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Advice to world leaders heading to UN climate summit: forget consensus

Instead of trying to find the solution to enabling a net-zero-emissions world, let’s put more solutions on the table

In the race to net-zero, the next few decades will be nothing short of difficult. 

With competing interests, values and needs at play, getting everyone on the same page will be an impossible task. Particularly when transitioning to a low-carbon economy raises a number of complex ethical quandaries, such as how best to support oil and gas industry workers who might look at the energy transition with reluctance. These issues will make the necessary transition all the more difficult to navigate together, as both a country and planet that has yet to develop a shared vision. Striving for consensus will likely result in paralysis. 

With this in mind, letting go of the association between success and consensus is especially important right now, as governments from across the world are set to meet in Glasgow at this year’s UN climate summit, or COP26, starting on October 31. Leaders face no easy task, and big talk must be met with big action if we’re going to prevent climate chaos. 

Which is why leaders attending the conference will need to avoid focusing on persuasion tactics.

If leaders spend their time trying to convince each other of “the right solution,” they’ll return home with nothing but empty promises and unclear deliverables. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be collaborative, but we’ll never get anywhere if we epitomize consensus as the pinnacle of success. 

Moving away from consensus doesn’t imply dismissing people’s perspectives; in fact, it implies quite the opposite. When we become less attached to our own ideas, and more open to the ideas of others, we’re more likely to embrace a diversity of perspectives and applicable solutions.

This was one of the main conclusions reached in a September workshop attended by fellows of the Alberta-based Energy Futures Lab, set up to respond to the federal government’s recent People-Centred Just Transition Discussion Paper. Instead of trying to find the solution to enabling a just transition, a number of insights emerged that offered, at the very least, various small stepping stones in a shared direction. Some attendees highlighted how workers could benefit from programs that will teach them new skills. And others considered how workers nearing the end of their careers might benefit from early retirement incentives. 

Attendees established early on in the workshop that striving for consensus would be an ineffective use of their time. So they instead focused on bringing forward ideas that captured the unique needs, interests and values of their specific communities. An Indigenous attendee, for example, talked about how existing skill sets could be leveraged within Indigenous communities, pointing out that an Indigenous worker is three times more likely than a non-Indigenous worker to be employed in extractive industries. It became clear just how many different approaches and tactics could be used to enable the energy transition.

Of course consensus is required when it comes to some big-ticket items, such as aligning behind a vision for net-zero by 2050 or acknowledging the scientific principles that underpin this objective. But the “solutions space” in which we must work to enable this transition is much more nuanced. It’s in this space that striving for consensus becomes a hindering force. 

So instead of trying to persuade one another that one solution is the best, COP26 attendees can approach their time in Glasgow a little differently. Rather than trying to force consensus, we can allow ourselves to delve deeper, thinking through the “creative tension” that arises as various perspectives collide. The idea of exploring this tension in a constructive way is at the core of the Energy Futures Lab’s approach and entails identifying common ground, rather than trying to persuade others to see things our way. In doing so, we can stop searching for a silver-bullet solution while also honouring a diversity of perspectives in a way that applies a variety of solutions to different contexts and in service of different people. 

In this sense, moving away from consensus isn’t about taking the ideas of a few and charging ahead. It’s not a matter of leaving people behind or justifying our inability to serve them by way of deeming consensus an impossibility. It’s a matter of acknowledging that no, we aren’t all going to agree on the best solutions or approaches, which is why we need to deploy a lot of them. Since we’ll never reach consensus around the path forward, we can instead agree to disagree while embracing a multitude of solutions and transition pathways. For instance, we can’t assume that rural communities will transition to electric vehicles in the same way or at the same rate that dense urban centres will. Different geographic regions will require different fixes so as not to be left behind when it comes to transforming our transportation systems. 

We know that attempting to convince people that our way is the best way will always be met with varying degrees of resistance, but allowing diverse perspectives to co-exist can result in the creation of a solid foundation that supports collaborative action. 

Perhaps our greatest chance of reaching net-zero by mid-century while also supporting an inclusive and equitable transition involves accepting that consensus is an unlikely reality. This isn’t to suggest that in the absence of consensus, we adopt the ideas of a select few. Instead, it’s an invitation to approach this transition from more directions, with more ideas on the table and with a willingness to experiment, create and explore outside of our personal comfort zones. 

Emma Gammans leads communications for the Energy Futures Lab, an initiative of The Natural Step Canada. She is an Alberta-based writer and communications professional who writes on topics including energy transition and community well-being.

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