How to Hold a Difficult Conversation With a Whole Society 

How to Hold a Difficult Conversation With a Whole Society 

Geoff Mulgan

Every democracy at times has to make difficult decisions – making sacrifices or accepting restraints in the longer-term interest of the community. Sometimes these choices are thrown up by emergencies like wars and pandemics. Sometimes they are thrown up by slower moving crises, like reforming pensions or committing to multi-decade strategies on net zero.   

Although many countries have succeeded in sharply cutting carbon emissions over the last two decades, the challenges of the next steps of decarbonisation show just how difficult this can be. Many countries are now struggling to keep to their commitments on net zero, as significant groups complain that restrictions are being imposed on them without adequate input.

So how to do this well? What do we know about the kinds of conversation, and the kinds of process, that work best in getting agreement on difficult decisions that may be necessary for the long-term but painful in the short-term?

We will be holding a public roundtable in October 2023, looking at experiences across the world – and how to get buy-in to policies that may involve costs and sacrifices as well as gains. In this short piece I look at the context and suggest some possible approaches to the design of these conversations.

Background: polarisation and culture wars

Over the last decade many countries have committed to far reaching net zero goals and Greta Thunberg has become a household name. But the last few years have also seen a series of sharp backlashes against green policies: from the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement in France which exploded in response to higher petrol prices, to the 2019 election in Australia, which went against expectations in part because of a successful campaign against possible climate change policies; the successes of Netherlands’ farmers party in 2023, again prompted by a backlash against environmental policies; and the recent U-turn by the UK government on some of its net zero plans.

One reason why so many countries are struggling with long-term programmes is the changed political landscape of the last ten years, with more polarisation, culture wars and resentment of elites. In this landscape it sometimes appears harder to achieve broad consensus (though responses to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine suggest things aren’t so simple), and almost any issue can quickly become polarised.

Behind this shift lies the much-documented shift in social structures, with new divides between the fast and well-connected on the one hand and the slow and less connected on the other, between the economically privileged and the rest, between elites with university degrees and PhDs, geographical and professional mobility, and more manual workers living in towns and rural areas, between cognitive elites who tend to be younger, more urban and more highly educated, and the rest. These divides now influence all debates about the long-term, as well as much else including attitudes to science.

These divides also threaten action on climate change, as large groups now take pride in climate resistance and denial,making it as much part of their identity as climate action is for the Extinction Rebellion marchers. What was an argument about science, evidence and the future, risks instead becoming an argument about identity and culture – and therefore much less amenable to evidence, facts or logic. New parties have sprung up in many countries reflecting this – and parties from AfD in Germany to the Dutch farmers party have partly defined themselves against climate action. While some of these parties may reject outright denialism, others play down climate change’s significance, deny that it is human-made, or as a regional leader of Spain’s populist Vox party recently argued, claim that it may be a net positive. A social media environment in which conspiracy theories travel fast, and stick hard, is also relevant here.

I found myself recently talking with a fairly diverse group in the town where I live who were all convinced that climate change was a lie, somehow linked to other deceptions ranging from vaccines to whether COVID happened at all, and all tied up with deep distrust of the mainstream media and mainstream institutions. In this worldview new policies on net zero are simply another example of the out of touch elite imposing costs on ordinary people. Although such conspiratorial worldviews are clearly ridiculous, it is useful to understand their increasing prevalence in the context of the erosion of collective agency and social dignity which has been a consequence of the neoliberal political turn since the late-1970s.

The contrary approach – which emphasises the interests of children and grandchildren, and a moral commitment to passing on a better legacy to the future, can resonate, but perhaps only if there is some trust in the institutions involved.  

This is, to say the least, a major challenge for democratic processes. Social movements can highlight issues – but they lack the legitimacy or authority to pass laws and implement actions. Meanwhile political parties struggle to legitimate complicated tasks – even without the surrounding messiness of social media it would be hard for them to achieve broad enough consensus on their own, not least because any decisions on net zero and related issues have to run well beyond their term of office.

Some argue that these problems can be solved through innovations, like the use of citizens assemblies, and these do indeed have many virtues in bringing in promoting thoughtful deliberation. But their limitation is that they only directly involve a tiny proportion of the population and depend on coverage in the media to reach wider.  

Instead, the approaches we may need should probably involve some hybrid fusion of each of these – formal representative democracy, open participatory processes, and both active and passive engagement of significant proportions of the public.

There are quite a few examples of attempts at large scale national conversations which have attempted such combinations, from Australia 2020 in the late 2000s (which culminated in 1000 citizen representatives gathering in parliament) to Ireland’s discussions on abortion a decade later (which included a citizen’s assembly) and Scotland’s debates on constitutional reform. Some countries have developed sophisticated methods for running national dialogues -such as Finland (which has used this method around net zero) and Taiwan which is experimenting with many methods for involving the public in proposing and amending policies through vTaiwan.  

But several recent exercises show how hard these are to pull off. Emmanuel Macron established a citizens’ assembly to advise on climate change, but in the end rejected their recommendations. Chile attempted to introduce a new constitution through a citizen-led deliberation – but the constitution ended up being decisively rejected in a referendum.

So what can be done? Although there are no easy answers, history and the available evidence do suggest some pointers to what may be needed to make society wide conversations work, and persuade a public who will be seeking a rough assessment of the balance of short-term pain and longer-term gain, private interest, public interest and obligation to future generations. 

Here I suggest seven possible starting points:

  1. The need to separate steps of diagnosis from prescription. It’s often vital to first achieve a consensus around the need to act before moving onto the options for action. In the case of the UK polling suggests that there is at least a fairly strong, and wide, consensus on the challenge of climate change, thanks to several decades of advocacy.
  2. The need to listen, and be seen to listen, to many different interests, with particular attention to those who are most likely to be threatened.   They need to see and hear their voices being heard, and their experiences taken seriously.
  3. The need to share the costs of transition in ways that are seen to be fair – and to make this clear from the start. This will almost always mean some kind of package rather than single policies, and a process of transition rather than a big bang change.
  4. The need to use science as an input, but not to pretend that the science tells us what to do; on its own it doesn’t.
  5. The need to actively engage the mass media – potentially with quite formal roles to reduce their incentives to be disruptive opponents.
  6. The need to combine apolitical processes – with, for example, random samples of the population in assemblies – with party political ones. Neither on its own has sufficient reach or sufficient legitimating power.
  7. The need to set clear, middle-range targets. This has worked well with many environmental policies, from recycling to vehicles – setting targets 15-20 years into the future and giving time for society and business to adapt. If the targets are too quick – less than ten years, or immediately as in the case of ULEZ – there may be a panicked reaction; if they are too far into the future no-one may bother to act.

These may at least be starting points for more effective policies. But process cannot solve these problems alone. Politics has to play a role too, not least at a time of  often intense hostility towards the governing by the governed. There is also a need for political creativity and imagination to reframe issues in ways that bridge divides. 

For example, one much discussed issue is how to create a more inclusive imaginary that recasts the shift to a zero carbon and circular economy in ways that appeal to citizens who may otherwise feel excluded or marginalised. Many of the new jobs needed in a low carbon world will be traditional manual ones. Builders and others in construction retrofitting homes and buildings; electricians installing renewable and community energy schemes; repair and maintenance of consumer goods and cars. We already know that new jobs can be created if it becomes a priority to extend product lives, such as the jobs beginning to be created to deal with the mountains of e waste that come from disposed laptops and i-phones which are highly skilled.

Indeed, these movements towards remanufacturing and refurbishment could provide a way to bridge the gulf of understanding between the climate activists and the climate resisters. Movements for ‘right to repair’ in the US, and ‘Iron and Earth’ in Canada, could represent new bridges. Some countries have introduced new policies to encourage this shift – from Sweden’s moves to shift tax incentives for maintenance, to Finland’s comprehensive circular economy plans. And some companies have shown how different approaches can be aspirational, from BMW’s cars (as much as 30-40% now recyclable) to Nokia’s new G22 phone that can be disassembled much more easily than past mobiles.

In our session on October 19th, we’ll be looking at examples of society-wide conversations and what lessons can be learned for the future: how can we learn to talk together about difficult choices, and how can we make it less likely that politicians will conclude that doing the right thing is just too difficult.

Read our latest articles on Net Zero here, including a piece on why the UK needs new institutions to support the net zero transition, mobilising intelligence as much as money, and why rural areas present a distinctive set of challenges, as well as opportunities, on the road to net zero.