Brexit, Trump offer lessons for climate change policy

First Posted: Monday, July 11, 2016


People are sick of experts, evidently. Facts, too, are becoming troublingly unpopular. Brexit and the popularity of U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump are cases in point. A closer look at each offers lessons for the design of an effective and democratically accountable climate change policy.
First, Brexit. Experts hated it. In a poll of 639 British economists, 88 per cent predicted that a vote to leave the EU would decrease economic growth and efficiency. 52 per cent of voters opted to leave anyway.
Why? A revealing geographic analysis of the referendum conducted by the Resolution Foundation found that the parts of Britain most supportive of Brexit were the parts that have historically been the poorest, particularly in the north. Brexit supporters didn’t share the experts’ obsession with economic efficiency. They care more about economic equality. About the affordable houses that aren’t being built. About the good, secure jobs that aren’t being created.
Whether they’re right or wrong is beside the point. Neoliberal globalization has left many in Britain (and elsewhere) feeling alienated, dispossessed and voiceless. Hence the highly effective slogan “vote leave, take back control.” The Brexit plebiscite was the plebs’ chance to make themselves heard. And now the experts are scrambling to figure out what comes next, both in Britain and the EU. Only 38 per cent of the French, for example, view the EU favourably. Alors, Frexit? What about Scotland? Sexit?

And then there’s the Donald, who’s tapping into and stoking the same populist concerns about globalization, to hell with what the experts say. Of the 40 leading economists surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Initiative on Global Markets, for example, only two agreed with the statement that a country can enhance its citizens’ wellbeing by increasing its trade surplus, a hallmark of so-called populist thinking and a plank of the Donald’s policy platform, using the terms “policy” and “platform” very, very loosely.
Wait, did you catch that? That was my own elitist inflection, my so-called academic expertise, slipping out. It’s the sort of slip that we professors keep making despite the fact that we ought to know better. When it comes to highly charged ideological issues, facts don’t matter to most people, professors included. Dismissing the masses as ignorant, besides being quite rude, will only polarize matters further.
Besides, expertise – in economics or any other field – is seldom monolithic. The research department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently published a bombshell of a paper arguing that the touted economic benefits of neoliberal globalization were “oversold.” Maybe, just maybe, the people – “losers” in Trump’s pre-election parlance – know things that the experts don’t.
Consider the results of an experiment published last year in the journal Science. Economists tested people using a computer-simulated game in which people could either be greedy and keep tokens that had real cash value for themselves, or share the tokens with others. But if they shared the tokens, the total number of tokens would drop – the more evenly the proverbial pie was divided, the less pie there would be to go around. Equality versus efficiency.
The results? Among players representative of the general public, about half favoured equality over efficiency. Recall the Brexit referendum result: 52 to 48 per cent.
But among the players made up of students from Yale Law School, an institution that reproduces members of the American elite of intellect, 80 per cent opted for efficiency over equality. When you’re born on third base, like Trump himself, you know you’re going to cross home plate safely. You don’t tend to worry about others’ ability to get on base.
So what can Brexit and Trump teach us about climate change policy?
First, facts are important, but they’re inseparable from biases and values. Objectivity is a ruse. Public policies aren’t simply right or wrong. They’re accountable or unaccountable.
Second, decisions about public policy must consider distributional effects, not merely costs and efficiencies. Who gets what? What’s fair? Who needs help adapting?
Third, and most important, voice matters. If public policy decisions are to be both fair and seen to be fair, people must get the opportunity to have their say about how they’re made.
The federal court of appeal’s recent decision quashing the federal cabinet’s order directing the National Energy Board to issue a certificate to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project is a good example. According to a majority of the court: “Canada failed . . . to engage, dialogue and grapple with the concerns expressed to it in good faith by all of the applicant/appellant First Nations.”
Listen and learn. Radical, I know.
Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University and writes here monthly. Follow him on Twitter