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Climate Change: Can Today’s Societies Make Big Choices?

Innovations in public decision-making and consensus-building require a richness of participation and inclusion, not just tech tools.

October 22, 2017

Credit: LehaKoK

The methods we have to communicate with each other can be described along a continuum of diminishing “richness” with increasing “reach.”

On one end is a dialogue between two persons. Very rich, but with reach only to one another. At the other end, we have the online reach of the internet and social media. Vast reach, but generally very shallow communication.

In between are “vision workshops” of dozens of people, “large group interactive processes” of perhaps hundreds and many other such formats. These are designed for deeper deliberations than in conventional business or citizen meetings. They aim to enable agreements about visions and principles that can only be scratched at in the formality of conventional meetings.

To support larger processes for democratic deliberation, these processes must adhere to some basic principles of inclusive, deliberative democracy.

Toward deliberative democracy

James Fishkin, professor of communication and political science at Stanford University, describes three principles in his book, “When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation” (Oxford University Press, 2009). He says a good process must comply with three principles: political equality, deliberation and mass participation.

1. Participatory equality

The first principle, political equality, requires that all who participate are considered equal in the deliberations. Those who have more – power, wealth or education – must not overpower the voices of others. This is not easy because we are habituated to defer to them.

2. Informed deliberation

The second principle, deliberation, requires that people have the information required, that they listen to other points of view, and that they are able to advocate their own views too without being intimidated by the power of others. The conversations must be “rich” in content, as well as in understanding of issues and of others.

3. Mass participation

The third principle, mass participation, requires reach for many be to be engaged — perhaps too many to enable richness in the deliberations.

How should raw public opinion be gathered and what should be the design of processes for their refinement? These are key issues in designing processes for democratic deliberation in the 21st century.

Climate change and the urgency of public input on big choices

The challenge becomes all the more pressing if we consider the looming threat to continuing growth of GDP globally — environmental degradation and climate change.

As things stand, countries will simply run out of environmental resources to feed the GDP growth monster –- resources such as fresh water, land to dump waste and healthy soil to grow food.

Studies point out that if all the citizens of the developing world were to attain even the consumption norms of European and Japanese citizens (which are more frugal than average U.S. consumption norms) in the next 25 years, humanity may need at least one more earth to support everyone.

But we have only one. Therefore, the burning question for mankind is “How on earth can we live together, with the one earth that we have?”

Any role model countries?

The Bertelsmann Foundation of Germany has done a study of “Winning Strategies for a Sustainable Future.” Bertelsmann studied 35 countries around the world that appear to be leaders in developing strategies for sustainable growth.

Bertelsmann examined the quality of their strategies, the frameworks for implementation and results so far. Then the list was narrowed to five countries for deeper study. From the study of these 35 countries, and further insights from the five, Bertelsmann selected five key success factors.

Two of these factors must be highlighted because they are the starting points of the process of faster improvement.

1. A meaningful national scorecard

The first is that sustainability policy derives from an overriding concept and guiding principles that are made to permeate significant areas of politics and society.

And the “best practice” to make this happen is to get specific in national debates about a new scorecard of progress. Effective scorecards are not merely lists of measures cobbled together. They have an overarching concept to integrate measures of growth, social impact and environmental sustainability.

2. A policy developed through public participation

The second requirement for success is that sustainability policy must be developed and implemented in a participatory manner. Therefore, the task for countries is to develop new participatory formats. Not only must large numbers of people be engaged, but different constituents must listen to each other too.

The country must have an integrative vision of its future to unite it and a balanced scorecard to guide it. The task, to be taken up by whichever political leaders and policymakers will lead their country, is to lead and facilitate this dialogue among the citizens of their country.

Technology’s limits

Many new processes are being tried and research into better processes is underway. Many organizations in many countries have also become engaged with development of better processes for democratic deliberation that enable both more richness and more reach.

At the same time, we must admit that innovation as a concept has become excessively associated with only technology. In reality, innovations are required very urgently in processes for citizens’ participation in the democratic governance of their societies. That is quite a different matter than ardently pursuing innovations that, for the most part, are purely technological innovations.

Too much too soon?

Democracy is in peril with innovations in technology running too far ahead of innovations in democracy’s processes. With democracy in peril, the collective future of humanity is also in peril.

Innovations in processes for democratic deliberation must be applied in towns and cities to make their governance more democratic. They must be applied in the governance of state as well. They must be applied at the center too to find equitable and effective solutions to the many challenges that each country has for achieving faster, more sustainable and more inclusive growth.


Getting everyone on the same page about climate action requires rethinking how we make big decisions.

Narrow communication favors real dialogue, but limited reach. Mass communication the inverse.

Countries that set meaningful national goals on sustainable policies via real discussions fare better.