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Participatory and Deliberative Approaches to Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Participation by citizens and stakeholder groups is an important aspect of climate governance at the regional, national, international, and global levels. Increasing awareness of anthropogenic causes of climate change has fueled calls for democratic action and renewal that promise to enrich both existing and emerging forms of political engagement. Participation is not a panacea, however, and has many limitations. Three substantial critiques of participatory and deliberative approaches to climate change hinge on questions of power, authority, and opportunities for dissent. The climate system itself poses unique challenges to democratic governance. Accelerating rates of environmental change associated with climate change make past experience less applicable to current situations and complicate predicting the future even further. As such, participatory and deliberative approaches may need to be reconfigured to respond adequately to the challenges of climate change. Systems approaches broaden the scope of participation and deliberation, and innovative participatory methods are increasingly moving beyond narrow framings of climate change. As deliberative and participatory initiatives become more common, it is no longer a question of supporting or rejecting participatory forms of climate governance. Rather, questions need to address what kinds of consequences will occur and in whose interests certain participatory processes operate. Which social views and values are supported and which are marginalized, and what are the consequences of collective responses to this pressing environmental and social issue?

Keywords: Participation, deliberation, mini-publics, climate governance


Participation by citizens and stakeholder groups is an important aspect of climate governance at the regional, national, international, and global levels. The imperative for public participation is enshrined in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Participation is a core element of the United Nations Economic Commission’s Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (also known as the Aarhus convention), signed in 1998 by European member-nations in Aarhus, Denmark. Participation is also central to many national and municipal frameworks for responding to climate change.

The purpose of this article is to survey participatory and deliberative approaches to climate change, taking into consideration the promises, opportunities, and limitations of contemporary efforts to democratize climate governance along participatory lines. Increasing awareness of anthropogenic causes of climate change has fueled calls for democratic action and renewal that promise to enrich existing and emerging forms of political engagement. Participation is not a panacea, however, and has notable limitations. The climate system itself poses unique challenges for democratic governance due to its complex characteristics, including cumulative effects, nonlinear dynamics, and multiple feedback mechanisms. Accelerating rates of environmental change associated with climate change make past experience less applicable to current situations and render predicting the future even more complicated. Climate change is not only a biophysical phenomenon; it is also cultural and amenable to alternative frames, world views, and perspectives (Dryzek, 2013; Pettenger, 2007). As such, participatory and deliberative approaches may need to be reconfigured to respond adequately to the challenges of climate change. In part, more emphasis needs to be placed on social learning and institutional reflexivity as a valuable outcome of participation.

The article begins by summarizing participatory and deliberative approaches to environmental governance. Next, consideration is given to the challenges of participatory and deliberative approaches in addressing climate change. The text concludes by identifying areas of research and practice that are moving participatory and deliberative responses to climate change in new directions.

Types of Public Participation in Environmental Governance


The literature on public participation, and deliberative participation in particular, has grown considerably over the past few decades, signaling a participatory turn in environmental policymaking (Bäckstrand, 2003; Elam & Bertillson, 2003). For the first half of the 20th century, government officials and scientific experts made decisions about public policy with little regard for public input. A shift toward greater public involvement took place in the latter part of the century, motivated in part by recognition of the limitations of technocratic decision-making. A range of other cultural and structural transformations were also at play, including the diffusion of knowledge and information-generating capacities to nontraditional actors, greater interest in stakeholder and citizen rights and perspectives, and an increasing complexity of environmental issues and conflicts (Fischer, 2009).

Participation is, in many ways, inextricably linked with contemporary environmental governance. In European and North American contexts, environmental policy was institutionalized in the 1970s, alongside the renewal of theories of democracy and democratic action advocating for the direct participation of citizens in collective decision-making (van Tatenhove & Leroy, 2003). The ways in which public participation is put into practice in relation to environmental policy depend on historical, institutional, and cultural contexts.

Defining Public Participation

Disagreement exists over how to define and implement participation, as the term is not consistently defined and can mean different things to different people depending on the context. Participation in environmental issues spans a broad spectrum of activities that include individual actions such as voting, contacting political representatives, or altering existing attitudes, practices, and lifestyles. It also can include collective actions such as formal, facilitated deliberations; informal public debates; and activist protests.

Many take a pragmatic approach in defining the term, recognizing that participation has different goals and purposes based on context (Einsiedel, 2013; Whitmarsh, O’Neill, & Lorenzoni, 2010). Participation encompasses a range of overlapping purposes, including policy-making, public dialogue, and knowledge production. Archon Fung (2006, p. 67) proposes a democracy cube, in which participation varies across three dimensions: participant selection (ranging from exclusive to inclusive), modes of communication (ranging from least intense to most intense), and authority and power (ranging from having the least authority over decision-making to the most authority). Similarly, John Gaventa (2006) also uses the metaphor of a cube to couch participation in terms of levels (global, national, and local), spaces (invited and invented), and dimensions of power (visible, hidden, and invisible).

Participation can be categorized in terms of the flow of information between experts and citizens. A dominant but flawed approach is the information deficit model. Although publics are seen as necessary to establish effective policy measures, they are often viewed as ill equipped to make decisions and take action on the environment, due primarily to perceived ignorance of the science at hand. This approach can also encompass social marketing initiatives where market research, cognitive theory, and strategic communication are used to inspire citizens to modify some aspect of their behavior or accept an existing policy proposal. The information deficit model has been the subject of sustained critique given its inattention to power, its decontextual and ahistorical approach to science, and its tendency to shield dominant institutional claims and practices from public scrutiny (Brulle, 2010; Moser & Dilling, 2007). Some argue that the assumption that publics are vacuous in epistemic terms can be read, not as a description of actual states of knowledge, but as a projection of the beliefs of policy and scientific actors who are unable or unwilling to reflect on their own biases, assumptions, and values (Leach & Scoones, 2005).

By contrast, a civic approach to public participation starts from the assumption that laypeople are knowledgeable and capable of offering important insights into policy decisions. To date, deliberative democracy has been the central theoretical underpinning for the development of civic approaches to public participation.

Dialogic and Deliberative Approaches to Public Participation

Dialogic and deliberative approaches to public participation are increasingly promoted as viable options for addressing the unique challenges of climate change (Brulle, 2010; Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009). Generally, dialogue and deliberation encompass communicative approaches to collective decision-making, in which a diverse range of people consider political issues from multiple points of view and, through engagement and conversation, reflect on political options in ways that broaden perspectives, opinions, and understandings.

Dialogic participatory approaches provide structured ways to communicate productively across different perspectives and values in order to stimulate new ways of understanding and acting on an issue. For instance, the Public Conversations Project (PCP) is a civil society organization that extends lessons from family therapy to public conversations about thorny political issues such as climate change (Regan, 2007).

Deliberation encompasses dialogic approaches with the added element of collective decision-making. The term deliberative approaches refers to forms of political communication that are “first, capable of inducing reflection, second, non-coercive, and, third, capable of linking the particular experience of an individual or group with some more general point or principle” (Bohman, 1998, p. 401).

Public deliberation is essentially a talk-based approach to collective civic engagement that fulfills three broad functions: epistemic, ethical, and democratic (Mansbridge et al., 2012, pp. 11–12). The epistemic function of public deliberation is to enable collective decisions and judgments that are informed by relevant reasons and claims. Its ethical function is to promote respect among citizens, primarily by positioning others as legitimate sources of reason. Its democratic function refers to the inclusion of multiple voices, concerns, values, perspectives, and claims.

Early theoretical elaborations of deliberation were normative and not developed with practical initiatives in mind. For example, Jurgen Habermas (1991) argued that deliberative democracy is best realized through ideal speech acts where consensus among divergent perspectives can be reached through the power of the better argument. Habermas and his proponents tend to take a top-down procedural approach to public deliberation, arguing that if the process is legitimate, then the outcome is reasonable and trustworthy. Other approaches to deliberation do not emphasize consensus as a necessary goal, particularly if it comes at the expense of inclusivity and plurality of perspectives (Bohman, 1998).

Advocates of deliberative approaches claim that deliberation can create different forms of rationality and civic virtue, which can in turn form the basis for environmentally and socially sound decisions to help guide collective responses to climate change (Baber & Bartlett, 2005; Brulle, 2010; Dryzek, 2013; Niemeyer, 2013). First, deliberation can help integrate different perspectives on an issue, from which people can find common principles on which to base collective action. Second, the kinds of values that emerge from a deliberative setting can assist with prioritizing collective interests over material self-interest. As such, deliberation can develop civic capacities that require participants to pull together to solve common problems. Third, deliberation can enable new ethical relations to emerge because it expands the thinking of its participants to better encompass the interests of future generations, distant others (i.e., people not in close proximity), and nonhuman nature. Fourth, deliberation can help integrate ecological issues more firmly within political decision-making.

Whether these claims are realized in practice remains an open question, although emerging empirical evidence is promising. For instance, according to Niemeyer (2013), a central problem with climate change is that it can be crowded out in media and public discussions due to its perceived distance from everyday concerns, its complexity, and vested interests that deny its existence. Deliberation can help people recognize the significance of climate change in ways that otherwise might have been distorted by public debate, such as through the efforts of well-funded and highly orchestrated climate denier groups.

Why Participate?

Generally, the argument for participatory and deliberative approaches are that they expand the available inputs into policy and contribute to more robust and informed decision-making, particularly when outcomes align with the experiences and concerns of those affected (Fiorino, 1989; Stirling, 2008). In many cases, the justification for public participation in environmental governance is normative, meaning that it is intrinsically valued as a means of democratic expression. Participation is also instrumental because it can bring certain elements to collective decision-making, such as knowledge, resources, trust, accountability, and public acceptability. Participation can have substantive dimensions insofar as it contributes to innovative insights and surprises that can emerge as a result of participatory processes.

One of the more common arguments for public participation is that it empowers citizens politically by breaking down existing hierarchies of power. A widely known and influential illustration is Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation, where participation is positioned on a continuum ranging from weak forms, such as information delivery and consultation, to stronger forms, such as the sharing of power in decision-making (Arnstein, 1969). While numerous alternatives have been proposed, the idea that participation can be characterized based on degrees of citizen empowerment is widely held among deliberative practitioners and scholars alike (IAP2, 2007; Shirk et al., 2012).

Spaces for Public Participation and Deliberation

Participation and deliberation can take place in a variety of settings, including face-to-face interactions in public meetings (Fung, 2006), mediated conversations in online forums (Fishkin, 2009), and wider exchanges in civil society, the media, and the public sphere (Stevenson & Dryzek, 2014). Participation is often demarcated according to two separate spaces for democratic activity. Invented spaces refer to bottom-up, citizen-driven, and social movement–driven processes where social action is uninvited and can take the form of media campaigns, public debates, or demonstrations (Cornwall, 2002). By contrast, the term invited spaces refers to formalized participatory initiatives that are preplanned by a particular authority or institution that sets the agenda, selects the appropriate background information, recruits and selects participants, and creates and disseminates the final report. Hereafter, this article will focus on invited spaces for public participation.

The most practical expression of formal, invited participatory spaces are small-scale, face-to-face forums or mini-publics (Fung, 2006). These typically involve the random selection of participants for an event that is (ideally) held over multiple days. Discussion is facilitated to achieve the ideals of deliberation. Information is usually provided in the form of reading material or expert presentations. Examples of mini-publics include consensus conferences, citizen juries, focus groups, and deliberative polling. Current systematic understanding of these practical initiatives is shallow, although attempts are in place to categorize them for comparison purposes (Fung & Warren, 2011).

Mini-publics can be organized by a diverse range of institutions, including traditional government organizations and hybrid initiatives that draw together state officials, civil society, and corporate players. Certain organizations are devoted explicitly to designing and facilitating formal mini-publics. For instance, the Jefferson Center, headquartered in St. Paul, Missouri, has applied citizen juries to climate-related issues. Invented by Ned Crosby, citizen juries consist of small groups of citizens, selected through stratified random sampling. Each jury is asked to pronounce judgment on a contentious issue facing public authorities. To date, the Jefferson Center has offered two key initiatives on climate change: a rural climate dialogue and a citizen panel on change and energy in partnership with the Danish Board of Technology (discussed in more detail later in this article).

In other cases, interested participants are encouraged to organize their own events. To assist with this, the Public Agenda organization produces Discussion Starter guides to provide a kickoff point for discussion. In the document “Facing the Challenges of Climate Change,” various frames of climate change are highlighted in terms of different values and perspectives. The document invites readers to consider three policy approaches: taking strong action to address climate change, adapting to the effects of climate change, and relying on business and the free market to find solutions. Arguments for and against each position are presented to assist participants with weighing trade-offs and options.

Many participatory initiatives take place at a municipal level, engaging both state and nonstate actors. For example, an extensive public consultation process in Perth, Australia, was used to develop a sustainability plan for the region to address the challenges of climate change (Hartz-Karp & Newman, 2006). Citizens were involved in the planning from the outset, and the experience confirmed the important role that well-orchestrated participation can play in climate governance. Internationally, community-based adaptation (CBA) engages marginalized areas to foster community self-reliance and raise awareness of climate-related issues in urban settings. Bangladesh, in particular, is a leader in mobilizing CBA initiatives as a means to reduce the impacts of sea level rise and coastal flooding (Rawlani & Sovalcool, 2011). CBA initiatives have also been implemented in Durban, South Africa, although they are referred to as community ecosystem–based adaptation (Roberts & O’Donoghue, 2013).

Nonprofit groups, including universities, can also lead formal participatory initiatives. In the United Kingdom, university researchers led a scenario-based stakeholder engagement process to identify climate-related risks and governance priorities (Tompkins, Few, & Brown, 2008). This example illustrates that citizens are able and willing to engage with climate change in spite of its technical nature. Similarly, the Australian Research Council–funded Climate Change and the Public Sphere project demonstrated that participation increases awareness and concern about climate change, as well as willingness to take individual and collective action (Hobson & Niemeyer, 2011; Niemeyer, 2013). In Canada, a federally funded multiyear project called Alberta Climate Dialogue (ABCD) examined various facilitation methods, process designs, and issue frames for engaging climate change. Among its many initiatives, ABCD organized a citizen panel to provide policy advice and guidance around energy transition and carbon reduction actions to assist with developing the City of Edmonton’s environmental strategy. Importantly, the panel’s recommendations were implemented in the city’s policy framework, illustrating how non-state-led participatory initiatives can influence decision-making (MacKinnon, Dale, & Schraeder, 2014).

While climate change is a global issue, transnational initiatives are rare. An exception is the innovative methodology called World Wide Views (WWViews). Developed by the Danish Board of Technology and hosted by a network of nongovernmental organizations, universities, and science communication institutions across different national and regional contexts, WWViews provides invited participants from a range of nations with the opportunity to discuss and offer feedback on key themes addressed in global climate negotiations (Rask, Worthington, & Lammi, 2012). To date, three WWViews initiatives have taken place. The first, WWViews on Global Warming, was held in September 2009 in advance of the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen. In total, this event enrolled 4,400 participants from across 38 countries from the time the event started in Australia on September 26 to when it ended in the western United States 36 hours later. As a participatory methodology, the WWViews approach has been applied to other issues of global import, such as biodiversity loss (WWViews Biodiversity in 2012), as well as energy and climate (WWViews 2015). While the results have had very little effect on global decision-making, WWViews has created an international network of practitioners and scholars and has also sparked innovation in public deliberation in the United Kingdom, Canada, and abroad.

Critiques and Concerns

Critiques of Participatory Approaches to Environmental Governance

While participatory and deliberative approaches to environmental governance are increasingly common, they are not without their problems. Critics have long pointed to the disillusionment over the limitations of public participation to achieve meaningful social change. For instance, the outcomes of enhanced capacity and participation are unpredictable as participation can invite rather than forestall distrust. Questions have been raised about the substance of participation and the means of achieving it (Few, Brown, & Tompkins, 2007). Support for deliberative approaches is typically based on the assumption that liberal democracies are better at generating positive environmental outcomes, although this assumption is not uniformly supported by empirical evidence (Bäckstrand, Kahn, Kronsell, & Lövbrand, 2010).

Three substantial critiques of participatory and deliberative approaches relate to questions of power, authority, and opportunities for dissent. First, participatory and deliberative approaches have been criticized for being naïve about and blind to existing power relations and external structuring factors, such as corporate control or capitalist ownership (Dryzek, 2013). Participatory spaces are never neutral politically, as they can lead to exclusion, manipulation, and coercion as easily as they can provide opportunities for inclusion (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). By creating an illusion of a dominance-free space, deliberation can mask existing power relations and diverging knowledge and value interests (Mouffe, 2005; Phillips, 2012).

Second, critics caution that the democratic potential of participatory and deliberative initiatives can be compromised from the outset by a deeper set of assumptions that privilege expert reasoning over other ways of making sense of policy issues (Stirling, 2008; Wynne, 2005). Rather than open up public issues to diverse meanings and knowledge, deliberative forums can inadvertently close down public debate such that only expert-based approaches are considered valid, reasonable, and credible. For instance, the tendency to frame climate change as a physical phenomenon that can be solved by technological or market-based mechanisms can divert attention from issues of justice and equity (Aitken, 2012; Stevenson & Dryzek, 2014).

Scientific claims, practices, and institutional commitments, while necessary inputs into deliberative processes, are often not subject to the deliberative process itself, thereby shielding a significant source of power from public scrutiny (Pallett & Chilvers, 2013; Wynne, 2010). Brian Wynne (2006) refers to this tendency as “hitting the notes but missing the music” where participatory initiatives fail to acknowledge the deeper challenges of opening up Western institutions and assumptions to critical debate. For example, Dryzek, Norgaard, and Schlosberg (2013, p. 91) argue that deliberative democracy provides a way of “engaging people and their varied experiences and understandings of vulnerability and risks.” Yet, they also state that scientific frames of climate change are approached as “more or less given,” and hence beyond dispute (p. v). As Tim Forsyth (2014, p. 1117) observes, this positions “scientific assessments as a platform for deliberation, rather than a part of deliberation.” Similar tendencies can be found in Stevenson and Dryzek’s (2014) application of deliberative democracy to global political realms, which upholds rather than challenges the conventional view that environmental science is disconnected from social values and politics.

The third critique of participatory and deliberative approaches is that they tend to reinforce the status quo rather than challenge existing political economic contexts, particularly neoliberalism (Machin, 2013; Swyngedoux, 2010, 2013). The emphasis placed on consensus as a desirable goal, managed through deliberative practices, forecloses the possibility of competing visions of radically different social orders, contributing to a deradicalization of politics.

Increasing professionalization has deepened concerns about the depoliticization of public participation and deliberation. Carolyn Lee (2015) refers to the emergence of a trend of what she calls designer democracy, in which professional consultants use sophisticated methods to engage citizens to meet the demands of their clients. Lee argues that the initiatives that she examined enhanced the reputational capital of clients while building public legitimacy for the retrenchment of social programs. They also encouraged citizen mobilization that is focused on short-term, individualized action rather than long-term collective organizing. Policy issues were approached in a cursory fashion and provided little time for deep thinking and sustained discussion. According to Lee, uncertainties, problems, tensions, and complexities of public deliberation were seldom acknowledged or addressed by the organizers of the events. As she argues, if we analyze the contexts in which public deliberation initiatives take place, we find that the activism it offers is small in scope and aligned with sponsors’ goals (Lee, 2015).

What Difference Does Climate Change Make?

Climate change is often described as a “wicked” public policy problem, in that it defies resolution because its complex and broad-ranging interdependencies and uncertainties give rise to multiple problem framings and solutions (Head, 2008). Approaching climate change as a wicked as opposed to a tame policy issue has implications for the types of political strategies that are proposed (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Many believe that responses to wicked problems are best developed through collaborative, innovative, flexible, and adaptive approaches rather than traditional top-down, expert-driven approaches. Not all people believe that democracy is the best option for addressing climate change, however. Some argue instead for authoritative measures to facilitate immediate policy responses (Shearman & Smith, 2007).

Even among wicked problems, climate change is unique; it is unlike any other environmental or global problem that humanity has collectively faced. Climate change is described as a “super wicked” policy problem characterized by the following features: the need for immediate action, the need to enroll those who caused the problem in the solution, the absence of a strong central authority to deal with the issue, and a tendency to avoid immediate costs of action (Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2012). Framed in this way, public responses to climate change are all the more urgent, immediate, incremental, broad reaching, and adaptive to emerging situations.

From the outset, positioning climate change as a super wicked policy problem suggests that conventional approaches to public participation, as described in the previous section, may need revisiting on the grounds that the very nature of the problem is complex and not self-evident. One implication is to shift the focus of participation from questions of empowerment to social learning and institutional reflexivity. Rather than assuming that “participation is a categorical term for power” (Arnstein, 1969, p. 216), social learning should be the goal of participation given the unprecedented political challenges posed by climate change (Collins & Ison, 2009; Pallett & Chilvers, 2013). Social learning, in this case, does not refer only to routine awareness building (first-order learning), but rather to learning that involves questioning the guiding assumptions, values, frames, and contexts (second-order learning or institutional reflexivity).

Why is the ladder metaphor limited in this regard? Its linear, hierarchical, power-centered focus fails to account for the importance of the process of participation that shapes understandings of the situation at hand. Many things change as a result of the participation process, including political responsibilities, identities, and even understanding of the policy problem. The role of the citizen is also oversimplified, wherein the only meaningful participation is assumed to occur when power is ceded by the state.

Social learning is an important outcome of public participation with climate change for at least two reasons. First, one significant challenge that climate change poses for public participation lies with the framing of the situation. Since climate change is such a complex issue, stakeholders engage with and make sense of it from different traditions of understanding and from their own situated perspectives and values. Alternative frames of understanding warrant consideration from the outset and can also change as a result of the process of participation. Climate change is as much a social discourse as it is a biophysical phenomenon, and it can be defined in a multitude of different ways (Blue, 2015; Hulme, 2010; Stevenson & Dryzek, 2014). Engaging with climate change from a discourse perspective opens participatory approaches to perspectives that have been marginalized in mainstream policy environments, such as indigenous cosmologies (Leduc, 2010), feminist perspectives (MacGregor, 2010), and various other nonmodern approaches to climate change (Head & Gibson, 2012).

A related challenge rests with who participates in collective decision-making. Ideally, public participation encompasses members of an affected constituency—or their representatives—defined as either stakeholders or citizens. However, given its scope and reach, climate change encompasses a wide range of decision-makers and political actors that include state and nonstate actors such as civil society groups, businesses, charities, municipalities, and individuals (Bulkeley et al., 2014). This shifting locus of power and authority raises questions about where action should be directed to generate change.

Climate change is a broad-scale ethical problem that poses new value dilemmas. Those most vulnerable to global climate change tend to be the ones that are the least responsible for its cause and the least prepared to respond or adapt to its impacts. Moreover, most of the affected parties, including nonhuman species and future generations, are not present to participate in decision-making processes and do not have the capacity to represent themselves or the issue in ways that align with their interests. While participatory democracy is often described in terms of giving voice to marginalized political subjects, existing legal, social, and political institutions that typically adjudicate environmental conflicts are not good at recognizing future generations and nonhuman animals (O’Neill, 2001).

New Directions: Systems Approaches, Discourse Perspectives, and Innovation

The research focus has shifted in recent years from small-scale forums to systems approaches to participatory and deliberative engagement. From a systems perspective, deliberation is a communicative activity that takes place across a range of different institutional settings, including legislative bodies, public gatherings, the media, and the Internet. A deliberative system encompasses just one part of an overall democracy that also includes voting, mobilizing, negotiating, and contestation. Individual deliberative initiatives are best placed in the context of a broader deliberative system that includes public spaces (where various discourses interact), empowered spaces (the institutions involved with producing policy decisions), meta-deliberation (individual and institutional critique), and decisiveness (the capacity for deliberation to contribute to decision-making) (Dryzek & Stevenson, 2011).

Approaching public deliberation as a system, rather than as a series of discrete events, guards against the tendency to expect too much of specific participatory initiatives. This way, deficiencies in one part of the system can be made up in other areas. According to Dryzek and Stevenson (2011), from a systems perspective the deliberative capacity of a democratic polity can be determined by the extent to which it is deliberative, inclusive, and consequential. It is deliberative insofar as the political debate involves the exchange of reasons under conditions of fairness and equality among citizens who are open to competing arguments and, where necessary, accommodating alternative views. In this sense, deliberative democracy takes seriously the idea that preferences are formed as part of the political process. A polity is inclusive to the extent that all those individuals are affected by a decision have the opportunity to deliberate and provide input into the decision-making process. And it is consequential to the extent that the deliberations of citizens are reflected in collective decision-making processes.

One of the most significant changes to result from the deliberative systems approach is a broadening of the forms of communication deemed appropriate for deliberation. While early theorists of public deliberation defined rational communication in a narrow sense and expected citizens to be void of self-interest, deliberative theorists and practitioners increasingly welcome diverse forms of communication such as narrative and storytelling (Parkinson & Mansbridge, 2012). The systems approach also fosters greater appreciation for conflict and diversity. Freed from the constraints of reaching a binding decision or finding common ground, deliberative processes enable participants to explore alternative issue frames, world views, and epistemologies (Dryzek, 2013). Systems approaches position public deliberation as a site in which political identities are enacted and institutional assumptions called into question (Horst & Irwin, 2010, p. 44). In line with this, an increasing number of theorists call for accounts of public deliberation that highlight the tensions, uncertainties, and even failures that shape participatory experiences (Pallett & Chilvers, 2013; Ryfe, 2005).

In addition to broadening the scope of participatory and deliberative approaches through systems-based analysis, innovative participatory methods are increasingly moving beyond narrow framings of climate change. For example, deliberative mapping (DM) is a technique that brings together the strengths of expert-driven technical approaches with participatory-deliberative initiatives (Burgess et al., 2007). This participatory technique has been developed in relation to geoengineering with the view of opening up consideration of carbon and solar geoengineering proposals alongside a range of other options for responding to climate change (Bellamy, Chilvers, & Vaughn, 2014). Other participatory innovations include ways of democratizing science and expertise by bringing the perspectives and values of laypeople more directly into the modeling and monitoring of risk, as with the approach developed by geographer Sarah Whatmore and her colleagues with the view to provide deliberative approaches to flood-risk modeling (Bellamy et al., 2014).


The normalization, standardization, and institutionalization of participatory and deliberative approaches to climate change will likely continue and deepen in the coming years, particularly as democratic societies become more decentralized, interconnected, and challenged by the environmental and social impacts of a transforming global climate. Public participation and deliberation hold much promise for opening public policy to diverse perspectives and values. These approaches can also serve to reinforce expertise and authority by imposing narrow meanings of public issues and democratic engagement that can serve to shut down policy options and discussions; by limiting institutional reflexivity and social learning about questions of authority, expertise, and power; and by fostering apolitical and decontextual approaches that reinforce rather than question existing political economic contexts. The emphasis on consensus as a desirable goal of public deliberation can foreclose the possibility of competing visions of radically different social orders, contributing to a deradicalization of politics.

The shifting locus of power and authority in relation to climate change also raises questions about where action should be directed to generate change. Public participation and deliberation are often promoted as ways to empower citizens to have a say in making climate policy. Public deliberation also offers a useful starting point for social learning and institutional reflexivity on the part of policymakers and scientific experts alike. To address climate change, policymakers, scientists, and citizens alike may need to relearn guiding assumptions and reconfigure existing values. Although a minor player in climate policy debates thus far, the interpretive social sciences and humanities have much to offer to enhance efforts to promote social learning and institutional reflexivity by contextualizing and historicizing climate change, as well as by highlighting the values inherent in scientific and technical knowledge.

As deliberative and participatory initiatives become more common, it is no longer a question of supporting or rejecting participatory forms of climate governance. Rather, questions need to address what kinds of consequences and in whose interests certain participatory processes produce. Which social views and values are supported and which are marginalized, and what are the consequences of collective responses to climate change?

Further Reading

Backstrand, K., Khan, E., & Kronsell, A. (2010). Environmental politics and deliberative democracy: Examining the promise of new modes of governance. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publishing.Find this resource:

    Carvalho, A., & Peterson, T. (2012). Climate change politics: Communication and public engagement. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.Find this resource:

      Chilvers, J. (2009). Deliberative and participatory approaches in environmental governance. In N. Castree, D. Demeritt, D. Liverman, & B. Rhoads (Eds.), A companion to environmental geography. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

        Dryzek, J., Noorgard, R., & Schlosberg, D. (2013). Climate challenged society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

          Phillips, L., Carvalho, A., & Doyle, J. (2012). Citizen Voices: Performing public participation in science and environment communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

            Stevenson, H., & Dryzek, J. S. (2014). Democratizing global climate governance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:


              Aitken, M. (2012). Changing climate, changing democracy: A cautionary tale. Environmental Politics, 21(2), 211–229.Find this resource:

                Arnstein, S. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. JAIP, 35(4), 216–224.Find this resource:

                  Baber, W., & Bartlett, R. (2005). Deliberative Environmental Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

                    Bäckstrand, K. (2003). Civic science for sustainability: Reframing the role of experts, policy-makers, and citizens in environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics, 3(4), 24–41.Find this resource:

                      Bäckstrand, K., Kahn, J., Kronsell, A., & Lövbrand, E. (2010). Environmental politics and deliberative democracy: Examining the promise of new modes of governance. Cheltenham, U.K. and Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.Find this resource:

                        Bellamy, R., Chilvers, J., & Vaughn, N. (2014). Deliberative mapping of options for tackling climate change: Citizens and specialists “open up” appraisal of geoengineering. Public Understanding of Science, 269–286.Find this resource:

                          Blue, G. (2015). Framing climate change for public deliberation: What role for the interpretive social sciences and humanities? Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 18(1), 67–84.Find this resource:

                            Bohman, J. (1998). The coming of age of deliberative democracy. Journal of Political Philosophy, 6(4), 400–425.Find this resource:

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