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Copenhagen Day 3: World Wide Views on Global Warming

December 9, 2009

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I’m not posting a blog for today because I just participated in a debate with World Wide Views for Global Warming on the role of citizen engagement in public policy. I got a little carried away when they told me I had to prepare a 5 minute opening statement. I was the only panel member who did. As a result, a number of people asked me for a copy of my presentation notes. I promised them they could read it on the Canada’s World blog – so here it is…

Copenhagen tck tck tck campaign signatures

Tcktcktck members hand over petition of 10 million names asking for decisive action on climate change at Copenhagen. Creative Commons photo courtesy Oxfam's Flickr account.

I think that the theme of today’s debate is particularly relevant to our situation in Copenhagen.  Since I’ve arrived I’ve been struck by two observations:

1)  There is a stunning array of initiatives calling attention to the crisis of climate change – the likes of which I’ve never seen.
2)  These initiatives seem wholly unrelated to the negotiations underway at the Bella Centre (the official location of the COP 15 meetings).

Why is it that thousands of citizens have come to Copenhagen to express their hopes, fears, frustrations and solutions to global warming?  I think it is because there is a revolution emerging in the way we think about state-centred international institutions and their capacity to deliver public goods for their citizens.

This revolution did not begin in Copenhagen.  It’s been building for years and finds its expression in municipalities taking independent action to introduce eco-city initiatives, in women starting the green belt movement in Africa, in capital markets including environmental risks in their valuations of businesses or in social entrepreneurs finding alternative investment vehicles to support clean technology development.

The harsh reality of our 21st century is that the power of the state is eroding and stepping into fill the gap is a multiplicity of non-state actors who will not be silenced or acquiesce to  governments’ impotency to address the key challenges of our time. I suggest that this is a harsh reality not because I favour big government or centralized control – but because without a state that recognizes its responsibilities to its citizens and to the global community, our democracies are in peril.

I wholeheartedly want to believe that sense will prevail and that our leaders will leave Copenhagen with a fair and globally binding agreement that will have meaningful impact on reducing green house gas emissions – but I’m not naive.  I think the chances are very, very remote despite

–        The 10 million plus signatures delivered by tck,tck,tck
–        The daily flash mobs of youth activists or,
–        The hundreds of desperate please emerging across the world

I was involved almost 20 years ago in the Canadian delegation for the UN Conference on Environment and Development and although many of us at the time believed we were entering the dawn of a new era where real action on environment and development was possible, the reality was quite different.  We have fallen behind on almost every goal we set for ourselves in Rio. For example:

–        We have increased global inequity
–        We have overfished our ocean stocks
–        Hundreds of species are at risk of extinction
–        And many countries have not met their commitments to reduce their carbon footprints (my country being among the worst in increasing its overall per capital GHG emissions)

I’m not generally a cup-half-empty kind of person, but I think we need to confront the complex and difficult-to-admit reality of our situation.  The traditional democratic levers for social change are failing us.

Let me use my own country as an example –   We know from our work with Canada’s World, World Wide Views and the polling of various companies that Canadian citizens want a globally binding, fair and effective agreement to reduce green house gas emissions.  Yet, we have a Prime Minister who represents a minority government who refuses to take any concrete action before the US sets their targets.  And because we don’t have an effective opposition, he will likely get away with undermining these negotiations.

So where does that leave the citizens of Canada in Copenhagen?

–        Without an effective political voice inside the Bella Centre
–        Or let me restate this – with a voice that is actually undermining the very results citizens aspire to for their country.

So to counteract this we come in droves to Copenhagen – old and young, business leaders and activists to communicate a different message.  But therein lies the travesty of our situation – our voices aren’t penetrating the real negotiations at Bella Centre. Some people like Naomi Klein might argue that the real change will be instigated by the voices outside the room, not inside the room and to some extent I agree – but not entirely.

My view of democracy still involves the state acting in the interests of citizens. I have no interest in contributing to a situation where our governments are treated with such disdain that citizens stop voting – instead opting to bypass the state to “create the change they want to see in the world”.

It’s a vicious cycle fed by government failing to act, fuelled by citizens abandoning formal political processes for change. And while citizens acting independently will deliver positive results – it isn’t enough.  We need the instruments of regulation and redistribution to deliver as well.

Which brings me to World Wide Views –  I don’t want to suggest that citizen deliberative dialogues are by any measure a panacea – they are not.  But what they do deliver is a political literacy because they force citizens to move beyond sloganeering, partisanship and oppositional politics to grapple with substantive policy issues.  They focus on engaging the unconverted citizen and this is no easy feat.  It takes a great deal of effort to move a uniformed citizen through the arc of awareness to education, then on to judgement, advocacy and ultimately to action.

One of the few ways to do this is by engaging citizens in the debate – by enabling them to formulate their own views based on informed dialogue with other citizens.

Our democracies are sick and while I’ve never been so inspired with the independent actions of our civil society, our green businesses and our philanthropic communities to address climate change, I sincerely hope that these actions do not displace the role and responsibility of our governments to act.We need more processes that engage citizens in understanding policy.  We must hold our governments to account while at the same time creating and demonstrating alternatives for action.

Thank You.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2009 12:22 pm

    Hi Renee,

    Great questions. I don’t think the fight for climate change is either a cause for the affluent or separate in any way from the struggles we have for other public goods.

    Way back in the late 80s I started a group called the BC Environment and Development Working Group. My aim was to get those who think about equity and justice issues together with those who were concerned about environmental issues. Those were the days when we barely interacted as social movements nor did we have a sense of our common cause. A great deal has changed since the late ’80s. Those working on climate change are deeply aware and concerned about issues of equity and justice. They recognize that climate change is the symptom of much broader social, political and economic conditions and they know that those most adversely affected will be the poor and marginalized of our societies.

    My first introduction to climate change didn’t come from those coddled by the welfare state. I first learned about climate change from people living in coastal communities in South East Asia and in the Maldives. They recognized the detrimental impact of increasing sea levels on their way of life long before the Canadian Environmental Network had a climate change caucus. Add to this list farmers living through extensive droughts in Bolivia, rural B.C. based forest based communities contending with the pine beetle and Inuit communities contending with shifts in hunting patterns due to melting ice, and the story of climate change looks less and less like the pet issue of “capuccinno-sipping alarmists” and more and more like an issue of survival for marginalized communities.

    As to the links to other public goods….I’ll have to save that to another day when I’m a little more coherent. Unfortunately, the air mattress isn’t working for me and I’m so tired, I’m barely able to string a sentence together.


  2. December 10, 2009 4:32 pm

    Well said.

    The problem – one I hope we can all resolve before it gets too late, but the problem nonetheless – I think is the problem we face in (a) building awareness and education of the need for a stronger, representative government, without (b) the support of the leading institutions in our society (large business interests and government itself), which are by and large content with the present situation.

    I’m not surprised that the major political parties, which in and of themselves are largely undemocratic components of the political landscape, are not especially interested in greater critical engagement by large numbers of the public isn’t surprising. But a bottom-up movement to take back our government is a daunting task. It’s too bad we don’t have another century to lay the groundwork.

  3. December 10, 2009 12:18 pm

    Brava, Shauna! Thank you for being there for those of us who’d like to be where you are, but can’t. I thought about you and Jenny all day yesterday – really enjoying your posts and this one is an important statement.

    I am particularly drawn to your affirmation of “faith” in the state, for all its flaws. In our Canadian context, I think of public universal, single payor state health insurance, for example. I don’t want to live in a world without that singular Canadian contribution. I really like public transit and public education, as well.

    How can our actions in the fight to battle climate change support public health, education and transportation/transit infrastructure. That’s question number one, from me to you.

    Question number two, I’d appreciate hearing your views about what was front page news yesterday in the Globe and Mail re the “Africa” split vis a vis “first world/developed world” delegates to Copenhagen v “the Others” – this is a split I see mirrored in our own country.

    Too often I worry that the drumbeat for actions on climate change has been a chorus appropriate by only the affluent, the “educated,” and those in the centre, plugged into all the good, all the opportunities that 50 years of a stable “welfare” state has had to offer.

    As a vegan, as a non-driver, as an apartment dweller, as poet living on limited means, I sometimes feel quite disconnected from the climate change discourse.
    Your statement here helps me.
    Look forward, when you have time, to your views. R

  4. December 9, 2009 5:43 pm

    Applause! That was brilliant – thank you!


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