Public Deliberation on Climate Change

Lessons from Alberta Climate Dialogue

By Rod Ruff

Edited by Lorelei L. Hanson
Athabasca University Press
2018/$34.95/284 pp.

Alberta—and the planet—has a “super wicked” problem. First described in 1973, wicked problems defy “rational” policy responses, such as a cost/benefit analysis, in part because they have multiple causes and are difficult to clearly define. Poverty, terrorism and environmental degradation can be seen as wicked problems—issues that are “indeterminate in time and scale,” socially complex and often with little agreement from various stakeholders about the nature of the problem. Solutions are not readily apparent and attempts to address the problem often lead to unforeseen consequences.

But things could be worse. The current climate crisis, for instance, has all the characteristics of a wicked problem but with additional challenges: Time is running out; those causing the problem—us—are also the ones proposing the solutions; and the governance institutions required to meaningfully act on the challenge at the international level are weak or largely non-existent. Those additional factors, suggest Lorelei L. Hanson and David Kahane in their introduction to Public Deliberation on Climate Change, make the climate crisis a “super wicked” problem.

In eight chapters written or co-written by 11 different contributors, the book chronicles, explains and reflects on the Alberta Climate Dialogues (ABCD) project—a community–university research partnership created in 2010 that over five years brought together scholars, government officials, civil society organizations and others in four public deliberations on climate change across Alberta. An exercise in deliberative democracy—where small groups of randomly selected citizens explore different values, weigh trade-offs and collectively develop policy solutions—ABCD was created, in the words of Kahane, a U of A professor and the project leader, to “support citizens in coming to grips with the wicked and socially complex character of climate change, so that they would shape wise and effective responses to the challenges.”

Designed as both “an academic collection that engages with theory and social policy” and “a resource for practitioners and decision makers who seek insights and techniques related to public deliberation,” the book provides an honest reflection on the deliberative democracy process in the Alberta context. Ensuring demographic and attitudinal diversity remains a challenge, as does managing the cross-sectoral relationships required for sustaining collaborations of this nature. But despite challenges, deliberative democratic practice emerges as one of many potential levers required to address the climate crisis. ABCD, and specifically the Edmonton citizen panel, demonstrate that an ecosystem of citizen engagement, political leadership and institutional willpower can build local agency and resiliency to deal with climate change.

Currently in North America—particularly in Ontario and the United States—we are witnessing the dismantling of key climate change policies under populist leaders who use climate change as a wedge issue for political gain. To sustain climate action, concerned citizens are demanding highly localized solutions with strong municipal or regional support. This is not entirely different from Alberta in 2010, and in this context deliberative democracy can help support local decision-makers as they create good policy while at the same time increase citizen capacity to address complex challenges.

Local politicians and civil servants would be wise to consider the role of citizens in developing and implementing climate change policy. We are all part of the problem. Deliberative democracy is one way in which we can be part of the solution.

Rod Ruff is the program director at Alberta Ecotrust.


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