Canadian Science Policy Fellows’ Corner: Considering values in science policy

At the Canadian Science Policy Conference, I found a number of the sessions to be narrower in scope than I would have liked. For example, the session on systems analysis for evidence-based decision making focused on using the technique to inform energy policy. One speaker focused on the impressive amount of effort expended on analysis and how they did not submit recommendations, but wanted to let the results speak for themselves.

But results do not speak. They simply are. Results need to be interpreted, evaluated, and judged based on our desired outcomes, which are based on what we value. To determine what we value as a society requires us to engage in politics. Unfortunately, politics was put aside for more technical policy discussion during this panel, despite its importance to the everyday lives of Canadians.

One panel that brought out the values question and its importance in developing science policy was the Royal Society of Canada’s “Canada’s Climate Change Strategy.” The panel consisted of two fellows of the Royal Society, Professors Catherine Potvin of McGill University and Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University, along with Arlene Strom of Suncor Inc. The format of the discussion was differed from previous sessions as Jaccard made an in-depth presentation on climate change policy in Canada, to which the other panellists were asked to comment and respond to, creating a lively dialogue between participants.

Jaccard started off the discussion by outlining what could be done to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement recently adopted by the Canadian government. He demonstrated that the range of policy options available could be broken down into a few general categories. At one end, there are voluntary measures to help incentivize citizens and industries to reduce their carbon footprint, like the One Tonne Challenge. At the other end, there are compulsory mechanisms like regulations and emission pricing, such as the Advanced Clean Car program in California and British Columbia’s carbon tax.

I could see values already creeping into the policy discussion. The policies on the table could be either coercive or voluntary, which depending on how much you value your personal autonomy, might be viewed as a worthwhile imposition or a threat to your freedom. Of course, the policies are also not equal in their effectiveness. For example, the voluntary One Tonne Challenge failed to significantly alter behaviour of Canadians, but the obligatory BC carbon tax has reduced greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, Jaccard ruled out voluntary policies and programs if Canada wanted to reach its 2030 targets.

However, the compulsory measures are also not equivalent. At one level, regulations are generally seen as economically inefficient as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a higher price per tonne than through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. Nevertheless, to achieve the targets that Canada is committed to, the price per tonne of carbon would need to be high enough to have large impacts on the cost of daily purchases such as gasoline. The broad-based nature of the price makes it efficient, but it makes everyday purchases more expensive. On the other hand, regulations are targeted, only affect particular industries and can be viewed as a positive action in combating climate change, even if they are more costly in the end. Again, the question of what to value most appears: economic efficiency or political acceptability? Jaccard answered the latter, not the former. 

After Jaccard’s presentation, Catherine Potvin added her perspectives on climate change. She told the audience about the failure of the Copenhagen round of talks that she attended and expressed hope concerning the Paris accords. Potvin emphasized that what was needed now was a change in the public discourse about climate change. For too long, the discourse has been dominated by the negative impacts of climate change, rather than the positive effects of addressing it.

She mentioned that in Latin America, where she does much of her fieldwork, many inhabitants are happy to move towards greener technologies instead of using carbon-intensive production methods. For example, while some Canadians want nothing to do with windmills on their land or near their houses, Latin Americans view them as modernizing or “like living in the future.” By reframing the political debate towards the values of innovation and modernization, Potvin believes that the Canadian public would view climate change actions and policies more positively.

Following Potvin, Arlene Strom brought out the need to find common values between groups that might be on opposite sides of a debate to allow for action to be taken. After the 2015 election in Alberta, the government brought together representatives from industry, environmental groups, labour unions, and other non-governmental organizations to find a way forward on climate change policy. Storm indicated that by focusing on shared values such as the preservation of natural resources and maintaining an economy for future Albertans, they were able to reach an agreement on a carbon price for the first time. 

The panel ended with an impromptu debate on pipelines. Jaccard deemed that it was not logical to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure to transport fossil fuels without using them to full capacity, which would mean that Canada would not reach our Paris commitments. Strom replied that the pipelines were necessary to maintain the jobs and revenues necessary to transition towards a low-carbon economy — an argument we’ve since heard with the recent federal announcements.

This debate once again highlighted the importance of values and the need for political considerations in science policy. Do we value jobs and short-term economic growth more than effects on the climate and its related economic costs? The answer will not be decided by a high-level report, but in debates and conversations about what we value and, hopefully, what we know.

This blog post was contributed to Mitacs. The views or opinions expressed within belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Mitacs or the institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with.

The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; participating federal agencies and departments; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; and Mitacs’ Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.


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