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Selkirk researcher says listening a key to overcoming polarization in climate debate

Jennie Barron on public meetings about RDCK climate plan
The RDCK’s climate plan proposes no new bylaws or compulsory actions for residents. File photo

by John Boivin,

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

A Selkirk College researcher says she’ll be watching the progress of the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s consultations on its Climate Action Plan over the next few months following a public backlash.

“It seems they are taking a very sincere interest in hearing residents and listening to their/our concerns,” Jennie Barron said. “Sounds like they are going to experiment with new formats … I will watch with interest to see how that goes.”

Barron is the project director of a program entitled Courageous Dialogues: Moving Beyond Polarization, a three-year project led by the Mir Centre for Peace to study political polarization in our society.

With about a dozen researchers across three institutions working part-time on the project, it aims to study why our society is growing more divided over political, cultural and economic issues than ever before. It also seeks to develop tools for reducing polarization and reengaging the public in productive decision-making discourse.

“Polarization is the problem that eats all other problems…,” says Barron, who consulted with RDCK officials in the early stages of planning this new round of engagement on its climate plan. “It’s a meta-level problem we most have to deal with, as it’s getting in the way of addressing other problems because we can’t talk about them in constructive ways.”

Barron’s team defines polarization as a complex social dynamic that occurs when an issue that involves many different people, concerns and opinions is reduced to two opposing sides — “for or against” or “us vs. them.” It goes well beyond ordinary disagreement, the researchers say, and can damage both work and family relationships, and create painful divisions that are hard to overcome.

“What we have now is the perfect storm of the things that drive polarization,” she says. “Things like threats to our well-being – the pandemic, forest fires, the existential threat of climate change. It makes us really anxious, and we’re not really good at talking about it.”

Climate clash

The project researchers have an example of managing polarization right on their doorstep.

The RDCK’s Climate Action Plan is meant to be a guidance document for staff to co-ordinate efforts to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint, support energy efficiency programs, and increase community resiliency to climate change with programs like Firesmart.

The actions proposed in the plan would be mostly funded through grants from higher governments. The plan proposes no new bylaws or compulsory actions for residents. But it has since become a flashpoint for concern from a segment of the public. Some question aspects of the plan itself – the cost and benefit of electrifying the RDCK vehicle fleet, or the financial impact of new building codes on people struggling to build their own homes.

But others have read more into the plan, tying it to global centralized government control and urban planning models they say will limit mobility and increase surveillance. Rumours even circulated the RDCK plan would ban diesel tractors and compost piles.

So, in April, the RDCK put a hold on adopting the plan, and decided to have more public consultation. Concern grew about rhetoric circulating, however, and a round planned for June and July was cancelled, with officials citing concerns about staff safety. Those meetings have now been rescheduled from late August to late October.

Hardwired for polarization

Some of the more extreme rhetoric doesn’t surprise Barron, who says it’s a hallmark of the polarization of our current public discourse. She sees the real problem isn’t so much that people are opposed to a policy or plan – it’s that a complex problem has become over-simplified, and debate stifled into black-and-white, us-vs-them, tribal positions.

“What we are losing is not just moderate voices, but complexity, the richness of multiplicity of different perspectives that are really needed to address these vexing problems,” she says.

Perceptions of inequality, and stresses caused by a world in constant change – anything that shakes up the status quo that can be perceived as a threat – increases the chance of people becoming polarized in their outlook, she says.

“Then we surround ourselves with people who are like-minded … That can be a good thing at times, but we can also affirm each other’s fears and beliefs,” she says. “We can just keep stoking them and we get these silos of people who think like us, because that feels safe. No contrary information can penetrate which can contradict it.”

That need to belong and feel safe can make it hard for people to express dissent, and people can block out information that contradicts the group beliefs.

And she says it would be a mistake to think this is a phenomenon that affects just one end of the political spectrum.

“Every single one of us is vulnerable to this kind of dynamic. We are even hard-wired for polarization,” she notes. “If we want to challenge this, or resist this, we have to start with ourselves.”

Courageous dialogues

Bridging the political and ideological chasm means starting by tackling our own assumptions and certainties, and not directly challenging to people’s beliefs. Researchers say that getting into arguments armed with facts and statistics isn’t going to change people’s minds anyway.

“We have this belief we are rational creatures, and if we just overwhelm the other person with true facts and logical argument, we’ll win the day,” she says. “But you’ll win the way you win an arm wrestle. You haven’t won in the sense of changing hearts and minds, or opening people up. We know now we will never win anyone over with our opinion until we genuinely understand theirs.”

Studies and experiments by other researchers have shown that deep and sincere listening, compassion, intellectual humility, and understanding the source of the fear and mistrust are necessary steps in the process. One technique is having small-scale dialogues – something the new round of RDCK talks proposes – to break up the larger-scale group think and see beyond labels and simplifications.

Another element is finding common ground.

“We all have principles – equity, justice, fairness and inclusion – and these are things that matter a lot to people,” says Barron. “They may drive us to different positions or conclusions on an issue, but we do still have these principles in common. We can perhaps explore the principles in common and maybe get a little further.”

But how does one engage with angry or irrelevant arguments and issues that are also part of the debate? Through understanding and listening, Barron reiterates.

“There are points of view we can’t engage with because they are abhorrent to us—but if we are not engaging with the points of view, but rather with the feeling, the needs, the fears that are driving that, that is where we have to go,” she says.

One place to start is understanding the pushback is coming from past experience.

“Yes, government has done some horrible things – and there are people around here who have experienced that,” she notes, referencing the persecution of the region’s Doukhobours in the past. “They have good reason to be distrustful.

“You can easily hear the fear there, the sense of injustice, the sense of inequality – saying ‘this is fine for rich people, but we don’t have a lot of money’ – I think it is so transparent, so obvious, the insecurity and fear that has to be directly addressed.”

Engaging the majority

Some people won’t be receptive to that outreach, Barron concedes. But there are people – most people – who are not at the extremes, and can be engaged on the issues at hand.

“Because when those people have their needs met, and their fears assuaged, they are not so vulnerable or susceptible to the extreme voices that are hogging the oxygen in the room,” she says. “We also have to remember the vast majority of people do believe in the need for climate action, and they are looking to all levels of government to act, to lead, and to govern … not control, but steer.”

So the RDCK’s challenge in the upcoming meetings is to get a representative sample of the community into the discussion – to not let it be dominated by a highly motivated, highly vocal, and highly oppositional group, she says.

“We who care about democracy need to inspire more participation by reasonable folks,” she says.

She says that means attracting people from all economic, social and political backgrounds or beliefs to the table. The nature of rural living – which sociologists note can see people from different backgrounds or economic or social classes mixing more readily than in urban centres– can also be an asset for combatting polarization. If you need to rely on your neighbour, or have regular conversations with them, you’re less likely to demonize them or trivialize their views.

“We have to take that principle, that rural value of helping each other, and transcend our differences to help each other. And take that as a point of pride as something that can really keep us cohesive as a community.”

While it is a dominant feature of our times, polarization may ultimately run its course.

“There are people who are old enough to remember when disagreement didn’t turn into animosity,” she says. “There are a large number of people who feel silenced by polarization, who feel they have to take one side or the other, or remain silent.”

“One thing that makes me hopeful is that I do think people are fed up with polarization. We don’t like living in a place of fear, loathing, and distrust,” adds Barron. “More than anything, that can bring us together.

“We have it in us to do much better.”


Regional District of Central Kootenay cancels climate plan open houses due to safety concerns

• RDCK Climate Action Plan public meetings to be held this fall