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From Dialogue to Action: Climate Dialogues and Climate Action Labs

This 2008 article by Phil Mitchell shows how a global issue like climate change can be handled gracefully at the local level with little funds by working in collaboration with the existing infrastructure provided by local environmental organizations. (Vol 2 Issue 2 of the International Journal of Public Participation, December 2008)

The Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues is a climate change education and advocacy project with its roots in dialogue and deliberation. Using an adapted study circles model, the purpose of its Climate Action Labs is to change grassroots politics in such a way that people can bridge the ubiquitous gap between dialogue and action. In overview form, this is the story of the project, intended to share the thinking that motivated it and the activities, design principles, and actual process designs that shaped its implementation and outcomes. The story is not complete without articulating lessons learned to date, and these are shared to benefit others, as is the major political challenge we believe we all face. For others’ projects based in similar motivation, the design principles and lessons learned may be a useful, transportable resource.

Excerpt from the introduction:
Practitioners of dialogue and deliberation (D&D) are keenly interested in two of the facets of public participation that remain underexplored: action and scale (Levine, Fung, & Gastil, 2005). We need action, especially in the many situations where our motivation for applying D&D techniques is to solve real world problems that require action outcomes, often political ones. Too often, however, in otherwise excellent deliberative processes, the links between talk and action are tenuous. Secondly, we need scale, because while most applications of D&D techniques have been on a local scale, it is clear that many larger, even global scale challenges could benefit from such approaches. Climate change is a perfect example.

Climate change—that is, the human-caused disruption of the Earth’s climate system—is arguably the most pressing global challenge society faces (CNA, 2007; Stern, 2005). Yet despite a broad scientific consensus on the facts, the very existence of the problem remains bitterly contested in the public sphere. The use of obfuscation and uncertainty as a political tactic cries out to be addressed by the wisdom inherent in D&D approaches.

Some attempts have been made to do so, as for example, the Empowerment Institute’s Global Warming Cafe (World Cafe), the Northwest Earth Institute’s Changing Course (discussion circle), the National Conversation on Climate Action (21st Century town hall), Deliberative Democracy and Climate Change (World Cafe, then next steps forthcoming), and the Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues and Action Labs (study circles/hybrid/experimental).

The Climate Dialogues/Labs are the subject of this report. The Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues is a climate change education and advocacy project with its roots in dialogue and deliberation. From its inception, we attempted to bridge the gap between dialogue and action. The Climate Action Labs model is our response to challenges we found in using study circles to support participant action. Here, I offer an overview of the programs: how we prepared for launch, how we approached design, what happened in terms of implementation and outcomes, and finally, the lessons we have learned to date.

The question at the center of Climate Dialogues was, How can we build a mandate for strong global warming policy when there is no public consensus and when public discussion is frozen into camps and undermined by disinformation? Our answer: (a) Start with well-designed dialogue; (b) take people through a learning and community-building process that gets past the obfuscations; and (c) use that as a launching point for collective political action. Our premise was that if we could create an opening for the public to actually hear and understand what the scientists are telling us, that members of the public would be moved to act.

Resource Link: www.ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/Mitchell-ClimateDialoguesToAction.pdf (free download)

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