Overcoming Consensus-Building Barriers: Report Studies Polarization Of Energy/Climate Issues

Several compounding factors contribute to polarization along partisan lines when it comes to climate and energy issues, according to a newly-released Positive Energy report, and overcoming this polarization is not a simple task.

“Incoming governments have built entire campaigns on promises to undo decisions related to energy infrastructure or climate policy, and incoming governments have largely delivered on those promises,” said Brendan Frank, senior research associate at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP). The report author told the Bulletin a major risk from not resolving this polarization is policy whiplash, for which he can cite several examples from recent years.

“That undermines not only the public confidence, but investor confidence. The swings we see from government to government as a result of issue and party polarization, the implications for energy security and climate policy, are hard to foresee until they happen, but we do have recent examples that show just how costly they can actually be.”

Based on documentary analysis, literature reviews and in-depth interviews with 50 Canadian environmental and energy leaders, Overcoming Limits to Consensus-Building on Energy and Climate: Toxic Partisanship, Us Versus Them, False Polarization identifies three common drivers of polarization that limit consensus-building and offer insights into overcoming them.

Frank added: “This report is an exploration of how we got here, and why energy and climate issues are polarized along partisan lines the way they are, and then what we can do to navigate polarized contexts, given where we’re at.”

Polarization drivers

An important common driver of polarization would be false perceptions to the extent of polarization in the first place, says the report, as this can generate feedback loops, negatively complicating energy and climate debates.

“On the false-polarization front, it seems to be the most tractable problem, because false polarization can actually make us angrier than we actually should be based on reality, and it can lead us to believe that we actually have less in common with partisan or ideological opponents than we actually do,” Frank said. “There’s an axiom that facts aren’t actually enough to change minds, but that’s only really part of the story.

“There is a lot of emerging literature to suggest providing more information about not necessarily policies, but the beliefs of your political opponents, actually does help to diffuse situations. There’s a lot of polling to suggest a strong majority of Canadians are actually ideologically moderate, but they’re not the loudest voices in this debate.”

For overcoming false polarization, more dialogue and debate, as well as understanding who can be trusted in the conversation and who cannot be trusted, are all important steps, he added.

Another issue the report identifies is toxic partisanship, which is the dislike for partisan opponents to a point where civility and bipartisanship become difficult or impossible. Declining of civility, lost trust and increasing difficulty for leading or brokering bipartisan co-operation all have broader policy implications, including threatening net-zero goals.

Rather than renounce or play down partisan stripes, the report suggests, political actors can set important examples and diffuse in-group, ‘us-versus-them’ debating mentalities, while also collaborating, and co-developing initiatives — civilly and publicly — with partisan opponents. Non-political actors can also aid in these efforts by working as honest brokers, mediators and facilitators of cross-partisanship.

The report also identifies negative impacts of disliking or hating out-groups, including (but not limited to) partisan out-groups, which would be often associated with ‘us-versus-them’ thinking. Diffusing negative polarization requires understanding of what activates it, adds the report, which samples findings from social-psychological literature. Actors who understand how such tactics are used to factionalize can better defend against them.

According to Frank, such negative polarization was thematically present in every interview he conducted except for two. A level of anger and ‘us-versus-them’ thinking persists that decisionmakers find problematic when trying to make sound and durable energy and climate policy decisions, he suggested. “If I had to pick, then I’d probably say that ‘us-versus-them’ [is the worst], based on this data, but that … probably looks different depending on who you talk to.”

The influencers

The University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy has some polling that suggests industry associations and private sector oil and gas companies are not especially well trusted by the public as sources of information on energy and climate issues, Frank told the DOB. “That does suggest that they’re not trusted to be conveners and facilitators.”

As such, he said, it is important for these industry associations and firms to engage in productive dialogue. “But they must understand they’re operating from a place of low public confidence.”

Polarization influencers include Canadian political leaders wedging environment against economy, U.S. politics, gaps between public and decisionmaker opinion, hardening and fusing of political and social identities, negative and toxic partisanships, negative and false polarizing, a growing misinformation ecosystem, oilsands emerging as symbolic of energy’s environmental cost, Alberta economic volatility, and global finance, academia and civil society influence.

Frank’s analysis shows that while the post-pandemic paradigm on federal energy and climate policy is still in its early stages, it possesses several important features with support across partisan lines, including consensus on net-zero emissions by 2050 (or sooner), on market-based policies such as industrial carbon pricing, as well as broadly on clean-technology, with reasonable consensus on energy sources like next-generation nuclear, blue hydrogen and natural gas.

“I definitely see reasons for optimism. However, I don’t think we should understate the nature or the size of the challenge,” he said, noting ultimately much of the solution comes from leadership. “That extends across both public and private sectors. There’s an opportunity for the oil and gas sector to ‘walk the walk,’ but time is short to do that.”

He added: “There’s a lot that we can be talking about, and it’s advancing, but we seem to be spending 80 per cent of our time talking about the 20 per cent of the pie that we disagree on.”

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