Democracy, Dialogue and Climate Change

April 15, 2021

A transformative shift is taking place in the field of climate engagement. From green participatory budgeting to climate assemblies, governments around the world are increasingly recognizing that hearing the voices of citizens, residents, and under-represented communities leads to better policy-making, while also increasing the democratic legitimacy of difficult decisions.

Governments across Canada and the United States are currently exploring bold new ambitions to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But making commitments to reduce carbon emissions is the easy part. Can new methods in public engagement help to break past the short-term pressures, misinformation, polarization and partisan U-turns that have tripped up climate action in the past? What would it look like to sustain public confidence over the coming multi-decade transition?

The SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue was joined by leading international climate engagement specialists to discuss this topic for this special edition of Doubling Down: Democracy and Climate Change.

Video recording



Briefing Note: International Comparators - Approaches to Public Engagement on Climate Change and Net Zero Pathways
This document was written by Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue as the first deliverable in a contract with Environment and Climate Change Canada. The case studies and findings in this report will be used to inform a Concept Paper that outlines a strategic framework and four options for engaging Canadians on Net Zero emissions.

Public Agenda
Public Agenda is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and public engagement organization headquartered in New York City. We strive to strengthen democracy and expand opportunity for all Americans.

Jamaica Bay Case Study (New York)
The Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay, along with Public Agenda, CUNY-Brooklyn College’s Center for the Study of Brooklyn and other partners, is working with Canarsie residents to identify issues, use science to refine ideas for action, and align emerging priorities with city, state, and federal efforts. To do this, they are developing an annual sequence of games, mapping, idea generation, and community-building. This ‘cycle’ can help create a stronger role for residents in prioritizing research and action in Jamaica Bay, including the 2020 participatory budgeting cycle. More resources:

Involve is the UK’s leading public participation charity. They develop, support and campaign for new ways to involve people in decisions that affect their lives. Since 2003, we have been working with governments, parliaments, civil society, academics and the public to create and deliver new forms of public participation that re-vitalise democracy and improve decision-making.

  • Official website (read their case studies and blog, find resources and more)
  • The knowledge hub (find practical resources for planning and delivering public engagement and making the case for it) 

The UK Climate Assembly
The UK is committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. Climate Assembly UK brought together 100+ people from all walks of life and of all shades of opinion to discuss how the UK should meet this target. The assembly members met over six weekends in Spring 2020. They heard balanced evidence on the choices the UK faces, discussed them, and made recommendations about what the UK should do to become net zero by 2050. Their final report was published on Thursday 10 September 2020.

Getting Climate Citizens’ Assemblies Right (Article)
Climate assemblies can help unlock more effective action against climate change, but improvements are needed in how they are run. Article by Claire Mellier and Rich Wilson, published in November 2020

Scotland’s Climate Assembly
Scotland’s Climate Assembly has brought together people from all walks of life, from across Scotland, to learn about and discuss the question, ‘How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?'

Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstrations
Responding to the climate emergency demands different ways of thinking, doing and collaborating for governments, people, industry and civil society.

Summary of themes and ideas shared by webinar participants during breakout discussions

The importance of welcoming engagement

  • It is integral to create welcoming spaces for folks to share their thoughts and concerns in order to convince them of the realities of climate change. The integration of games is a beautiful example of place-based learning and engagement!
  • In order to be meaningful, connect to people's values to encourage their involvement. How you frame the issue and the use of particular words makes a world of difference.

Alienation of marginalized communities 

  • Community members time and time again fall prey to the - "we" are more and rightly deserving than "them" dynamic - on the basis of those identities and social markers such as  race, sexuality and class.  

  • In order to combat these disparities, stakeholders must find and collaborate with existing community communication channels and resources to help amplify the message.  

  • The processes need to be deliberately designed to address equity and build capacity to not reproduce inequities. This is only possible with long-term relationship building.


  • Public confidence in public institutions has been really difficult to maintain over the course of the past year. Maintaining this confidence over 5-10 years is going to present further challenges

  • Ensuring progress reports are publicly available is a necessary first step in making sure government is honest on the scale of the problem and response plans. Their actions need to match the magnitude of the problem because there is a public hunger for strong collective response.  

  • Elected officials need to make decisions right now. Some engagement processes aren't well-established or communities are over-consulted which makes it harder to meet immediate needs.

  • Different governments need to get better at working with each other. For example, leveraging organizations like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Government officials' fear of political repercussions 

  • We must educate our citizens and governments to believe in the value of co-creation.

  • Climate plans are best led by the community thus the alliance between elected officials and their constituents in ways that create real action on climate plans is important.

  • Trust needs to be reciprocal. Elected officials need to give power and trust in the people. And then that trust can be returned.  

  • When we invite people to an engagement and to hear what they have to say, there is an implicit social contract that we will listen and, more importantly, will act.