Climate change, political change, and systems change

David Kahane


This chapter reflects on the efficacy of deliberative democracy in addressing complex systemic issues like climate change. The chapter suggests that deliberative democracy and ABCD specifically have not been fully adequate in addressing super-wicked systemic problems like climate change with a whole systems approach thus far. David Kahane offers corrective insights from the fields of systems thinking, user-centred design, and systemic design for future projects to more effectively address such shortcomings. 

Chapter Takeaways:

  • Climate change is one of the most complex systemic problems we have ever faced, yet many of our approaches to it are linear. Deliberation on climate change needs to find ways to grapple with systemic complexity.
  • Communities of practice around deliberative democracy tend to work with stories of social change that work within existing decision making structures, see change as coming from gradual improvement, and downplay structures and mechanisms of power that condition political possibility. This positive, reformist take on social change may not be well suited to intervening on complex systemic problems.
  • Deliberative literatures and practices tend to see public deliberation as achieving influence by connecting to some combination of eight stories of social change: legal empowerment, connection to government, lobbying, public mobilization, building deliberative capacity, community empowerment, including the excluded, and changing participants.
  • Alberta Climate Dialogue’s attempts to support change through deliberation focused on connection to government, with lighter emphasis on building deliberative capacity and supporting lobbying by NGOs. While there was some influence, this might have been bolstered through a greater focus on systems dynamics and leverage points for systems change. What stood in the way of ABCD focusing more sharply and consistently on systems? Pressures of time, lack of ready-to-hand languages and tools, and the strength of underlying positive assumptions about deliberative democracy.
  • Deliberative democrats could better situate their stories of social change within understandings of whole systems by drawing on three fields: systems thinking, human centredcentered design, and systemic design. These fields offer key tools that complement deliberative democratic approaches: ethnographic interviewing; systems mapping; low-stakes ways of prototyping or piloting interventions; and more.
  • The fields of systems thinking, human centered design, and systemic design would benefit from cross-fertilization with deliberative democracy, which could help temper their tendency toward elitist or expert approaches to decision making, and offer insight into how to influence decision makers. 

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I have suggested that ABCD, for all its strengths, would have benefitted from organizing its work more methodically and consistently around questions of systems change, in terms of the orientation of the overall project, the development of particular partnerships, and the design of citizen deliberations. This in itself has been a key part of our learning.
— David Kahane