Climate Change : Local deliberation on a global issue

Last week I was in Edmonton, Canada discussing how to go about setting up a province-wide public deliberation on Climate Change. There are a number of significant challenges around taking forward a regional deliberation on climate change and this is particularly true in Alberta – a province with a thriving economy based on its rich natural resources.

In this post I want to look at just one of those challenges – a question which can be transferred to any regional or local deliberation on climate change:

How can a localised deliberation effectively address what is a shared and global issue?

Just before arriving  in Alberta I read a recently published US Government scientific report which outlines ten key findings on climate change. These findings are bold for a US focused climate change document, and with Obama at the helm, we can expect to see more where this came from;

Ten Key Findings from the recent US Global Change Research Programme report:

  1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and projected to grow.
  3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.
  4. Climate change will stress water resources
  5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.
  6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.
  7. Risks to human health will increase.
  8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.
  9. Thresholds have already been crossed and have lead to large – and in some cases, irreversible – changes.
  10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

However, these points are not country or region-specific, and we all know that even decisive action from the mighty USofA cannot address climate change on its own. Climate change is a shared and global concern, involving and affecting all nations and citizens, particularly those from key areas of growth and vulnerability such as India, China, Africa and Brazil.

In Canada, the Albertan economy has benefited enormously from the extraction of natural resources in the North of the province, making it one of the most dramatic Canadian economic success stories of recent years. However environmentalists and sustainability experts consider the oil extraction industry in general and the Athabascan oil sands in particular to be disastrous for the environment.

Yet does now seem as if there is now a real chance for meaningful dialogue and deliberation at this point in time more than any other. A number of influential factors have recently shifted, providing a clear opportunity for progress on climate issues in Alberta for the following reasons:

  • It is becoming clear that ‘business as usual’ extraction of resources cannot continue, partly in light of the current economic climate and partly due to increasing global pressure to curb emissions
  • The USA, Canada’s most influential neighbour  is taking a strong lead on environmental issues as reflected in proposed initiatives such as Cap-and-Trade
  • The scientific evidence base connecting human action to climate change is becoming more compelling, the messaging is more mainstream, and public concern seems to be on the increase in key countries including Canada.
  • Influentials are changing their attitudes; indeed one of the authors of the Albertan economic success story, ex-premier, Peter Lougheed, is now looking to re-write the ending by slowing down development and taking a more measured approach to extraction. Although this might not be the answer that green advocacy groups such as the Pembina Institute are looking for – it is perhaps indicative of a rising sea-change in attitudes towards the environment from both political and business leaders.

All the same, due to the significant economic interests that the energy industry brings to Alberta,  it will still be challenging to create a truly open and meaningful deliberative dialogue on environmental and energy issues in the province. What is more, if the shared and global nature of the  issue is not addressed adequately as part of any local deliberation there are a number of serious resultant risks in any such regional process:

1) Potential participants do not engage with the proposed citizen engagement process in the first place as they feel it cannot make a difference. The lack of acknowledgment of the global context of the climate project may leave individuals feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the issue.

2) Participants, once engaged, feel powerless to affect real change, and feel that their contributions are without significant meaning given the scale of the task in hand. Whatever initiatives or actions are proposed at a regional level at the end of an engagement process are seen to be just a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the true scale of the problem.

3)    Participants do not fully engage with and understand the wider context of the challenge of climate change and sustainability and end up making recommendations based solely on the regional experience (This is not to say that say, the Albertan context is not important and special, but it is not and should not be considered to be the full story.) No region can solve the problems alone.

4)    The benefits and lessons learned through an experimental  deliberative engagement project are not disseminated to benefit or inspire others. This process of communication and ‘reporting out’ could make a significant impact on the way in which climate change is addressed by citizens and decision makers across the globe, as examples of best practice are sought out increasingly by provincial leaders  unsure as to how to proceed on climate change.

How can we address these issues?

I believe that there are a number of factors to consider when planning a regional deliberation on a shared global issue such as climate change. Firstly there is a need to address the scale of the issue in a way which feels empowering, not overwhelming. Humanising climate change and encouraging connections is important to help ensure that potential participants do not feel that they are experiencing and solving the problem in geographic isolation. Connection can help to provide a sense of global perspective and of being part of a larger community.

Secondly, deliberation cannot be confined to linking concerns with discussion –  there needs to be a further connection between deliberation and action. In other words, participants should feel that they are not acting independently, but that their decisions and ideas should be coordinated or  linked in some way across regional boundaries in order to be more effective in addressing the issues.

Finally; learning from any regional deliberation is well-disseminated in order to inspire others to participate in planning their own regional or local deliberations.

Below, I have outlined just a few potential ideas to address the four risks listed above. Ideas below correspond to points above.

1) A global network of interested organisations should be grown around the project and clearly signposted so that participants and decision makers feel, and are, part of a larger more powerful international network of deliberation working to advance the issues in a productive way.

2) Participants could be enabled to connect at some point in the deliberations with citizens in other countries, whether directly over the web or asynchronously through video reports and forums. Twinning of global towns and cities based on a commitment to progress on environmental and economic issues could be facilitated to encourage global dialogue and understanding.

3)    Deliberations should necessarily have some global context and framing, and should not be concerned solely with regional issues. Information and materials provided should have an inspiring global dimension and not focus solely upon the region in which the deliberation is located.

4)    All processes should be designed with replication and transferability in mind. Materials should be produced under the creative commons license for distribution. Translation should be encouraged and made available where appropriate. Regional pilots such as the Alberta project should be seen as innovators, leading the way – but  should also acknowledge that they cannot ‘solve’ the problems alone.

In conclusion, climate change is a global problem requiring an understanding of some part of the complex systems behind the issue before a meaningful and empowering deliberation can take place. I believe that locally focused dialogue and action has a very important role to play in finding a solution, but that any meaningful deliberation relating to policy change must address the global context. Finding the balance between local-global is the key in terms of framing the issues, motivating participation, and for more informed and impactful policy input.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Evaluating online engagement « Cased

  2. Just got a comment back over at twitter from @mastermaq @cased which I just wanted to post up here quickly as think its important – he said:

    “Interesting…I sort of feel that local action can happen without global guidance, and that it can bubble up from there.”

    And I agree completely! Local action is so important on climate and sustainability, but it is when we’re talking deliberation that I think the global context is most relevant. I think a sense of something beyond local reach, and a sense of global context to inform discussion is really important when doing a deliberation to influence policy decisions. Climate change can seem so overwhelming sometimes that it is hard to see how ‘doing your bit’ locally can really make a big difference to the world.

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