Political leaders must frequently address the tension between “optimal” and “possible” when they make decisions. While some look at the current context to decide what strategies are feasible, others decide based on what they believe to be “right,” regardless of the circumstances, and work to implement policies reflecting this perspective.

These approaches can be considered as representative of two types of political theory, namely ideal and non-ideal theory. Ideal theory is considered a top-down approach, in which individuals develop principles, and then come up with possible outcomes in the world that would reflect these principles. Conversely, non-ideal theory is considered a bottom-up approach, and examines the world first, then develops principles based on the current global context.

Canada’s attempts to address climate change demonstrates the conflict between these approaches. While some anti-climate change policy strategies are derived from ideal theory and attempt to tackle the issue completely, others originate from non-ideal theory, and, consequently, address climate change incrementally. Although the incremental approach is considered more practical, it also risks falling short of addressing climate issues completely. In other words, if projects do not adequately address the problem, the cost of national contribution could outweigh the benefits created.

To better understand the differences between ideal and non-ideal theory, political theorist Laura Valentini identifies three conflicts that arise due to the types of goals each theory tends to generate:

First, ideal theory generates principles before considering how they may apply to the current context. Thus, its principles are expected to apply universally. In contrast, by evaluating strategies based on circumstances, the principles of a non-ideal theory are expected to be followed only partially.[1] Although non-ideal theory better acknowledges the variability between each circumstance, this flexibility can distort citizens’ obligation to obey explicit rules.

Second, ideal theory develops principles without a fact-based foundation, and thus risks not being relevant to current conditions. Comparatively, non-ideal theory creates solutions that are more easily implemented, but it can also potentially consider these constraints excessively.[2] By internalizing the current state of affairs, a non-ideal theory may ignore the injustice of the current situation, and thus fall short of implementing the necessary changes that ideal theory would prescribe to rectify the situation.

Lastly, ideal theory tends to create goals that represent ultimate aspirations for societies, whereas non-ideal theory strives for solutions that are simply better than previous strategies.[3] On the one hand, end-state objectives are both unrealistic and highly subjective. On the other hand, without an ultimate standard on which to base decisions, it is difficult to evaluate if decisions are better than decisions made in the past.

Photo by Chris Yakimov via Flickr Creative Commons

While, in theory, combining ideal and non-ideal theory in decision-making processes would lead to the best solutions, this is difficult to achieve in practice. Thus, another solution is to balance individual decisions that are developed using each theory. While perhaps unintentional, this is precisely what Canada has done in the area of climate change.

In 2016, Canada signed the Paris Agreement, the collection of commitments established by the United Nations that solidified efforts to stop climate change before it reaches a catastrophic threshold. If one uses Valentini’s criteria, the Paris Accord is a solution developed using ideal theory. The agreement establishes binding commitments, is developed prior to the examination of factual constraints, and represents an end-state prescription by aiming to stop climate change completely in the long-term. Accordingly, the Paris Agreement also evokes the same difficulties as Valentini predicted: by assuming that individuals will fully comply with the agreement, the Paris Accord sets unrealistic expectations for individual nations that, generally, seek to maximize themselves rather than the collective good. Second, the Paris Accord’s expectations are incredibly utopian. According to a study conducted by Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, the Paris Agreement “would require a 90% to 99% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030”.[4] By valuing goals in isolation more than their applicability to current circumstances, the goals developed become disconnected with what is possible in the real world. Due to its perfectionistic goal, the Paris Agreement lacks the means to achieve its intended outcomes.

While halting climate change is a commendable goal, principles developed by ideal theory can be relatively impractical. In response, Canada has incorporated initiatives derived from non-ideal theory to make its ideal goal more achievable.  

An example of a policy aiming to ground the country’s climate goals is the Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change and Clean Growth, or PCF for short. The PCF is a 2016 agreement signed by all but one of Canada’s provinces and territories that provides both more concrete and realistic standards on how to combat environmental destruction. These standards include increasing the proportion of power supplied by renewable energy sources, requiring provinces to report greenhouse gas emissions, and setting a price on carbon emissions. By addressing the issue incrementally, the framework provides more concrete steps toward mitigating climate change than the ultimate goal proposed in the Paris Agreement.[5] Overall, the PCF represents the belief that medium-term strategies, although perhaps not wielding results as large as those strived for in the Paris Agreement, are necessary if any progress is to be achieved.

While it may be true that ideal theory must be reconciled with non-ideal theory, some claim that the government has shifted too much to non-ideal solutions. According to Environment Canada, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were higher in 2018 than they were the year before. This seems to demonstrate that, as aforementioned, non-ideal theory can easily lose track of the ultimate goal. As Valentina notes, over-considering current constraints in decision-making using non-ideal theory can render individuals blind to the injustice at hand.

In sum, while Canada’s efforts to better reconcile principle with implementation have been noteworthy, these efforts have, nonetheless, blurred the initial goal. By better preserving ideal theory’s objectives around climate change, Canadian leaders can better ensure that they will meet the expectations prescribed in the Paris Agreement. Failing to contribute impactfully may invalidate the usefulness of practical solutions altogether.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Billy Wilson via Flickr Creative Commons


[1] Valentini, Laura. “Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map.” Philosophy Compass 7, no. 9 (2012): 4. doi:10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00500.x.

[2] Valentini, Laura. “Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map.” Philosophy Compass 7, no. 9 (2012): 8. doi:10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00500.x.

[3] Valentini, Laura. “Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map.” Philosophy Compass 7, no. 9 (2012): 10. doi:10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00500.x.

[4] Donner, Simon, Dr., and Kirsten Zickfeld, Dr. “Canada’s Contribution to Meeting the Temperature Limits in the Paris Agreement.”

[5] Government of Canada. Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. 2016.