(Under which conditions) can deliberative mini-publics enable better sustainability policies? A problem-based approach
To avoid dangerous climate change, ‘unprecedented’ societal transitions are needed. Such transitions are hard to imagine without ambitious policy action by nation states. However, democratic political leaders are often hesitant. Past experiences, such as with the yellow vest movement in France, suggest they have comprehensible reasons to be hesitant. Hence, I argue that political scientists and deliberative democrats should search for and study innovative institutions that can produce the political resources to empower political leaders to support better sustainability policies—for example by processing and integrating different forms of knowledge and generating legitimacy. Some researchers in deliberative democracy and a growing number of societal and political actors argue that deliberative mini-publics (e.g., Citizens’ Assemblies or Bürgerräte) may be conducive to governing sustainability issues like climate change. Hence the overarching framing of my PhD project is the following: (Under which conditions) can deliberative mini-publics enable better sustainability policies? Mini-publics on climate change have repeatedly recommended ambitious policy measures. Moreover, deliberation in mini-publics has desirable effects on their participants that are likely conducive to governing sustainability issues if it proves possible to upscale them. However, we still know relatively little about the wider political effects of nationallevel mini-publics on contested issues like climate change. That is because research on mini-publics from a systemic perspective has traditionally been focusing on assessing mini-publics’ value for a deliberative democracy and was not concerned with empowering political collectives and their leaders to increase their problem-solving capacities. When it comes to the relationship between the state and mini-publics, many deliberative democrats bring a conception of power to the table that is focused on domination, coercion, influence, and manipulation. I argue, we need to augment our perspectives by including a generative notion of (em)power that is about enabling collective policy action through cooperation and learning. Based on this perspective and a literature review of studies on mini-publics from a systemic perspective, I provide a list of sub-questions to study during my PhD. They include, i. a., the question of whether mini-publics can increase public support for ambitious climate policy, how to integrate interest groups in contested mini-public processes, or how deliberative mini-publics influence public discourses on climate change policies. Finally, I outline the activities I have been exercising, so far. I hope to show that these activities have put me in a promising position to access the resources needed to make this PhD project a likely success.
Keywords: deliberative systems, environmental governance, democratic innovations, earth system governance, minipublics, climate policy, public opinion, facilitative trust, upscaling, designed coupling