In Copenhagen, the People’s Voice on Climate Change

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

As this column goes to press, the long-anticipated Copenhagen climate-change talks are under way. If they succeed, the world will be presented with a treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol that attempted—and largely failed—to put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But in the run-up to Copenhagen, many world leaders and pundits seemed to agree that success is unlikely, and some have cited lagging public interest in the issue as part of the cause.

One local public-policy researcher, however, is among an international group of analysts who challenge that assessment of the public view; they have the data to back up their contention that citizens around the world want action on climate change.

Richard Sclove of Amherst is the U.S. advisor to World Wide Views on Global Warming (www.wwviews.org), an initiative of the Danish parliament’s Board of Technology. A graduate of Hampshire College, Sclove returned to the Pioneer Valley after post-graduate studies to found the nonprofit Loka Institute, dedicated to “making science and technology responsive to democratically decided social and environmental priorities.” This current effort is in line with Loka’s initiatives over many years.

On Sept. 26, World Wide Views convened dozens of gatherings around the world—roughly 4,000 people in 38 countries on six continents—each composed of a demographically representative slice of the region they were in, and conducted in-depth discussions on climate change, its effects and what should be done. Here in New England, one such meeting took place at the Boston Museum of Science, which Sclove attended.

“These coordinated assemblies were the first planet-wide citizens’ deliberation in human history,” he said in a recent interview. “Participants embraced their role as citizen advisors enthusiastically and seriously. The results are remarkable.”

The outcome contrasted sharply with a poll, published in October by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, showing that fewer Americans think climate change is a serious problem—and that fewer yet believe it is human-caused. Sclove said that more than 90 percent of participants in the World Wide Views meetings (97 percent in Boston) came down foursquare in favor of strong, immediate action to reduce emissions far beyond the modest goals of the current bills before Congress. And these folks were realistic about the costs: “Worldwide, 74 percent believe that fossil fuel prices should be increased in developed nations like ours,” Sclove said. “That percentage averaged 68 percent among citizens who met in the Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix areas, while in Boston it was 81 percent.”

Sclove emphasized that the gatherings didn’t involve some self-selected group of activists or climate scientists. “We chose everyday people selected to reflect general demographic tendencies—age, gender, education, occupation, urban versus countryside, and ethnicity or race – in their nation or region,” he explained. “And we excluded climate experts and staff from organized stakeholder groups involved with global warming.”

Why the big difference between these results and the Pew Center poll? The key, Sclove said, lay in the process. “Participants received balanced expert information in advance, based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and then spent an entire day learning together, in neutrally facilitated deliberations, before voting on policy recommendations. What we heard wasn’t seat-of-the-pants opinion in a phone call but carefully considered judgment.”

Sclove sees these results as a true indicator of the way public opinion will move as we all learn more about the consequences of global warming. “Not only do the world’s citizens believe that climate change is real,” he said, “but they’re ready to do something about it. This was deliberative democracy on a global level. Humanity has begun to find its voice.”

The next step, he emphasized, is for all of us to pitch in and amplify that voice. “We need to make sure that politicians and negotiators understand that—no matter where—when people become informed and reflect about climate change, they want their leaders to do more and go faster, not scale back and slow down.”

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board. On Nov. 23, Sclove gave a briefing about the World Wide Views results to staff from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and from the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. To contact Sclove, send an email to column@hitchcockcenter.org and your message will be forwarded to him.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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