Larry Ragland, an unemployed health insurance executive from Methuen, MA., was mesmerized by the recent United Nations Climate Change talks in Copenhagen (COP-15), eager to see the nations work out a deal to address global warming. He confessed, “It was almost as much of a priority as my job search. I read every article that came out… in the Globe or the Wall Street Journal and I would clip it and file it in my bag. It was very exciting.”
Ragland hadn’t always been fascinated by the topic. In fact, a short time ago, he thought the whole idea of global warming was mostly hype. "I'm from West Virginia; coal miners don't talk a lot about climate change," explained Ragland. "I'm not an environmentalist and (a few) weeks ago I had a completely different impression of what climate change meant."
Ragland’s newly discovered enthusiasm was inspired by a historic event, World Wide Views on Global Warming, the first-ever international citizen deliberation summit, conducted to prepare for COP-15. Usually, deliberation of and decisions about highly technical, scientific and economic challenges, such as COP-15, transpire among experts, diplomats and politicians. However, the Danish Board of Technology (DBT) sought to bring to the table the voices of ordinary citizens from around the world whose lives will be impacted by those decisions. On September 26, 2009, over 4000 individuals in 38 countries participated in the World Wide Views on Global Warming project, meeting in groups of approximately 100 demographically representative individuals. Across the globe over a 36-hour period, groups conducted a similar process all addressing the same questions and sending their individual and collective input to Denmark, to be shared with delegates at COP-15.
Ragland attended the event at the Museum of Science in Boston, host to one of five WWViews sites in the United States, in collaboration with faculty at Boston University’s School of Public Health, Environmental Health Department and The Brookfield Institute, While the results of the day’s efforts can be found on at WWViews.org, the impact of this powerful experience of civil society and dialogue is still unfolding. Now, in the wake of COP-15, Boston WWViews’ participants and facilitators reflect on this ground-breaking experience.
Involvement in WWViews heightened Paul Lambe’s awareness of the global impact of COP-15—and, consequently prompted a greater disillusionment at the outcome. “The more one becomes concerned and educated, the more excited and/or more disappointed one can become.” Lambe, a Boston site facilitator from Beverly, MA, was disturbed by the apparent lack of preparation. “It felt to me like a lot of pre-work had not been done (ours in particular), and the whole trap of walking into negotiations with the veto power of Congress behind us, is a terribly ineffective way to engage.” Other participants mirrored Lambe’s response. Patricia Blakeney, a Dorcester resident, commented, “I kind of wish the U.S. was in a position to have done more.” She added, “I understand why–we aren’t sticking our necks out until we see the Chinese people are going to stick to what they are saying, but I wish we had done more.” Cindy Oriani, a teacher from Londonderry, NH, was also frustrated with the results. She indicated it was difficult for politicians to commit to something many U.S. citizens didn’t support. “I know people who still believe there’s no global warming, and we need to do more education about it.” Ragland was more optimistic. “I think something is better than nothing. We’ve made an agreement to start helping underdeveloped countries. That is significant. The U.S. is now on board, unlike the Kyoto Protocol. The big emitter countries have made a commitment. Everyone is going to try to do something. I give them an overall grade of ‘B’.”
Three aspects of the process were critical to the success of the WWViews project: a process that intentionally brings diverse perspectives into dialogue well-grounded with accurate, accessible information. Lars Klüver, Director of the DBT and President of the WWViews Alliance describes it as “constructive inclusion.” Inclusion means not only being physically present, but also actively engaged in both listening and speaking—in an attitude of learning and dialogue– throughout the deliberations.
An experience of dialogue is, unfortunately, rare for many in our culture. Dialogue involves interaction between speaking and listening, staying in relationship while holding in tension the differences among individual interests. It also implies an openness to learning— in gaining a greater understanding of others as well as in expanding awareness of the issues at hand and deepening knowledge of one’s own position. Lambe observed this learning among members of his small group, “At the start of the day, there were those who were better informed, others apologetic about their lack of interest or knowledge. As the day went on, voices got stronger…each finding his or her voice through the process. Some perhaps realizing that they had an opinion on something, or strengthening their opinion through the engagement with others.”
For some, the topic of global warming was new. Others were more familiar with the science of climate change, and still others had followed the economics and politics very closely. Each point of view, hope expressed, concern articulated, or personal story shared was recognized as important. Facilitators at tables of eight were focused on bringing each voice into the conversation and holding the group in productive tension.
The energy generated from carefully facilitated dialogue among the diverse gathering was palpable throughout the day. Participants were ordinary people, selected from hundreds of applicants, to represent different ages, genders, education levels, regional locations, occupations, ethnicity and race. Blakeney was moved by “the excellent cross section of people with different ideas.” She noted that, “as the day wore on, and we began to know each other, the group really came together. It was interesting how we started thinking alike.” Ragland was touched by the experience. “Being in a diverse group like that was powerful. (The diversity) wasn’t just race, but age, where people came from, education and perspective.
In a recent op-ed to the Boston Globe (10/3/09), Richard Sclove, U.S. Advisor to WWViews and Founder and Senior Fellow of The Loka Institute, points out that providing uniform and balanced information, as well as engaging participants in small, neutrally-facilitated groups with a commitment to spend a day in learning and deliberating together, results in “not seat-of-the-pants opinion, but carefully considered judgment.” Opportunities for informed, facilitated dialogue among lay participants introduce the wisdom of ordinary people into important conversations about public policy decisions that could have profound impact on their lives.
In the end, the chance to be involved in WWViews appears to have ignited the interest and passion of many participants to actively respond to the crisis of global warming and to have a voice in global policy-making. Oriani concludes, “It is about our world and our children’s children continuing to be part of this earth, so we have to keep doing something.”
Co-authors Beverly Prestwood-Taylor and Karen Nell Smith are founders of the Brookfield Institute, a non-profit organization committed to working at the intersection of healing of the person, the community and the earth.