Towards university citizens’ conventions for climate and biodiversity?

Amphithéâtre de l’UFR Mathématiques Informatique Mécanique et Automobile, à Metz. . © Conférence des présidents d’université – Université de Lorraine

How can students be supported to enable them to deal with the complex problems posed by climate change and the collapse of biodiversity ? The French Citizens’ Climate Convention (Paris October 2019 – June 2020) offers some food for thought.

Initially published in French by TheConversation and automatically translated using (free version)

The agenda of the Citizens’ Climate Convention between October 2019 and June 2020.

Towards university citizens’ conventions for climate and biodiversity?

I have been a professor of physics at the University of Grenoble Alpes for almost 25 years. Today, probably very late, my reflection is summarized by the article of the climatologist Jean Jouzel in The Conversation: 

«  Why universities must declare a state of ecological and climatic emergency » , 

which contains for only pedagogical indication:

«  To do this, it is essential to integrate ecological and climatic action into all disciplines. »

If the title of the article obliges us, the pedagogical proposal seems to me very limited, especially if the question for universities to have an impact on all students. Who is going to come in each discipline to teach global warming? Are we going to do a course on global warming per isolated discipline? One for law specialists, another for physicists, for historians, or a general, superficial and indigestible presentation of the countless online articles? How can we meet the challenges if not by bringing students together in a common reflection, whatever the course?

Difficult it is true, because for the most part, the university proceeds by specialized academic disciplines and/or by matching the professions linked to the socio-economic and industrial world. Yesterday, it has been a success. You don’t always have to flagellate yourself. But in coming times, it won’t work.

Accompanying students towards this future fraught with inescapable threats challenges the universities at the very heart of their education and training model. Furthermore, it is a matter of urgency. These global problems, which are extremely complex, cannot be projected onto the disciplines of the university and the associated teaching. How can educational tools and pedagogical forms be invented when we are already in a state of ecological and climatic emergency?

Let’s try to look at how to do this by taking the French Citizens’ Climate Convention as a benchmark, which took place in Paris from October 2019 to June 2020.

The “wicked problems” or rebellious problems

In order to enter into this pedagogical exploration, we need a framework for reflection that addresses the specificity of these global problems that are so complex and difficult for everyone.

In 2014, Michael Torman of the World Bank described global warming as a “wicked problem“. Already in 2008, Richard J. Lazarus, professor of law at Harvard University, spoke of climate change as a “super wicked problem”. Many other authors have developed this approach.

The “wicked problems” were identified and named at the University of California at Berkeley by two design theorists, Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. Their 1973 paper entitled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” is online. It is still an important reference. The summary already indicates that this may indeed be the framework:

“The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optinaal solutions” to social probIems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers. »

The meaning of wicked and tame are a serious difficulty for me here (not to mention translation in French). In their 2017 article, “Forms of public innovation through design: an attempt at mapping“, researchers Jean-Marc Weller and Frédérique Pallez talk about situations that are considered thorny. One finds for wicked, complex, pernicious, rebellious even perverse (Bruno Latour, “Où atterrir”, 2017), and for tame, mastered, controlled…

Thinking of global warming as a “wicked” problem or a “tame” problem, which describes two opposite approaches to social action, helps us to think about student support. The “wicked problem” prism underlines that it is not only scientific and technical rationality that will underpin our response to these challenges, but also the emergence of a collective and civic consciousness, built rationally with the students, even if in the urgency of time.

The French Citizens’ Climate Convention: a gold mine for universities?

In the context of this pedagogical reflection, the French Citizens’ Climate Convention is presented as an exploratory approach, which we can try to situate within this framework of “wicked problems”. This convention brought together 150 profiles to represent the diversity of French citizens.

I heard some of the participants explain how this experience has transformed their approach to global warming, from daily life to global issues. This is what Stéphane Foucart reports in his recent column in Le Monde :

«  It was only at the convention that many of the 150 selected citizens discovered the seriousness of the climate problem. And yet the overwhelming majority of them approved ambitious proposals. »

They worked and they learned as they worked. They collectively appropriated multiple knowledge and information. They built common proposals that they share with us today. What will or will not come out of this for our society at the political level is not my purpose as a teacher. I see the citizens’ convention as a collective and committed experience of learning by doing that is out of the ordinary.

How can we quickly build together a collective consciousness anchored in reality, which will allow society to move forward? By this yardstick, it is if not a gold mine, then at least a source of inspiration for universities seeking how to accompany all students on these issues with immense stakes for their future lives.

7 sessions of 3 days to seek, understand and validate together

Thierry Pech, co-chair of the convention’s governance committee, has often stressed the effectiveness of the process. The whole process took place in seven three-day sessions. Each session included specific themes, methods and actions.

From session 1 to 4, we note three times “identify” in the objectives and two times “decode”. Probably, I imagine, hours of consulting experts, witnesses, actors, noting, perspiring in the discussions, trying to understand by helping each other.

Starting with session 5, there are three “validations”. Validate is a verb that carries a lot of weight. In the university world, validation is the result of scientific exchange, the test of critical thinking, open, shared, rigorous and productive controversy. Not easy, demanding, but at the heart of the university ideal based on the scientific method. Validating together means verifying that the proposal for action is based on information that has been properly validated, on knowledge that has been evaluated, even, and above all, if it proves to be limited.

University citizens’ conventions are feasible!

Seven three-day sessions, a calendar that specifies stages and objectives from session to session, the citizens’ convention has shown through experience that attempting the exercise is feasible with the means and skills of universities. We are talking here about four weeks. An academic year is about 25 weeks. 75 weeks for a three-year degree.

The number of students in France is approaching 3 million. Creating four-week university citizens’ conventions must first be an experiment with a limited number of students.

When I hear the concerns, the discouragement or the anxieties of the students around me, I have no doubt that they would be found at the rendezvous of a proposal like a university citizens’ convention, including to build it together. They are all adults and citizens.

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