[A version of this article originally appeared in The Huffington Post]
Last Saturday, October 24, was 350.org's International Day of Climate Action. Citizens all over the world participated in rallies and creative actions to let governments and delegates to the Copenhagen climate change conference know they want real solutions on climate change now, and not incremental steps or half measures that punt to some future day of reckoning.
Here's a little creative action you can do to mark the occasion right now from your computer. Go ahead and News-Google the words: New Survey Climate Change. Watch what happens. At present writing, the top two search results that come up are utterly, irreconcilably contradictory. The first is a writeup of a groundbreaking project that I advised, World Wide Views on Global Warming, which surveyed citizens in the US and 37 other countries; we found that everywhere, including in the U.S., citizens want much more aggressive action on climate change than either the U.S. Congress or the negotiators preparing for the Copenhagen seem prepared to consider. The second is an article about a new Pew poll that shows the number of Americans who see global warming as a threat has fallen 20% in the last two years.
Who's right? It seems that our representatives in Washington and delegates to the UN COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen are eager to believe the second poll. Congressional debate on climate change legislation and preparations for COP15 are both following a similar pattern of lowering ambitions and expectations, focusing on limited areas of current agreement and incremental steps, and deferring more contentious issues of targets, timetables, funding and enforcement until some later date. We are increasingly hearing from climate policymakers that it will take more time to do things right, that we have to meet people where they are instead of imposing radical reforms from above.
But there is reason to believe that they're dead wrong, and that citizens are way ahead of the policy makers, despite what some polls say. Climate change polls typically spend a few minutes on the phone asking a random sample of people a couple of superficial, often leading questions, frequently interrupting dinnertime. The process elicits off-the-cuff reactions to complex issues that are profoundly consequential to life on our planet. It's a dubious way to gather opinion on a sober subject like climate change, and many understandably shrug it off with some cynicism.
World Wide Views on the other hand is a citizen deliberative process distinct from polling, and expanded for the first time to the global level. Unlike polls or this summer's over-heated Congressional "town halls" on health care, World Wide Views participants received balanced expert information in advance, based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Then they spent an entire day learning together, in neutrally facilitated deliberations, prior to voting on policy recommendations.
Participants were everyday people selected to reflect general demographic tendencies in their nation or region in terms of age, gender, education, occupation, urban versus countryside, and ethnicity or race. Climate experts and staff from organized stakeholder groups involved with global warming were excluded. "I'm from West Virginia; coal miners don't talk a lot about climate change," explained Larry Ragland, a participant from Methuen, Massachusetts. "I'm not an environmentalist, and two weeks ago I had a completely different impression of what climate change meant."
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Thousands of people like Larry gathered on September 26th in Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America. During the course of the day, they voted overwhelmingly that their leaders should do far more and go far faster, not scale back and slow down as they're apparently doing now.
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Stephen Kent runs the public interest and public policy media consultancy KentCom LLC
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