Monday, March 23, 2009

From Copenhagen, Day 1

So I've fallen into a very interesting project related to the UN COP15 climate negotiations to take place in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Danish Board of Technology, which advises the Danish Parliament on matters of technology assessment, has developed a methodology for providing public input on difficult matters of policy. To make a long story short, they have decided to go global with the project.

On September 26, if all goes as planned, meetings will take place at 55 sites in 46 countries around the world.  At each meeting, 100 citizens will learn about climate change, then discuss and vote on answers to various questions. The results will be posted to the web as they are gathered. The task then will be to bring the results to the attention of delegates at COP15. The whole thing is called the World Wide Views project (

I'm here in Copenhagen for the launch seminar, where project managers are trained for the 55 local meetings. I don't think I'm the project manager, but I am at least involved in setting up a meeting for Atlanta. Today was the (very full) first day of the seminar; we received an overview of COP15 and the method of WWViews; we talked about recruiting citizens for participation, and we've started to grapple with diffiuclt questions both practical and theoretical. We also went to a reception at the Danish Parliament. We have eaten really fine food.

In many ways this is an extraordinary event. As far as any of us here know, this is the first time anyone has attempted public participation at this scale. 44 countries spread across all 6 habitable continents are represented here, and the meetings we organize may include nearly 6000 people around the world.

I'm not writing to praise the project, though I think it's a fine idea in principle, and I'm happy to be involved. Instead, I wanted to draw out some of my worries about the project, if only to make them explicit so they can be dealt with.

The first is an odd duality. On the one hand, the hope is to allow citizens to express themselves, to become informed enough to make their own recommendations to the COP15 delegates. Along these lines, there is real concern that we not manipulate the process or the citizens as they deliberate.

On the other hand, the hope is to use the citizens to pressure the delegates into doing what we (whoever "we" are) think they should do, take the risks we (again) think they should take. Along these lines, there is real concern that we not appear to manipulate the process or the citizens as they deliberate.

I think we should stick firmly to the former. There are others who want to swing toward the latter, because of their own policy commitments.

Much will depend on how the whole thing is framed for participants, how the questions are formulated and presented. I have the impression that the citizens involved will have very little leeway in changing the formulation of the questions. (The results have to be comparable across meetings, after all.)

I'll watch carefully as the questions are revised and finalized.

The second thing I noted follows from the idea that "we" need to pressure delegates to COP15 to take swift action in the "correct" direction. In a presentation at the beginning of today's session, a Danish official offered the following imperative:
The science is clear: we must act now.

Set aside for the moment the vagueness of these two claims. Even assuming both claims are just obviously true, the relationship between them is far from clear. The imperative to "act now" is supposed to follow simply from the clarity of scientific consensus, but it does not. There are steps in between.

(For those keeping score at home, I glean this insight from Hume's critique of attempts to derive ought from is, and from Kant's idea of the hypothetical imperative.)

First, formalize the claim:
Given X, we ought to do Z.

Where X = "the scientific consensus on climate change" and Z = "act [in some specific way] now!"

There's a missing step, though.
Given X, if we want Y, then we ought to do Z.

Where Y = some basic value or goal.

Stating the claim in this form makes it possible to ask very pointed questions about each component and their interactions. A sample:

Is X really true? Does everyone agree? If there is disagreement, on what is it based? (Note that some people disagree with X because they don't like Z, and they accuse those who do advocate for Z of twisting X to get what they want.) How did people come to believe X? How much uncertainty is there?

What is Y? (Survival? Sustainability? The status quo ante? Ante what? Universal harmony? A red ferrari in every garage?) Why should we want Y? If there is disagreement on Y, on what is it based? Can we reasonably expect to agree on Z even if we don't all agree on Y?

What is Z? Is Z enough to secure Y, given X? Who's "we"?

Then consider: If Z is not adequate to secure Y, given X, should we reconsider Z, reconsider Y, or both? If we're not sure about X, is it safe to hold Y constant and wait to tinker with Z only when it's necessary? Are there other reasons to radically reconsider Y? If we refuse to reconsider Y, can any Z be sufficient, given X? (A column in last week's Newsweek suggests not, as does the whole of Kunstler's The Long Emergency.)

But then, approaching COP15, Z is almost already set down in writing, and nobody knows Y.

(Oooo, sorry about that.)

More after day 2.

1 comment:

Doc Nagel said...

What's the word for it? False certainty? That state of mind in which one becomes convinced that an issue is well and truly sorted out?

Anyway, it's highly prized. And then:

Ecology and climate are incredibly complicated, and our current understanding is utterly inadequate. The values at stake are fundamental and concern every aspect of human life and life prospects, and our current wisdom is utterly inadequate. The possibilities for action, and their potential effects, are subject to contingencies we can't anticipate, and our current foresight is utterly inadequate.