Many academics and practitioners in the climate adaptation field agree that “public participation” and “collaboration” are important components of climate change-related decision-making. Yet only a few have attempted to define what these terms mean, why they matter, or what form they should take in practice (Larsen and Gunnarsson-Östling 2009; Shaw et. al. 2009; Sheppard et. al. 2011).
In this chapter, we argue that carefully structured and meaningful public engagement is critical to designing and implementing successful climate change adaptation plans at the local level. We feel strongly, though, that what sometimes passes for public participation—for example, sending minimal information out to the general public, seeking comments on what the government has already decided or asking a few members of the public to serve on blue-ribbon advisory committees—is usually inadequate. Only joint decision-making, in which representatives of all stakeholder groups have an opportunity to engage in collaborative problem-solving, is likely to lead to the successful implementation of adaptation projects, plans and policies.
As practitioners with The Consensus Building Institute (CBI) and the MIT Science Impact Collaborative, we have helped facilitate numerous stakeholder engagement processes relating to a wide range of natural resource management situations—and this is the context in which NECAP should be seen. We often begin our work by conducting a stakeholder assessment, which is followed by joint fact-finding. Whenever possible, we work for public agency conveners to facilitate joint problem solving. While the result is usually a set of recommendations that almost all relevant stakeholders can support, the final decision about how to proceed almost always remains in the hands of those elected officials who have the authority and responsibility to act in the name of the community. In our view, collective risk management plans for climate change (described further in chapter 7) are most likely to be implemented effectively when they are the product of a consensus building process undertaken at the request of elected officials.
In this chapter, we draw on NECAP findings to make the case for a consensus building approach to public engagement in formulating and implementing collective risk management or climate change adaptation strategies. We explain specific approaches that hold the most promise for helping communities reduce their vulnerability, and increase their resilience, in managing climate change-related risks.