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Public Participation and Environmental Policies: Perspectives for Development

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the complex and cross-sectoral effects of climate change tend to impact the free enjoyment of rights for all living beings inhabiting the Earth. In particular, the increasing frequency of extreme weather and natural disasters, as a result of the climate crisis, threaten the effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people around the world. This includes the rights to life, water, food, health, and development (OHCHR, 2021). From this perspective, the development of environmental policies represents a fundamental process to which many local and global actors have turned, but – because of the complexity of environmental matters – they are required to adapt to different contexts, necessities, and stakeholders (Battaglini, M. Harstad, B 2016). This element of adaptability and flexibility has been pursued through the increasing use of stakeholder participation at the different levels of governance, from more local initiatives to global campaigns (Newig, J. 2007). The involvement of the public in policymaking is not a novel mechanism to tackle widespread global issues. Although, recently, it is becoming a democratic right that allows civil society to come together and inform the policymakers of their needs, fears, and a background of local knowledge authorities might be unaware of (Reed, S. M. 2008).

A report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute underlined specifically how the involvement of stakeholders is believed to bear positive outcomes, not only concerning the levels of democratic accountability, but also the practical improvements to environmental policies (Berry et al., 2019). As a matter of fact, participation has been identified as a possible promoter for more practical and pragmatic benefits to the fight for climate justice, especially concerning the quality and durability of the measures promoted (Reed, S. M. 2008). The importance of this element has been recognized by countless international instruments, including the 1992 United Nations Rio Conference on Environment and Development or the 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention). The latter, in particular, played a pivotal role in the establishment of public participation in environmental decision-making because it required the signatories to guarantee fair access to information and participation, as well as access to justice in the matter (Aarhus Convention, 1998). Nonetheless, although public participation has become a constant in environmental action, its development has been characterized by countless discordances on matters like the identification and inclusion of stakeholders in the process, and those referring to its concrete capacity to tackle climate change.

Figure 1: UN Generał Assembly. (Gruban, P. 2006).

Indeed, the same notion of public participation still tends to refer to various scholarly interpretations which vary according to the levels of involvement, the social categories engaged, and the impact that public opinion can have on the decisions (Glucker, A. N. et al. 2013). The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defined public participation as “the involvement of individuals and groups that are positively or negatively affected, or that are interested in, a proposed project, program, plan or policy that is subject to a decision-making process” (IAIA, 2006). Although most governments embraced the IAIA definition, many scholars instead focused on the redistribution of power that allows for the twisting of the social pyramid to include citizens in the definition of policies (Arnstein, S.R. 1996). In particular, Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation” embodies this interpretation of public participation as a means to give voice to marginalized categories. This creates a hierarchy of the different levels of stakeholder involvement, ranging from the dissemination of information to active engagement (Reed, S. M. 2008). Such lack of consensus on what constitutes public participation in environmental protection has shaped the practice, and different geographical contexts are often connected to different understandings of the participatory process (Glucker, A. N. et al. 2013).

Although the procedural characteristics and definitions might develop differently, the potential for public engagement has always shared the common objective of multilevel cooperation. Historically, approaches to public participation developed since the 1960s as mechanisms of awareness-raising. Yet, recently, participatory environmental policies have transformed through the direct involvement of citizens in the deliberative process of policy-making (Pretty, J.N. 1995). Countries like France, the United States, and Germany have put forth mechanisms of citizen involvement in the matter, developing citizen juries, planning cells, and public conventions to create accessible and inclusive discussions on environmental issues (Flynn, B. 2009). Their contribution has been controversial, but their effects on the development of environmental policies promoted novel perspectives toward public participation.

Figure 2: Marche pour le climat du 13 octobre, Paris. (Menjoulet, J. 2018).

Citizen conventions and juries could positively impact environmental governance mainly because of the positive effects a structured dialogue between citizens and experts could have on the policy-making process. Indeed, such perspectives promote the insertion of practical knowledge into the system of structured decision-making which often takes into consideration the perspective of the public only a posteriori (Flynn, B. 2009). If these are the presuppositions, however, it is necessary to underline a series of limitations like participation deficits, a commitment to a purely local or national perspective, and an overly-basis of the discussion that limits its success (Courant, D. 2020).

First, although citizen participation represents a novel form of discursive deliberation among different levels of society, the outcomes derive from the relations created among the stakeholders and the institutions (Richards et al. 2004). In this form of ecological democracy, the policy-making process should be the result of an equal contribution of experts and the citizens affected by the matter in question. Indeed, the daily lives of those living in the environment will be intrinsically linked to the climate issues one seeks to address, and, consequently, their involvement in the deliberations is crucial to ensure their effectiveness (Takacs, D. 2019). The interconnection between the citizens involved, the promoting institutions, and the scientific community is fundamental. Still, some forms of regulation are necessary to safeguard the principles of equal debate. Although participatory approaches emerged in response to the top-down approach by relying on local knowledge, these forms of knowledge need to be passed through scientific systems of checks and balances before transforming into binding policies (Pickering, J. et al. 2020).

Figure 3: "There is No Planet B Poster". (Lim, L. 2019).

Further, climate change represents a global issue that transcends national boundaries and territories, calling for the establishment of a series of initiatives that operate transnationally. For this reason, the emergence of a plurality of mechanisms located at the national level, whose range of action risks sticking to a local sphere, tends to reduce the scope of the results at a global level (Di Sorbo, 2020). Although fragmented environmental governance systems may lead to the introduction of concrete and easily applicable measures in the fight against climate change, it is necessary to also promote measures and perspectives tackling the issue from a global perspective. The coexistence of these two elements is fundamental to the definition of an effective policy to combat the advancement of climate change. As reported by Simon Niemeyer, co-founder of the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, in order to promote greater effectiveness of environmental policies, it is necessary to combine inputs from transnational governance with a series of deliberative systems distributed throughout the territory (Niemeyer, S 2019).

All these elements can prevent the full development of a successful environmental policy that can, as a result, act concretely in the face of the threat of climate change. Future proposals for participatory democracy would require a twofold effort to recognize the dangers of a non-representative deliberation and the need to pursue a shift towards more sustainable modes of consumption (Reed, S. M. 2008). Such a path underscores the need to promote a radical change in the contemporary socio-political structure by rethinking the relationships between the different levels of decision-making (Battaglini, M. Harstad, B. 2016). By introducing citizen deliberation within each of these spheres, the voice of the people within the decision-making process would thus be safeguarded and, consequently, the formation of legislative measures would be made more open to the needs and values of the population.

Figure 4: Gathering of People for Climate Protests. (Shaw, C. 2019).

Public participation, if promoted through inclusive and cross-sectoral means, could therefore represent a fundamental tool in tackling the seemingly-unstoppable climate degradation. Including citizens in the policymaking process could provide administrations with the local knowledge needed to tailor the measures to specific issue areas. In this sense, employing an inclusive and accessible approach to public discussion is as fundamental as the commitment to the implementation of the results of the confrontation in the pursuit of environmental objectives. It is only through a communal and collective effort that humanity can attempt to tackle the widespread effects of climate change. Public participation could represent a fundamental starting point to rethink the policymaking process in a way that is conscious of local knowledge and needs.

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Niccolò Fantin

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