Leveraging online public opinion to revitalize participatory democracy for climate action

Leveraging online public opinion to revitalize participatory democracy for climate action


February 2023

Building "green bridges" for a democratic and successful climate transition

Developed by opsci in partnership with a consortium of 13 European research and social innovation actors in response to the Horizon 2023 call for proposals, the Green Bridges project aims to create and implement new modalities of democratic deliberation for a successful climate transition. Recognizing the democratic potential of online spaces and integrating them into the design of deliberative processes, Green Bridges aspires to develop a new "data-driven" approach to participatory democracy in the face of the climate imperative, thus contributing to the realization of a just and sustainable ecological transition for all.

Context: democratic crisis, climate imperative, and "war ecology"

In the face of the climate emergency and the need to implement transition policies, political actors must address the issue of democratic institutions that will enable them to effectively respond to ecological challenges. The evolving geopolitical situation with the war in Ukraine has created a new context, described by some researchers as a "war ecology" (Charbonnier, 2022), where the energy transition becomes a crucial issue in preserving Western leadership and building public consensus.
European democratic values are being tested, notably due to opinion phenomena ranging from the perception of a "democratic deficit" to "democratic fatigue." European political participation is hindered by a lack of interest and recognition. However, the growing commitment of young people to environmental and climate issues shows a desire for democratic renewal.

Bridging the gap between majority governance and emerging social forces through data-driven democracy

The "Green Bridges" project aims to produce innovative knowledge and practices to bridge the gap between civil society and policy-makers. The goal is to build public consensus for ambitious climate policies while preserving democratic governance.
In this perspective, "internetisation," as a crucial phenomenon of Western societies, cannot be overlooked. It impacts every aspect of human life, weaves together online and offline universes, and blurs the boundaries between private and public environments, creating what Bauman (2015) calls a "liquid-modern society." The pervasiveness of the internet means that it is now completely integrated with traditional modes of activity and has become an inseparable part of public life, to the point where the distinction between the two is almost indistinguishable. In the same sense, as engagement in traditional democratic institutions is weakening across the world (Parvin, 2018), social media came to emerge as key places for socio-cultural interactions, self-expression as well as political mobilisation, especially for the non-majoritarian groups and traditionally underrepresented voices.

This "spatial" switch is extremely significant as it reinforces the rise of the "democracy of the interstices" (Graeber, 2005): on one hand, it creates new spaces for freedom and societal transformation (interstices of empowerment) and, on the other hand, reinforced by the algorithmic approach of reduced visibility of the content of other communities and social circles than oneself's, it builds the echo chambers, which contribute to the accentuation of political polarisation (e.g., the role of Twitter in Trump's 2016 election). As for the climate imperative, it has de facto become the political battlefield across European digital spaces: in France and Germany, it is one of the most discussed political topics on Twitter, especially amongst younger citizens (opsci, 2022).

In order to build consensus on green transition which would be perceived as legitimate and democratically chosen, the question ultimately is whether policy-makers can develop an understanding of citizens’ preoccupations and imaginaries well enough and fast enough to secure the necessary and urgent consent for climate policy. Being able to shed light on the reactions and socio-political narratives of the hybrid (online/offline) civil society (both climate activists, detractors, and 'undecided' citizens) in this transformed context will be key to making sure national and supranational institutions are able to respond adequately in ways that address public expectations but also in effective ways for the preservation of the planet.

Considering these challenges, Green Bridges proposes to develop an innovative interdisciplinary framework to reintroduce the non-majoritarian voices and narratives of the flourishing online "interstitial democracy" into climate governance. The novelty of this approach lies in the use of artificial intelligence technologies for data analysis (BERT, 2019-2023), enabling the study of large public opinion datasets by capturing diverse narratives and mobilizations.

Towards a Mapping of Conflictual and Consensual Areas for Better Climate Governance

By "mining" public opinion on climate policies (Green Deal/CETP), Green Bridges will provide a comparative, data- and evidence-based mapping of conflictual and consensual areas. Stakeholders and policy-makers will thus have a tool enabling them to act quickly on conflictual areas by implementing deliberative consultations aimed at preventing the entrenchment of struggles and the widening of polarization. Integrating citizens' concerns into the consultation process would help increase the success rate of the deliberation process, while involving both majority and non-majority stakeholders in the co-design of deliberation would further enhance the success rate of this process. Furthermore, consensual areas can be exploited to promote social cohesion and a positive vision of the ecological transition, which currently primarily exists in the form of "top-down" incentive measures perceived by many citizens as propaganda.
In conclusion, by harnessing digital public opinion and integrating non-majoritarian voices into climate governance, Green Bridges aims to lessen the gap between policy-makers and civil society to make a just and sustainable climate transition possible for all.

The European consortium

Liquid Democracy (Germany), University of Lucerne (Switzerland), Istanbul Technical University (Turkey), Cluster17 (France), Centre for Social Sciences (Hungary), Nexus Institute (Germany), Datactivist (France), University of Urbino (Italy), Riga Stradins University (Latvia), University of Sheffield (UK), Counterpoint (UK), Palacký University Olomouc (Czech Republic).