Limits to evidence-based policymaking: how politics and worldviews shape our understanding of what to do about energy and climate change

Institute for Science Society and Policy

By Marisa Beck

Research Director, ISSP & Positive Energy, uOttawa

Marisa Beck
Tabaret Hall.
Climate change is a daunting policy challenge, where decision-makers must respond to a high-uncertainty and high-risk problem in an environment featuring a diverse multitude of stakeholders and deep-seated ideological controversy. In this situation, making policy decisions based on the best available science is often considered a desirable objective.

But empirical studies – including Positive Energy research – have identified the flaws of this technocratic model of policymaking. The link between science and policy is complex, shaped by politics, and coloured by decision-makers’ worldviews. Two Positive Energy studies examine these complexities in greater depth and reveal ways to promote consensus about Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change.

As part of Positive Energy’s work on polarization, the study What is ‘Transition’? The Two Realities of Energy and Environmental Leaders in Canada, highlights the importance of language, meaning, and, ultimately, worldviews, in controversial policy debates. We found that even a term as widely used as ‘energy transition’ meant different things to different members of Canada’s energy and environmental communities.

Based on over 40 interviews with Canadian energy and environmental decision-makers, this study explored participants’ understandings of the term ‘energy transition’: the findings revealed starkly different views. Some saw transition as a gradual process that will rely on markets and a diverse energy portfolio, including oil and gas. Others viewed ‘transition’ as a set of broad sociopolitical changes that must occur quickly to meet ambitious emissions reductions targets. In fact, perceptions of the pace and scope of reducing emissions diverged so strongly that we concluded that participants occupied two different ‘realities’ when it came to Canada’s energy future.

Given the large number of individuals involved in climate and energy policymaking, each of them tending to occupy their own climate and energy reality, these findings emphasize the difficult ‘starting point’ for any consensus-building process.

Positive Energy researchers then went a step further, asking: how can Canada build consensus about climate and energy policies across these different realities? Is scientific evidence an effective way to make people’s realities converge? If they all read the same research studies, no matter which reality they start out in, would their thinking become more aligned? This is, of course, the fundamental assumption of a technocratic model of policymaking: evidence showing the superiority of one policy approach over others would build broad support among policymakers for that decision.  

To explore answers to these questions, we undertook the study Building Consensus: What Works? Case Study: Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. The research examined the impact of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission on the Canadian energy and climate policy landscape. Over its lifetime (2014-2019), the Ecofiscal Commission used well-researched and well-communicated evidence to promote carbon pricing in Canada and foster cross-partisan consensus (Positive Energy’s interest in the Commission focused on its work on carbon pricing, but the Commission worked on a range of fiscal solutions to environmental problems, including wastewater pricing and congestion charges in cities). By infusing the carbon pricing debate with non-partisan, academically rigorous research and evidence, the Ecofiscal Commission aimed to inform decisions by governments willing to move on carbon pricing and to convince those unwilling to do so.

Our research concluded that the Ecofiscal Commission was indeed effective in shaping energy and climate policy, but only once carbon pricing was on a government’s agenda. We found little evidence that the Commission was successful in creating cross-partisan support for carbon pricing. Rather, politics and partisanship ultimately limited its influence. 

This finding is in line with research in political science and psychology about how humans select and process new information. The phenomenon of ‘motivated reasoning’ underscores that it is very hard for information to change opinions because the way in which humans process information is shaped by their prior attitudes about an issue and by their social identity. Research indicates that if a person’s social group, e.g., a political party, has defined a position on an issue they are very likely to adopt a position that is aligned with that of their social group – and less likely to be persuaded by evidence that contradicts that position. Similarly, research has shown that people tend to perceive information that is delivered or supported by their political opponents as less trustworthy. This may explain why it was difficult for the Ecofiscal Commission to maintain credibility across the political spectrum.  

In sum, these two Positive Energy studies indicate that (1) decision-makers in the Canadian energy and environmental communities tend to occupy different realities when it comes to transition, and (2), these realities are unlikely to merge when people are confronted with the same information because of motivated reasoning.

If evidence alone is not an effective tool, then what can help Canada build consensus around its energy future in an age of climate change? The study Overcoming Limits to Consensus-Building on Energy and Climate: Toxic Partnership, Us Versus Them, False Polarization suggests that non-partisan, and more importantly, cross-partisan approaches to decision-making and dialogue are two promising avenues. Interestingly, the need for open, inclusive conversations was also frequently identified by interviewees in the transition study as a necessary step for Canada to improve consensus around climate and energy policy. 

In line with the above, since 2015, Positive Energy has used the convening power of the University to create an open, inclusive, cross-partisan forum to facilitate difficult conversations and inform them with academic research. On June 15th, 2022, Positive Energy will host the conference A More Complete Roadmap: Overcoming Obstacles on Canada’s Net Zero Journey to continue the discussion and help strengthen public confidence in energy decision-making. We hope to see you there!