goals are unachievable and that we now need our own "made-in-Canada" plan.

The survey also questioned Canadians on which political party they feel has the best plan for the environment.

The Greens got 27 per cent support, while the Liberals came second with 16; the Conservatives followed with 12; the NDP came fourth with 9; and the Bloc Quebecois had 2 per cent.

When asked whether Canadians would vote for their local Green candidate, however, 20 per cent said they were likely to do so while 67 per cent said they were unlikely to cast their ballots for the party.

"That shows they have some ground to grow, but not a lot," Woolstencroft said.

"Their biggest opportunity is getting into the leaders' debate, that's when they would have a significant impact on the landscape," he said.

But with environment on the forefront of the agenda, there is no question the Greens will be getting the air time they have been lobbying for, Woolstencroft said.

Technical notes

  • Results are based on tracking among a proportionate national sample of Canadians 18 years of age or older.
  • Interviews were conducted between Jan. 11 and Jan. 14, 2007.
  • The national sample size is 1,000. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
  • The Quebec sample is 247. The margin of error is 6.3 percentage points.
  • The Ontario sample is 379. The margin of error is 5.0 percentage points.
  • The Western sample is 297. The margin of error is 5.7 per cent.
  • The "rest of Canada" sample is 753. The margin of error is 3.6 per cent.

With a report from CTV's David Akin