A quick look on the internet and social media seems to confirm that America’s political divide is alive and well when it comes to talking about climate change and policies to address the urgent climate crisis.
Researchers Larry Diamond, James Fishkin and Alice Siu recently put that assumption to the test. Using the framework of the America in One Room initiative, 962 participants were brought together to deliberate amongst themselves in a thoughtful, civil, and substantive fashion on 72 questions about climate change and climate policy. The participants were selected to accurately represent the American electorate, reflecting regional, cultural and political diversity. The exercise was overseen by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, while NORC at the University of Chicago selected the samples and conducted the surveys.
The results are stunning. On 66 of the 72 issue propositions in the survey, the participants shifted significantly over the course of the deliberation toward wanting to do more to combat climate change. These shifts were generally in the same direction across party and demographic divides.
As policymakers meet at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD); Diamond, FSI senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL); and Siu, the associate director at CDD, reflected on their findings and what the results indicate about the path forward in addressing the global climate crisis.
What prompted you to apply the deliberative polling method of the America in One Room initiative to the issue of climate change and energy?
James Fishkin: Climate change and energy pose issues that are of great importance for our future, but are very complex. In many cases the public is not well-informed about the details, and are often subjected to partisan polarization. All of these factors make these issues suitable for Deliberative Polling.
Larry Diamond: Put simply, climate change is the most existentially important issue confronting the human species. But it is hard to see how the world will summon the political will and coordination to make the transition to Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions with the speed needed unless the U.S. takes a leading role, and in the U.S., our policymaking on climate and energy is stuck in the same polarizing deadlock that almost everything else is mired in. So, my passion is to see whether and how we can identify policies that will enable the United States to help lead the world expeditiously in a transition away from fossil fuels.
Alice Siu: The CDD has been conducting deliberations on climate and environment issues for many years, but this is the first national U.S. project. And, especially during COP26, the voices from the Deliberative Polling event need to be further amplified.
Were you surprised by the results you saw?
Fishkin: I was gratified to see so many significant changes of opinion, mostly in the direction of people arriving at shared solutions once they discussed the issues and became more informed.
Diamond: I was surprised at the extent of movement among Republicans in two directions: toward greater recognition that climate change is an urgent and transcendent problem, and toward support for policies to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources. I was also intrigued to find so much support, and then increased support, for a new generation of nuclear power plants. I don’t think we can get off our addiction to fossil fuels rapidly enough without nuclear power in the mix, and I was surprised that so many Democrats and in the end Republicans, too, understood that.
Siu: Indeed, there were some quite dramatic shifts in opinions. On top of the changes in survey results, the small group discussions themselves were extremely rich, with many people learning from those very different from themselves. Many participants came out of the event understanding that listening to each other is necessary to make any changes happen.
What is the path forward? How can this information be used at a policymaking level to create actionable change?
Fishkin: As in other Deliberative Polls around the world, these results need to be shared in detail with policy makers and with the media. They provide a route to responsible advocacy. They represent the considered judgments of the public once they really discuss and get their questions answered. In a democracy that helps contribute to the “will of the people.”
Diamond: Yes, I agree with Jim. It is vital that the results get publicized and considered in the policy debate. This is the only indication we have of what the American public as a whole would favor doing to combat climate change and transform our energy mix if everyone had access to objective and balanced information and the chance to weigh it together with one another.
Siu: In a webinar last week, Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen spoke about the importance of this Deliberative Polling event and shared some ideas for paths forward to have actionable change. With everyone’s help, we can further amplify the results from this event and make it known that Americans believe that change can happen.
The COP26 climate change summit is currently underway in Glasgow, Scotland. Are policymakers and the public reaching a tipping point where we might see more substantive support for actions on climate change at the international level?
Diamond: Unfortunately, I don’t see signs of the necessary resolve to act with the urgency that is imperative. We are moving in the right direction, toward publics around the world understanding that climate change is a threat to the well-being of all societies, and to the survival of some countries, and toward understanding that we must transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, while also ending other practices that contribute to the problem, such as deforestation. But we aren’t moving nearly fast enough. I am not a climate scientist, but I feel like we are at least ten years behind where we need to be, and a decade of difference in meeting goals could well be the difference between effective adaptation and calamity. The one truly hopeful sign is that a growing number of conservatives in the U.S. are beginning to publicly acknowledge the magnitude of the danger and the urgent need for an energy transition. I hope they can mobilize their Congressional colleagues around an ambitious policy agenda, because we are running out of time to avert a global catastrophe, and the U.S. won’t get to where we need to be without a bipartisan approach.
Can the model of deliberative polling exercises be scaled to enable similar conversations with broader audiences?
Fishkin: These deliberations were conducted with the Stanford Online Deliberation Platform—a joint effort of the Crowdsourced Democracy Team here at Stanford (led by Professor Ashish Goel in Management Science and Engineering) and the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD). In theory, any number of these small groups can be convened, and we hope to use it for deliberative scaling to much larger numbers just as we have used it for Deliberative Polling with scientific samples. So, the answer is yes, and that is a direction we want to move in.
Diamond: I agree with Jim. There are very exciting frontiers ahead for this. I also think there is room to implement deliberation in person in the schools and between schools in different neighborhoods. The lesson we are finding over and over is that there is great value for democracy, societal health, and policy effectiveness when people of diverse backgrounds engage one another in thoughtful, moderated, mutually respectful conversations. And we have growing evidence that the automated moderator—developed through this amazing partnership of engineers and social scientists at Stanford—can effectively moderate a small group discussion, even on very polarized issues.
Siu: Yes, absolutely. Our platform is designed with this in mind. We want to scale deliberation to the masses, so that anyone who wants to can experience deliberation for themselves. When people engage in deliberations with diverse others, they understand in a firsthand way that being in a democracy means listening to each other.