Climate Change and the Promise of Deliberative Democracy

Getting to 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere will require massive investments in clean-energy infrastructure-investments that can too often be foiled by a combination of special interests and political sclerosis. Take the recent approval...

October 27, 2010 | Source: Solutions | by Marian Herbick and Jon Isham

Getting to 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere will require massive investments in clean-energy infrastructure-investments that can too often be foiled by a combination of special interests and political sclerosis. Take the recent approval of the Cape Wind project by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In some ways, this was great news for clean-energy advocates: the project’s 130 turbines will produce, on average, 170 megawatts of electricity, almost 75 percent of the average electricity demand for Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.1 But, because of local opposition by well-organized opponents, the approval process was lengthy, costly, and grueling -and all for a project that will produce only 0.04 percent of the total (forecasted) U.S. electricity demand in 2010.2,3 Over the next few decades, the world will need thousands of large-scale, low-carbon electricity projects-wind, solar, and nuclear power will certainly be in the mix. But if each faces Cape Wind-like opposition, getting to 350 is unlikely.

How can the decision-making process about such projects be streamlined so that public policy reflects the view of a well-informed majority, provides opportunities for legitimate critiques, but does not permit the opposition to retard the process indefinitely? One answer is found in a set of innovative policy-making tools founded on the principle of deliberative democracy, defined as “decision making by discussion among free and equal citizens.”4 Such approaches, which have been developed and led by the Center for Deliberative Democracy (cdd.stanford.edu), America Speaks (www.americaspeaks.org), and the Consensus Building Institute (cbuilding.org), among others, are gaining popularity by promising a new foothold for effective citizen participation in the drive for a clean-energy future.

Deliberative democracy stems from the belief that democratic leadership should involve educating constituents about issues at hand, and that citizens may significantly alter their opinions when faced with information about these issues. Advocates of the approach state that democracy should shift away from fixed notions toward a learning process in which people develop defensible positions.5 While the approaches of the Center for Deliberative Democracy, America Speaks, and the Consensus Building Institute do differ, all of these deliberative methodologies involve unbiased sharing of information and public-policy alternatives with a representative set of citizens; a moderated process of deliberation among the selected citizens; and the collection and dissemination of data resulting from this process. For example, in the deliberative polling approach used by the Center for Deliberative Democracy, a random selection of citizens is first polled on a particular issue. Then, members of the poll are invited to gather at a single place to discuss the issue. Participants receive balanced briefing materials to review before the gathering, and at the gathering they engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions. After deliberations, the sample is asked the original poll questions, and the resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions that the public would reach if everyone were given the opportunity to become more informed on pressing issues.