How do we limit climate change? Design better policy, FASS researcher says

June 22, 2023

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Spotlight:
Michael Howlett – Political Science

Over 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change. So why has this overwhelming consensus not led to effective government action to curb the effects of anthropogenic global climate change? Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences professor Michael Howlett says that has everything to do with policy.

As the Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Policy Innovation for Climate Change, Howlett has spent a lot of time and effort leading a multi-continent, multi-country effort to develop thinking around policy design for climate change. Much of that work has to do with designing policies for crises and what crises mean from a governmental policy-making perspective.

Howlett, who helped establish the SFU School of Public Policy, says that besides traditional concerns around industry opposition and the limits of global policy-making machinery, there are also newer issues like "fake news" and disinformation and the implications that has for public knowledge.

Having taught at the Department of Political Science for over three decades, Howlett knows a thing or two about the longevity that can be involved in designing policy that intends to tackle long-term issues like climate change.

“As we know all too well after 30+ years of meetings, reports, and conferences, there are many concerns around how climate change mitigation interacts with political aims and ambitions,” says Howlett. “Much of my research aims to clarify these issues not only for governments but also for the STEM community.”

Howlett’s early research revolved around natural resources and environmental policy, with a special focus on Canadian forest policy. His more recent work aims to effectively translate insights from academic policy analysis into a score of handbooks for government policy-makers on policy formulation, design, styles, and tools. His recent article "New pathways to paradigm chance in public policy” was awarded the prestigious Ken Young Prize and describes how policy scholarship struggles to provide the transformative recommendations necessary to tackle the environmental crises of our time.

Awarded throughout his career for his extraordinary publication productivity, research quality, and research influence, Howlett was also the recipient of the 2023 CAPPA Award for Excellence in Research.

“There are many concerns around how climate change mitigation interacts with political aims and ambitions. Much of my research aims to clarify these issues not only for governments but also for the STEM community.”

Michael Howlett, Political Science professor

You are the Canada Research Chair in Policy Innovation for Climate Change. In your view, what are the most important policy innovations in this field today?

In the climate sphere, the interesting—though very disappointing—thing is really the lack of innovation. The research I’ve done in policy innovation for climate change tries to better understand why innovation has not happened. This has taken my research into areas such as the mechanics of credit and blame in governments, the difficulties of long-term versus short-term policy-making, and the differences between responses to fast and slow-moving crises. Some of this has also involved developing innovative methods for examining these questions, such as topic modelling and various other Big Data techniques which are at the leading edge of research work in the policy sciences.

Climate change research is often understood to be synonymous with climate sciences research. How does your work in public policy interact with cross-disciplinary research from the sciences (and social sciences)?

Part of the problem around climate change policy-making has been the dominance of the discourse by natural scientists who are much better at diagnosing a problem than they are at providing solutions to it. For many natural scientists simply providing more evidence of the existence or worsening of a climate problem is expected to automatically lead to corrective action. But, as we know all too well after decades of meetings, reports, and conferences, this is far from the case with climate change. There are many concerns around how climate change mitigation and adaptation interact with political aims and ambitions that need to be much better understood if workable solutions are to be enacted and effectively implemented. My research aims to clarify these issues so that this knowledge can be brought to bear more effectively not only on governments but also on the STEM community.

Some of your earliest research was on forest policy in Canada. Now that your research has taken on an international character and global scale, how has it informed your thinking about Canadian policy around sustainability?

One of the first lessons from that research was about how policy-making dealing with long-term issues such as forestry tends to congeal into a “policy monopoly”—a relatively stable and very difficult to change sets of ideas, actors, and institutions. These policy regimes can dominate policy-making and affect policy content for decades. Watching how these monopolies evolved and changed (or not) in the forest sector has been absolutely crucial to almost all the work I have done since then, including on climate change where many of the same kinds of long-term policy dynamics are at work.

Your recent publications have included textbooks and handbooks focused on practical policy design and delivery. Why is it important that robust academic research on policy meets practicality?

One of the founders of the policy sciences, Harold Lasswell, argued right at the outset that the hallmarks of the field were its interdisciplinary, normative, and relevant nature. These books are all aimed at distilling the lessons from the many case studies and comparative inquiries that characterize academic policy research. The idea is to compress these lessons into bite-size and approachable morsels that students and future practitioners can use to improve practice and add value for the public.

You have been a Political Science professor at FASS for over 30 years! How has your research evolved over your time here, and how has your work been shaped by this institution?

Simon Fraser University has always been an innovative place with a fast turnaround on new ideas. It also has great students who are always willing to challenge your ideas and who collectively have really helped the development of several of the texts I have written. I’ve also been very fortunate that I’ve been able to work with a series of successive administrators who value research, see it as an integral part of what FASS and SFU are, and have provided a very supportive environment for researchers like myself.

Bonus question: What do you enjoy most about your work?

Colleagues around the world who are a steady source of ideas on all of the above topics are a constant wellspring of inspiration and enthusiasm. But being able to instantly follow up and learn about almost any phenomena that interests me is the most incredible part of the job. It is such an unbelievably rare opportunity for someone to be able to pursue curiosity-driven research. I like to think that is really what the University system as whole is all about. How fortunate I am to be part of it!