Professor Cherie Metcalf has received two research grants for which she’ll be tackling the problem of climate change in Canada, delving into how the country’s division of powers and governance institutions intersect with its ability to make effective policy.
Professor Cherie Metcalf has received two research grants for which she’ll be tackling the problem of climate change in Canada, delving into how the country’s division of powers and governance institutions intersect with its ability to make effective policy.

Globally, 2020 was one of the hottest years on Earth yet, according to an analysis by NASA. Locally in Canada, nearly half of Nunavut’s Milne Ice Shelf collapsed into the sea despite being twice as thick as other ice shelves. And the ice wasn’t the only victim of climate change last year; changing weather patterns wreaked havoc across the country with hurricanes, wildfires, storms, and flooding. Climate scientists are in consensus over the urgent need for action on climate change, but the public are not as convinced. And it’s not just the American public that remains divided on the issue of climate change; similar divisions are found across the political spectrum in Canada. These divisions along with regional differences have made climate policy-making difficult. Two research projects led by Professor Cherie Metcalf, Law’02 (Artsci’90), aim to shed light on how our institutions can best be harnessed to enable the implementation of effective climate change policies, with broad and sustainable public support.

“Even before we committed to much more ambitious goals under the UN Paris Agreement, securing broad public support for climate action has been a challenge, in part because of politized perceptions of climate risk and policy choices,” says Metcalf. “If we are going to be successful in meeting these more ambitious targets, we have to think about how we’re using different governance strategies most effectively to garner public support.”

For the first of her two recent projects, “Institutions for Effective Climate Change Action,” Metcalf has received a $97,500 Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In this four-year interdisciplinary project, she and collaborator Professor Jonathan Nash of Emory University in Georgia look at how different “governance” institutions – including coalitions of large firms, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), national and regional governments, or the insurance industry, for example – play a role in influencing public buy-in for climate change policies. When certain influential private actors adopt policies, does that help engage segments of the public that are climate skeptics to also support those same policies? How important is it that both government and influential private actors participate in climate action? 

Ultimately, the aim of the research is to provide information to help identify institutional strategies that will be effective for bringing about sustainable climate change action. Research in the field suggests that using different institutions and different levels of government in tandem might to a way to present climate risks and policy that better engages such groups as climate skeptics and political conservatives that have tended to be opposed to climate action. “Using different channels, for example local government as opposed to national government, or possibly using market players would be a way to broaden the reach,” she explains. “The basic premise is that if you want to have effective climate action, it’s not going to be easy, so you need to have public support. How are you going to get it? It is a challenge, especially when people can disagree about facts that scientists assure us are not in doubt.” 

The results of the research will provide insights into whether a multi-institution strategy could work: “The hypothesis that we are trying to test is that we can have a less polarized and more broadly engaging debate about climate risks and policy choices by using a variety of these governance institutions,” she says.

Metcalf’s empirical research will be conducted through a series of multiple experimental surveys. Each one will use realistic descriptions of a particular climate risk or policy question, and collect participants’ responses in a survey. Designing the surveys and researching details for the settings involves project Research Assistants, whose work touches on Canadian and U.S. law on climate governance, as well as social science research. The surveys randomly vary the key institutional players involved, in a way that is extremely difficult to do in real life. “This type of methodology lets us see how different institutional strategies can cause changes in respondents’ opinions about climate risks and policy.” As Metcalf explains it, “Using our survey data we can actually say: ‘If you show this climate information with this governance actor responsible, compared with this other governance actor responsible, here’s how it changes the way political conservatives and liberals view it.” The project collects other kinds of information about respondents, so it will also be possible to see how different institutions might resonate across such factors as respondents’ income, age, or the region where they live. 

The results of the surveys will provide a rich body of new data to analyze. This work, along with the project’s multi-faceted and lengthy data collection process, will receive a portion of the grant funds. By collaborating with Nash, the project will take a comparative perspective with the U.S. on the role of governance institutions in climate change policy, particularly in relation to people on the left or the right. “Between the two of us, that collaboration brings a range of different perspectives to think about the project,” Metcalf says. “Understanding the trajectory of public support for climate action in the U.S. is important for Canada, because our policies are usually closely aligned.” She has already presented a draft paper outlining their research design at seminars and conferences in the U.S. and will also be featured as the political/constitutional expert in this year’s Queen’s Law Reports cover story “Combatting climate crisis – collectively.”

For her second project, “Climate Change and Canada’s Constitution,” Metcalf received a $10,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Legal Research for 2020-2021. This project focuses on ways that Canada’s constitutional structure influences our prospects for effective climate action, but also incorporates an interdisciplinary approach that draws on experimental survey data. Metcalf says that the project considers the legal options that Canada has for climate action by looking at “the way that our federal division of powers influences our ability to mount effective climate policy.” Often, the federal government may implement a policy, only to have it challenged by a provincial government. Mitigation strategies such as Ontario’s cap-and-trade program have been swept away with a change in provincial government. While the recent Supreme Court decision has confirmed the national carbon price is legal, constitutional questions around other types of climate policy remain.  

As part of the project, Metcalf has a forthcoming article co-authored with a student that explores the impact federalism has on Canada’s response to both the pandemic and climate change, two existential threats to the country. The article explores ways our federal structure can help us meet these kind of challenges, such as through innovation at the provincial level and tailoring of policy, and ways that it may fall short, for example where overlapping jurisdiction can ultimately lead to inaction or blame-shifting instead of effective policy. Like the pandemic, climate change is going to require action from all governments in Canada. The article considers how actions at multiple levels of government can complement each other for more effective policy. At the same time, the possibility that our federal system can allow an effective response to threats like the pandemic or climate change does not mean it will happen automatically. This is where public support across multiple levels of government will continue to be key for effective climate policy.

Metcalf is also completing another article that examines the recent Supreme Court decision in the constitutional challenge to the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act. The article examines how the Court’s majority opinion may have reshaped federal authority under the “peace, order and good government” power over national concerns. The article considers how the decision may influence climate action by the federal and provincial governments more broadly, beyond simply affirming the constitutionality of the federal GHG pricing scheme. Which government will have authority to take the lead on different climate actions? And how might this influence public support for these actions among the public?

Metcalf hopes the project will provide useful insights for navigating the future of climate policy in Canada. “It’s a good point in time because in Canada we are aiming to pursue a more ambitious policy and communicate that it’s important to take action now, whether it’s mitigation or adaptation,” she says. “That means we have to make hard choices with significant economic consequences, so we need to build sustainable public engagement and consensus to have effective action on climate change.” 

Metcalf, who holds a BA (Queen’s) and an MA and a PhD (UBC) in economics and an LLB (Queen’s) and an LLM (Yale), has a longstanding interest in environment and resource management and governance. This project, she says, is a synthesis of these interests: “Thinking about how the division of powers intersects with our ability to make resource and environmental policy is really of interest to me.”

Climate science shows that climate change will be a defining feature of our future. Whether developing policies that help to avoid further environmental degradation or help people adapt to a changing planet, Metcalf’s research aims to provide insights into pathways to sustain national momentum for ambitious and effective climate change action. “Maybe support for climate change action is not the problem for us in Canada that it is in the U.S., but it’s a little unclear where we are headed as we ratchet up our targets. I don’t think we should be complacent about that,” she says. “It’s a good time for us to try and gain an understanding of how to maintain whatever consensus we’ve got and ways of engaging people to avoid the more extreme politicization that has happened in the U.S.” 
By Geena Mortfield