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World Wide Views on Global Warming

The Center

[Note: The Center is proud to host guest blogger Jason Delborne who will be sharing his thoughts from Copenhagen. Delborne is an assistant professor in Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines.]

One of the side events at COP15, sponsored by the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), reported on the results of an international deliberation among citizens from 38 countries. Specifically, the DBT organized national partners to recruit approximately 100 of their citizens, reflecting the demographic diversity of each region, to deliberate over climate change policy and advise their home country’s delegations to COP15. All deliberations were held on September 26, 2009, and the DBT immediately made available all the data on the website for World Wide Views on Global Warming. [Full disclosure: I helped to organize the World Wide Views event in Colorado and am attending COP15 through a National Science Foundation grant to study the outcomes and processes of the project].

The Web site includes the four videos that were part of the citizen deliberations – all based on the scientific consensus on climate change reflected in the 2007 IPCC report. In addition, the DBT wrote a policy report that analyzed the data to present nine policy recommendations to negotiators at COP15. Finally, and perhaps most exciting, the website allows customized comparisons among countries, continents, and types of countries.

For example, one can generate a report that compares the answers of citizens in China with the compiled answers from low income countries. This sort of analysis gives quite a different perspective from the official negotiations at COP15. First of all, citizens around the world—from both rich and poor countries—showed tremendous enthusiasm for reaching a deal at COP15. What is most striking is the relative parity in citizen responses—a contrast to the view in the popular media that national interest constantly trumps concerns about global well-being. For example, citizens in low-income countries and high-income countries did not differ in their responses to the question, “How urgent do you think it is to make a global climate deal?” Both sets of citizens answered “It is urgent, and a deal should be made at COP15″ (92%), with a minority stating that “It is important, but it can wait a few years” (6%), and small fractions choosing the other three responses: “A deal can wait until serious effects of climate change occur,” “I do not want a global deal,” or “Don’t know / do not wish to answer” (~1% each). Such a sense of world consensus would be hard to decipher looking at the pattern of media coverage and official negotiations at COP15.

The most intriguing result reflected the willingness of citizens from the least developed countries to not just limit the growth of their carbon emissions, but to actually reduce emissions (58% of respondents). Citizens from wealthier nations, in fact, did not place such a burden on poorer nations – only 37% of those citizens thought that poor countries should reduce emissions, with a stronger majority (53%) choosing a more lenient response to the question of emissions targets for the least developed countries: “Their growth in emissions should be somewhat limited and increasingly so the richer they are and the more they emit.”

In other words, the poorest people in the world state that they are prepared to reduce emissions even as they pursue economic growth. This stands in stark contrast with the official negotiation positions of most developing nations, who argue forcefully for permission to increase emissions, albeit modestly, as they pursue development. This stance contributes to the stalemate in which developed nations argue about whether they should have to significantly reduce emissions even while emissions in the developing world increase. Imagine, for a moment, how destabilizing it could be for the least developed countries to claim the high ground—announcing their intention to reduce, or at least keep constant, their emissions even as they pursue economic development! Such pathways would require extraordinary technology transfer, and I am unsure whether such a commitment would allow the achievement of decent standards of living for the world’s poorest in the short term, but it would be a welcome disruption to the politics of self-interested negotiations in Copenhagen.

To be fair, World Wide Views cannot claim to represent faithfully the opinions of citizens across the entire globe. Only 38 countries were represented, and the participants—while diverse and unaffiliated with groups or companies with political commitments around climate change—were mostly self-selected. Critics might simply dismiss the results as only indicative of the opinions of individuals already interested in climate change policy (environmentalists?). But would such critics then turn around and simply defend the common opinion poll? While perhaps statistically significant, an opinion poll takes the temperature of civil society in a very bizarre fashion. Dinners are interrupted and citizens respond to difficult questions without access to additional information or any sort of context for considering how best to answer the poll. In contrast, World Wide Views participants gave considered opinions and had the opportunity to interact with one another and with scientific information before stating their preferences. Is one way of measuring the opinion of citizens necessarily better than the other?

The official side event for World Wide Views on Global Warming, held last Thursday in the Bella Center, required a payment of 15,000 Euros, a cost that the Danish Board of Technology absorbed with a special grant. Perhaps 200 people attended – a mix of NGOs, media, and delegates. Citizen participants from Egypt, Vietnam, and Norway testified about their experiences deliberating; and other experts discussed the significance of the project’s results. It was a lively and provocative meeting.

What is less clear is whether those with the power to make decisions on behalf of the world’s citizens are listening to those they claim to represent.

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