Citizens well informed about climate change make for better polling, argue Alison Atherton and Rebecca Short
WORLD WIDE Views on Global Warming Australia was part of a global citizen deliberation project of the same name. It was the first time the deliberative method has been used on a global scale. Participants had the chance to access balanced information materials based on up to date science, discuss the issues with each other and, through this hear from a range of competing stakeholders, to help them shape their overall opinions before voting.
The aim is to reflect a more considered public view, with one group facilitator describing the ‘eagerness to understand and then to respond and… come up with the best response possible’.
Citizen deliberation is a tool that has been used regularly by the Danish government (who instigated the World Wide Views event), to learn how citizens feel on a range of issues and what policy makers should do next. It has been valuable in influencing Danish policy, and this project was created to provide useful data for climate negotiators at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
Citizen deliberations have been used successfully in many countries around the world. In Australia, these kinds of processes have been used in discussions over the Australian Republic and on climate change, for example the Green Cross National People’s Assembly on Climate Change.
There are clear benefits to making citizen deliberation a regular feature of Australian democracy. World Wide Views proved that Australians are motivated to discuss important issues in an appropriate forum. It can provide policy makers with a direct link to the public and in-depth advice on policy options. Citizen deliberation does not seek to favour one side or another on an issue; instead the focus is on fostering genuine dialogue between ordinary people, based on access to good information.
Is it just another poll?
The citizens’ collated views are emphatically in support of strong climate action. For example, the support for Australia to join a global deal to curb climate change was 94%. 89% supported emissions cuts of 25% or higher by 2020 for developed countries including Australia. In comparison, the Australian Greens Party released a Galaxy poll on November 15 saying that 54% of Australians surveyed wanted absolute emissions cuts of 25% or higher. Recent Pew Centre and Lowy Institute polls imply that interest in climate change is waning.
An explanation of the differences between deliberative processes and polling does not lend itself well to pithy media soundbites. In general terms though, a deliberative process provides a much more informed and in-depth view of public opinion than a snapshot poll result. It reflects ordinary people’s views once they’ve had a chance to think over the issues and test their opinions against others. Through one-on-one briefings with politicians and advisors, and through a short documentary, the Institute for Sustainable Futures is endeavouring to communicate what has been done and what it means on the world stage.
Something that isn’t explicitly built into the process but is often an outcome is the impact on participants’ everyday lives. Participants who were previously ambivalent on the issue can experience personal changes in their views that result in them becoming advocates.
As well as the formal voting and other procedures built into the process, World Wide Views captured people’s informal feedback in surveys, on video, and when they were interviewed by their local media. Many said that they had heard about climate change, but didn’t really know what to think, or what the right course of action was. After the event they were more confident in articulating the issues and the possible solutions.
One Vietnam Veteran in his 60s, who said he was a ‘fence sitter’ before attending, now believes “"We are destroying the planet. Scientific results displayed at the event proved global warming was happening,"
Some did their own press release, several were interviewed by their local paper, and told us that they since fielded comments and questions, mostly supportive, in their community. One of the participants, with a strong sense of personal spirituality, is speaking on his experience to a group of HSC religious studies students, at an inter-faith seminar.
For issues like climate change, which so often remain the province of politicians, experts and policy makers, processes like World Wide Views democratise knowledge and decision-making.
Right now, with Copenhagen so close, interest and awareness is being raised through forums all over Australia, like GetUp, 350.org, and others. World Wide Views however, did not attract people through their passion on climate change or community activism. Instead it randomly selected totally un-connected members of the public and invited them to take part, forming a “mini public”.
The final report for the Australian event has just been released and provides detailed facts and stats on how Australians voted and how this compared to the rest of the world. •
Alison Atherton and Rebecca Short are working on the World Wide Views on Global Warming project in Australia