Watershed Citizens’ Dialogue 2014: Alberta Citizen Deliberation on Climate Change and Water

Jacquie Dale, ProjectFacilitation

This reflection was written by ABCD Researcher Dr. Gwendolyn Blue of the University of Calgary and Jacquie Dale.

Please find the original post on the Alberta Climate Dialogue blog.

Water in a Changing Climate was the third installment in Alberta Climate Dialogue’s community deliberations.

In partnership with the Oldman Watershed Council, ABCD designed and convened a one-day citizen deliberation on climate change and water. The event was held on February 22, 2014, at the University of Lethbridge. This facilitated deliberation consisted of a diverse group of 33 invited participants who, following an application process, were selected on the basis of gender, age, occupation, location of residence as well as views on climate change. The selection process ensured a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in the room. All participants lived in the watershed.

The deliberation was designed and facilitated by Jacquie Dale. Five small group facilitators coordinated break out groups. A half-day training session (supported by a training manual) was provided for facilitators and note takers the day before the deliberation.  To support an informed discussion, participants got a handbook in advance of the deliberation. At the event, two speakers gave background on climate change in the region and on the current state of the watershed.

The community sponsor was the Oldman Watershed Council (OWC), a grassroots community group of citizens, municipalities, businesses, provincial government and non-governmental organizations who want to protect, restore, and enhance the local watershed where they live, work and play. The OWC serves an advisory role to the provincial government in developing its water management strategy.

The deliberation aimed to support participants to

  • Have an informed dialogue about the projected impacts of climate change on water;
  • Identify the concerns, hopes and values that resonate most on this issue, and where there is common ground;
  • Identify key areas that need more community involvement and policy development, including recommendations for consideration by the Oldman Watershed Council.

For researchers and practitioners, this deliberation was an opportunity to experiment with two design elements: testing how deep we could go with deliberation on a complex issue in just one day and reframing the public debate on climate change.

Why a Day?

Often, policy-focused citizen deliberations on complex topics are held over several days to provide participants with time to learn about and examine the issue in depth, to work out trade-offs and to formulate robust recommendations for policy makers. As a result, deliberative processes tend to be time and cost intensive.

Given its resource-intensive nature, deliberative democracy, as it is conventionally practiced, risks being an elite process, limited to those institutions and individuals with sufficient resources.  Many institutions that might otherwise be interested in exploring alternative approaches to public engagement have limited finances and staff.

Water in a Changing Climate was an experiment in what a deliberative process can accomplish in a day. We were interested in exploring to what extent people could get into a “values-based discussion” – the heart of citizen deliberation. Could they “frame the issues” for deliberation? Could they could work through trade-offs and get to nuanced recommendations?

Reframing the debate on climate change: 

Water in a Changing Climate also explores how an alternative framing of climate change might influence social learning about this issue and about deliberative democracy.

Thus far, ABCD has concentrated its efforts on exploring the intersections between climate change and energy, with a focus on mitigation, primarily through reducing greenhouse gases.

Water in a Changing Climate tried to put global climate change discussions ‘in place’ by focusing attention on present and future effects of climate change. Water is one of the first and most immediate registers of global temperature increase. Adapting to climate change means adapting to changes in the hydrological cycle. These changes are regional and require careful attention to place. For example, in southern Alberta, climate change will contribute to prolonged periods of drought, with increased precipitation in winter and spring, leading to higher probability of floods.

As an alternate lens on climate change, water shifts the focus of discussion. First, it addresses adaptation as well as mitigation. Second, water provides a way of thinking through the immediacy of climate change, challenging the oft-held assumption that climate change is distant in time and space. Finally, given that water is essential to the well being of nonhuman as well as human organisms, it provides an opportunity to move beyond anthropocentric (human-centered) ways of responding to climate change.

Initial reflections

While we are still writing up findings, we offer some initial reflections on our experiences.

The general consensus from participants was that the dialogue provided a very positive experience. They enjoyed talking with what they perceived to be diversity of people (not the usual suspects).

Values were brought explicitly into the room early on, but we were still surprised by the ease with which participants incorporated values into the dialogue. Indeed, the topic of one small group was framed by participants around a set of values.  Getting to trade-offs and nuanced recommendations was more difficult and uneven for a variety of reasons that we will explore in another blog post. But four of the five groups clearly got to ideas and advice that they would not have walked in the room with.

One of the challenges we faced was focusing the discussion on climate change. Although background information was provided in advance and a guest speaker provided information on climate change in the region, the discussions during the day focused on existing water problems and did not address climate change per se.

This suggests that researchers and practitioners need to learn more about how to guide people to think through the complexity of climate change and the uncertain futures that it brings forth.

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