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Center for Deliberative Democracy focuses on climate change

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With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference on the horizon this November, experts from Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD) are working on a project to help delegates better understand American citizens’ views on climate change.

“The goal is to see what the public is willing to do when they have good information about the pros and cons of one set of choices versus another,” said CDD Director and international communication and political science professor James Fishkin. “Ultimately, the results will be used to help gauge what policy changes an informed American public will buy into and for what reasons.”

America in One Room: Climate and Energy will virtually convene a national sample of about 500 citizens in September to deliberate policy options to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a goal that climate scientists, activists and policymakers believe is necessary to avoid global disaster. Results of these deliberations will be used to shape policy decisions and recommendations in advance of the Glasgow conference, according to Fishkin.

The CDD’s project will involve a survey of U.S. residents selected randomly by the National Opinion Research Center, a nonpartisan public opinion research organization. Each participant will be provided with a questionnaire and briefing materials about all the options that are to be considered in getting to net-zero emissions, according to Fishkin.

Fishkin explained that this project’s scope will touch “many aspects of our way of life,” including urban planning, transportation, energy, land use and carbon capture.

The upcoming CDD event will be modeled after the original America in One Room (A1R) project — a gathering of 526 randomly selected voters who participated in three days of nonpartisan discussion in Dallas, Texas, about key political issues in September 2019.

Similarly, these discussions will be guided by Deliberative Polling, a method produced in 1988 by Fishkin. He describes the polling method as “a practice of public consultation that employs random samples of the citizenry to explore how opinions would change if they were more informed.”

Fishkin has worked with political science professor and Freeman Spogli Institute and Hoover Institution fellow Larry Diamond ’75 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80 and CDD Associate Director Alice Siu ’03 M.A. ’07 Ph.D. ’09 to refine this deliberation tool as a means to diminish distrust, promote thoughtful and reflective engagement and reduce affective polarization.

Fishkin and Diamond both characterized as important the process of getting people outside of their “filter bubbles,” or closed circles of interaction.

“Distrust and partisan enmity are heavily driving defection from democratic norms, and deliberation is one tool that can be employed to change the political culture,” Diamond said.

“What happened in Dallas was magical,” Diamond said of the depth and duration of the connections made at A1R in 2019. “Seeing Americans connect despite their vast political differences was one of the most profound experiences of my life.”

Deliberation introduced a way to engage people in a structured environment to foster civil dialogues with one another, Siu added. “Deliberate Polling allowed for a very rigorous social science method, where we were producing quantitative and qualitative evidence to show that people do become better citizens.”

Since 1994, the CDD has conducted over 110 deliberative polls in 32 countries worldwide, including in China, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Bulgaria, Brazil and Uganda — enabling governments and policymakers to make important decisions around the world, according to CDD’s website.

As a result of the CDD’s work in Mongolia, the government passed a law requiring constitutional amendments to undergo a national deliberative poll. “The Mongolian government had their first national deliberate poll on constitutional amendments,” Siu explained, “and then the parliament actually amended their Constitution based on the results. It was historic.”

The CDD has also conducted major deliberative democracy projects within the U.S., most recently with Shaping Our Future in May, where over 600 students from 36 post secondary institutions discussed political topics. 

Political science major Tara Hein ’23 participated in COMM 138: “Deliberative Democracy Practicum,” in which students worked on a deliberative polling project on campus; students assisted in developing surveys, moderating discussions, analyzing data and writing a final report.

“We were involved with something that extended far beyond traditional coursework,” Hein said. “It was an experience that I’m never going to forget.”

Another member of the practicum, public policy major Aden Beyene ’24, said that the class brought politics to life: “I was able to see how politics is not something that you just study in the classroom — it’s something that is infused in people’s lives, and it very much affects each individual uniquely.”

The CDD also conducted a Deliberative Poll of over 203 Stanford faculty members and a survey of an additional 446 faculty members to inform the design of Stanford’s new school on climate and sustainability in January. While Deliberative Polling has been used to influence policy choices for populations around the world, Fishkin said this poll was the first time it was employed among university faculty.

Having worked on Deliberative Polling for more than 30 years to address societal issues, Fishkin is as optimistic as ever. “People are smart,” he said. “Especially if you give them a chance, and you create conditions where they can actually talk to each other without insulting each other, and where they can get good information and think about the challenges we face together.”

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Jack Murawczyk is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Program.