Opinion: Public policy must be grounded in facts, not fantasy

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By Roberta Lexier and Joe Vipond

We are increasingly inundated with frightening information: of the climate calamity, an ongoing pandemic, threats to democracy and other foundational institutions, and so much more. In response, it seems our politicians and leaders are increasingly turning to a rather dubious solution: magic.

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It must be comforting to live in a fantasy world in which harmful emissions can be reduced while still accelerating oil and gas production, COVID-19 has disappeared, and 53 per cent of Canada Pension Plan funds somehow belong to Albertans.

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Science, math, history and ethics tell a less fun story: the climate emergency requires an immediate phaseout of fossil fuels, the health-care system continues to be overwhelmed by a disabling and deadly airborne virus and, at best, Alberta workers contribute around 16 per cent to the national pension program.

Alas, truth-telling is much less easy to sell than magical thinking.

Our provincial government refuses to acknowledge the inevitable economic transition, as much a result of automation and cheaper, cleaner energy sources as the dangerously warming planet. Instead, the UCP pauses renewable energy projects, expands tax cuts and corporate welfare for oil and gas companies, thumbing its nose at the polluter-pay principle by subsidizing oil well cleanup and financing an unaccountable “war room” to try to silence critics. There is little question that one primary motivation for an Alberta pension plan, and the supposed $300-plus billion in assets transferred from the CPP, is to provide financial support to the small- and medium-sized oil and gas operations being squeezed by decreasing demand for their products and services around the world.

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Never mind the workers left behind, or the increasingly uninhabitable Earth. As long as the base is kept happy and profits are made, who cares about reality? Better to inject hopium.

Public policy surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is similarly disconnected from the evidence, to the point that we not only pretend the “endemic” virus is not airborne, but that it doesn’t exist at all — or, at least, is no worse than the common cold. All while patients and staff get infected in hospitals and kids in schools, with ongoing risk of long COVID disability from a preventable infectious disease.

How do we solve problems when we won’t even acknowledge they exist?

This approach is not confined to Alberta; politicians and corporations across the country and around the world regularly ignore the facts in order to advance their own ideological perspectives and/or distract from the real, often structural, issues we face. It is challenging, economically and politically, to do what is right, what is grounded in evidence, but these problems cannot be resolved without concerted collective action, the effective application of technology, applied science and a nuanced understanding of the social, political, economic and cultural forces at play. Following this playbook is in no small part how our society has progressed to where we are today.

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Avoiding the truth merely kicks the problems down the road, making things worse, and eventually forcing more drastic and potentially unpopular solutions in the future.

Public policy must be grounded in reality, in facts, in quality, duplicatable scientific evidence and critical humanities research. It should respond to stakeholders, including citizens and outside experts, and be subject to regular re-examination and reassessment to align with evolving information and context. It must take seriously the health and welfare of the workers, our society and the planet, and promote their best and long-term interests. It should work for the betterment of the collective — the public.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

Magic is great, for birthday shows. Not so much for policy.

Roberta Lexier is an associate professor at Mount Royal University with a specialty in social movements, social change and left politics.

Joe Vipond is an emergency doctor in Calgary, the co-founder of Masks4Canada and the Calgary Climate Hub, and the past-president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

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