On August 6, I met with Prof. Michael Pregernig, Professor of Environmental Governance at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg. As stated on his page, one of his research interests is “the role of science and expertise in environmental- and resource policy, with a focus on effective policy advice (evidence based policy making) and democratic inclusiveness.” He has conducted numerous policy studies in Europe and the US, among other locations. Given these interests, I walked into his office with two big questions to tackle:
- Can science/policy interaction explain why Germany and the EU have been so much more progressive than the US in terms of climate change legislation?
- How can local governments successfully incorporate citizen participation in realizing long-term social/ecological/economic goals?
I’d explained to him already that I was thinking of these questions in the context of Smart Grids and energy governance. After taking notes on my elevator pitch, he looked up, smiled, and said, “If I could answer these questions, I would win a Nobel Prize.” Fair enough.
Question 1: Can science/policy interaction explain why Germany and the EU have been so much more progressive than the US in terms of climate change legislation?
As we tackled the first question, I made a comment about the amount of climate change skepticism in the US. Prof. Pregernig responded there are basically no climate change skeptics in Germany. On the contrary, climate change has become a policy selling-point. If someone proposes mobility legislation, for instance, the legislation is more likely to pass if framed in terms of CO2 emissions saved. Since the 1980s, German discourse has shifted towards realizing that both the environment and the economy can be improved simultaneously, while the US still largely holds an attitude of “the environment or the economy.”
Another difference between Germany and the US, based on Prof. Pregernig’s studies, is trust in government. Germans believe that government and public authority are basically good and should be relied on, which means the German government can be more regulatory than the US government. For instance, even though Germany’s Energiewende is heavily market-based, some aspects such as building an “energy highway” of power lines from the north to the south of Germany requires top-down regulation. Americans don’t seem to trust their government as strongly.
A third difference, based on Prof. Pregernig’s anecdotal experiences, is that Germany is more technocratic than the US. For instance, Freiburg’s technical research institutes have easier access to government than the social scientists. In contrast, the US universities at which Prof. Pregernig worked when studying natural resource management seemed to integrate the social sciences better into research and policy. (This last point was particularly interesting to me, as someone who feels that technical Smart Grid literature doesn’t integrate the social sciences well enough.)
Question 2: How can local governments successfully incorporate citizen participation in realizing long-term social/ecological/economic goals?
My second question was prompted by a paper Prof. Pregernig co-authored examining how two different communities — Helsingborg, Sweden and a district of Vienna, Austria — approached their sustainability processes as part of the UN’s Local Agenda 21 (LA21) initiative. The paper found that Helsingborg’s top-down, paternalistic process successfully implemented long-term ecological goals but neglected the social and economic aspects of these goals. The Viennese district’s grassroots approach, on the other hand, balanced ecological, social, and economic goals, but at the cost of setting policies with substantial long-term effects. I wondered if this analysis could provide any insights on public participation in Smart Grid policy.
Prof. Pregernig started by noting that southwest Germany (where Freiburg is) has a long history of citizen participation. The state of Baden-Württemberg has historically been led by the conservative CDU party, so a lot of its environmental progress has come from bottom-up initiatives across the state. In the 1970s, for instance, a nearby community named Whyl was to be the site of a new nuclear power plant. Just as the plant was about to be built, a group of farmers and intellectuals rose up in protest (and there was even police brutality in response). The protests ended up working, and the nuclear plant was not built. Freiburg’s Green City status is also partially explained by its long history of bottom-up participation (in addition to being a bit of a PR gag). This bottom-up enthusiasm then trickled into government; Freiburg elected its current a sustainability-aware mayor back in 2002, and sustainability is now a government priority in Freiburg. Bottom-up participation can be effective.
In terms of how participation might apply to Smart Grid policy, Prof. Pregernig responded with a few insights. The first insight was actually a key difference between LA21 and Smart Grid initiatives. LA21 processes are open-ended and “possibility-driven,” seeking to increase sustainability without any particular means in mind. Smart Grid initiatives, on the other hand, are more technology- and project-driven. Prof. Pregernig’s research suggests that project-driven initiatives tend to inspire more citizen involvement. Second, citizens tend to support projects from which they derive individual benefit, or in which benefits are shared more equally. (Third, the type of participation varies based on social composition — for instance, Freiburg is a bourgeois, intellectual community whereas nearby Mannheim is a strong industrial workers district — but we didn’t go into too much detail on that point.)
We discussed two projects exemplifying these principles. Citizens tend to participate in protests against building windmills in the Black Forest because these projects are concrete and the benefits concentrated. The owner of the hectare of land needed to build the wind turbine makes money, but the community in which the wind turbine is built doesn’t necessarily profit. On the other hand, citizens participate positively in building community biogas plants, as these projects are again concrete and additionally are communally beneficial. With a biogas plant, 50-100 farmers bring crops to a communally-owned company, generating income for all the farmers.
My next question was then: Does it make sense to integrate citizens into the transformation of the electric grid, which is project-based but a somewhat broad, abstract project? Prof. Pregernig started by saying that in some sense citizen participation is almost no longer a choice — it’s become a standard. EU policy websites breathe a “participatory” vibe, and in Germany, even top-down regulatory measures such as building the energy highway require consultation with the communities through which the power lines will pass. That being said, encouraging participation isn’t easy once a project is large. In practice, often either only elites are given a voice, or organizers invite a broader audience but the project is so open-ended that nobody shows up.
Prof. Pregernig said there are some participation mechanisms well-known in the social sciences that power planners could use to make abstract projects more concrete. (Two such methods, scenario planning and backcasting, are summarized in the figure below.) However, today’s power planners are either unaware or skeptical of these methods, and analytically-minded technologists and social scientists are often not trained to argue these methods to politicians.
In any case, citizens are more likely to participate in project-driven initiatives than possibility-driven approaches, so it’s important to make problems concrete if the goal is to inspire citizen participation.
Bonus: A quote I enjoyed from one of Prof. Pregernig’s papers:
“[A] person’s readiness to implement restoration measures, inter alia, depends on the urgency of the problem. However, it does not (only) hinge on the ‘objective’ degree of damage, but (also) on the subjective problem perception of the decision maker. The empirical survey indicates, furthermore, that these subjective perceptions are—among other things—determined by social interactions” .
 Pregernig, Michael (2002): Perceptions, Not Facts: How Forestry Professionals Decide on the Restoration of Degraded Forest Ecosystems. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (Vol. 45 – No. 1). pp. 25-38. [back]
(Note: The image featured was presented to me during the meeting as a sketch. The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)