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Development of Possibilities in “Difficult” Policy Areas

Despite warnings from colleagues and apoplectic reactions from partisans of various stripes, I have been working during the last year to see if it is possible to develop general starting points for discussion of climate change. These efforts first came together as I followed an informal group engaged in study and discussion of what might emerge from the Copenhagen Conference in 2009. The informal group evolved into a real-time web–based discussion and gave me a laboratory for what my colleague Adolf Gundersen calls “just-in-time deliberation”.

It was apparent from the outset that opinions on climate change represent a range of understandings of the science on the issue and of science itself. It also became apparent to me that this is one of those areas where belief and alignment with the polarized “sides” of the discussion often trumps helpful information and learning. Very little of the public discussion of the issue seems helpful to those trying to sort out policy possibilities and their possible consequences.

There are good reasons to work toward conceptual discussion of policy areas when the political passions of the day and the narrow focus on polar opposite solutions generate little more than circular debate. I believe it is important to understand the good faith arguments of the partisans of both sides (not the ditto-heads and talking point robots). I also believe it is important to create a “middle space” in which common ground may be explored and those who wish to work on solutions may do so in a reasoned way.

I recently facilitated my second public discussion of the policy possibilities developed by the web-based panel. The first discussion stuck pretty much to the possibilities as written, although participants did offer thoughts on what other possibilities might have been raised. The second public discussion was more consciously a developmental discussion where I let participants know I was looking to expand the possibilities with their assistance. A cooperating consulting group in Madison, Wisconsin recruited a panel of businesspeople and technical professionals who were interested in the topic.

The panel was well-suited for this task by temperament and experience. I was glad to find that while some participants leaned slightly one way or the other on climate change matters, the majority simply wanted to learn more. The discussions were respectful and thoughtful. The participants reviewed the prepared possibilities, critiqued them as helpful or not for discussion purposes, considered how those possibilities might be reframed or reorganized, and worked on two new possibilities that were geared toward presenting two contrasting policy approaches that question the need for action on climate change.

This probably will not win me any friends in Green circles, but let me report on a funny thing that happened on the way to these challenging perspectives. The sequence of discussion, with the participants making genuine efforts to understand why the original group developed the possibilities that it did, opened up discussion to the idea of having competing ideas on the table. It created rich space for discussion of “what is evidence”, “how is it weighed”, and “when is precautionary action called for”. It prompted discussion about which possibilities might lend themselves to modification or compromise. It also prompted discussion about various public reactions should one side or the other win a decisive political victory.

So aside from this recent discussion leading to expansion of the possibilities, it was helpful to me in showing how continued development of conceptual material can help prepare the public for the “give and take” that goes with most policy development. It seems to me this is one of the real arts of governance, especially on “hot button” issues.