The Public Humanist

Why World Wide Views on Global Warming

On September 26, in forty-six countries, citizens will gather to discuss, deliberate and develop positions on core questions of global climate change policy. The outcomes of these deliberations will be made publicly available through the internet. They also will be presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP-15) where participating nations will aim to establish the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The Museum of Science, Boston is among the institutions participating in the project, which is being led by the Danish Board of Technology and is called World Wide Views on Global Warming (WWVGW). The Museum of Science received a Liberty and Justice for All grant from Mass Humanities in support of their participation.

WWVGW is motivated by the recognition that global climate change policy, like all policy, is thoroughly value-laden. It involves setting goals, making trade-offs, distributing burdens and benefits, defining roles, and conferring authority, all of which involve value judgments. Therefore, in order to make informed, effective, responsible climate policy, decision-makers need ethical analysis of policy options just as much as they need economic analysis; and they need to know the considered, informed preferences of those whom they represent and will be affected by the policies as much as they need to know the views of climate change experts. Thus, WWVGW aims to complement other crucial types and sources of information and contribute to the development of effective and just climate policies.

The successor to the Kyoto Protocol will have wide-ranging environmental, economic, geo-political, technological, and social impacts. WWVGW is the attempt to accomplish some measure of genuine public participation in the process of developing the agreement. More generally, it is an attempt to operationalize in practice what many in the humanities and social sciences have long argued for in the context of global, economic, environmental, and technological issues—deliberative democracy, “up-stream” public engagement, participatory justice, citizen consultation, and grass-roots policy-making. What these methodologies have in common is that they call for a more direct role for citizens in policy decision-making processes than is typical even of representational democracies.

The justifications for providing a role for the public in policy-making processes are several. One core belief of the WWVGW organizers is that those who are affected by a policy should have a direct role in developing the policy; and that all people have equal standing that requires robust political recognition and participation. Under appropriate conditions—e.g. ones in which quality information is available, a diversity of views are represented, and critical discourse is encouraged—wisdom can be found; a public that feels as if it has been involved in policy processes is more likely to accept and act in support of the resultant policy.

The challenges to providing a role for the global citizenry in policy-making processes are substantial, and extend beyond the tremendous logistical difficulties posed by a globally coordinated day of public deliberation. “The public” and “the citizenry” are always simplifying concepts, and especially so in a global context. A day of global deliberation can involve only a very small number of the global populace. Moreover, it is a question—one that is not at all settled—just what role the public should have in policy-making processes. In direct democracy it is determinative. In (typical) representational democracy it is informational for the representative. Is there an appropriate role for public participation somewhere between or in addition to these?

Those conducting WWVGW are aware of these challenges and questions. They are attentive to the sampling issues and are exploring different roles the results might play in national and global policy processes. The methodology being used is the product of years of experience and research on the part of the Danish Board of Technology and others. They do not have all the answers, and WWVGW may in the end be imperfect. But if democracy is always a work in progress, so too is determining appropriate mechanisms for public participation in the process. At a minimum, WWVGW will make the views of several diverse publics available to delegates at COP-15, and the lessons learned can inform possible future World Wide Views on global poverty, global health, or global development.

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