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date: 21 September 2017

Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Public Engagement

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Public engagement refers to processes that provide a distinct role for citizens or stakeholder groups to contribute to policy making. Such engagement is distinctive because it aims to create opportunities for mutual learning among policy makers, scientists, stakeholders, and members of the public. In so doing, public engagement involves a particular type of voice in public debate and policy making that is different from more established discourses, such as those expressed through official policy-making channels, among scientific institutions, by civil society activists, or in the public media. By the early 1970s, public engagement had emerged in the context of an overall democratization movement in Western societies through such innovations as the “Citizen Jury” in the United States and “Planning Cells” in Germany. Today it is often more pragmatically motivated, as for example in the European Commission, where public engagement is seen as tool for ”responsible research and innovation” that helps to anticipate and assess potential implications and societal expectations of research and innovation, and to design more inclusive and sustainable research policies.

The first global public engagement processes in history were created to incorporate citizen voices into United Nations conventions on biodiversity and climate change. Building on theories of deliberative democracy and tested practices of public engagement, a new World Wide Views process was developed to provide informed and considered input from ordinary citizens to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. This and subsequent World Wide Views deliberations have demonstrated that public engagement can potentially open up policy discourses that are constricted and obfuscated by organized interests. A telling example is provided by the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy deliberation held on June 5, 2015, where nearly 10,000 ordinary citizens gathered in 76 countries to consider and express their views on the issues to be addressed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later that year. In a noteworthy departure from prevailing media and policy discourses, two thirds of the participating citizens saw climate change as “mostly an opportunity to improve our quality of life,” while only a quarter saw it as “mostly a threat to our quality of life,” a result that was consistent across high, middle, and low income countries.

Recent research on public engagement has indicated that, when effectively implemented, such processes can increase the legitimacy, quality, and capacity of decision making. The specific impacts include cognitive and attitudinal changes (e.g., better awareness of environmental and scientific issues), development of new capacities (e.g., new professional skills, methods, and platforms of collaboration), and mobilization of resources for addressing scientific and societal challenges (e.g., research funding, political commitment, public awareness, and social acceptance). Earlier aspirations for broader impacts, such as the democratization of policy making at all levels, are now less prominent, but arguably, are indispensable for achieving both immediate and longer-range goals. The relatively new concept of a deliberative system captures this complexity by moving beyond the narrow focus on single public engagement events encountered in much research to date, recognizing that single events rarely affect the course of policy making. The evolving prospects for public engagement in biodiversity and climate change policy can therefore be seen as requiring ongoing improvements in the capacities of the deliberative system.