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27/11/2014

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Review: Public input into global politics

Catharina Landström is disappointed.

Mikko Rask, Richard Worthington, Minna Lammi, Eds (2012), Citizen Participation in Global Environmental Governance. London & New York: Earthscan

Participatory research is always experimental and if genuinely open to input from the public, it can surprise. However, the failure of the ‘World Wide Views’ (WWViews) project did not result from surprises involving lay participants, but from the organisers’ poor understanding of global environmental governance.
The researchers aimed to demonstrate ‘that political decision-making processes on a global scale benefit when everyday people participate’ (p3). They arranged a global participatory event that would influence the 15th meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (COP15) in 2009. They failed.

Catharina Landström is disappointed.

Mikko Rask, Richard Worthington, Minna Lammi, Eds (2012), Citizen Participation in Global Environmental Governance. London & New York: Earthscan

Participatory research is always experimental and if genuinely open to input from the public, it can surprise. However, the failure of the ‘World Wide Views’ (WWViews) project did not result from surprises involving lay participants, but from the organisers’ poor understanding of global environmental governance.
The researchers aimed to demonstrate ‘that political decision-making processes on a global scale benefit when everyday people participate’ (p3). They arranged a global participatory event that would influence the 15th meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (COP15) in 2009. They failed.

Danish roots
Created by the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), an organisation specialising in the delivery of deliberative democracy, WWViews was a scaled-up consensus conference. The DBT had previously designed this participatory method as an effective political tool in Denmark. They believed it could be scaled up into a global citizen deliberation that would inform the summit, which aimed to install a new international regime to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

WWViews engaged 4000 citizens
in 38 countries, selected in ways that would create national political legitimacy. The event comprised familiarisation with scientific knowledge, small group discussions and voting. Several national groups communicated with each other through video links. The research teams managed to stage simultaneous events in 44 locations across the world which participants found interesting.

Little criticism
Most chapters in the book focus on the successful staging of the event, addressing themes expressed in particular national contexts. Some are critical of aspects of the project: the chapter on India questions the universality of deliberative democracy. Some focus on the benefits, for example in Santa Lucia the participatory experiment was very positive for social learning. Some are reflexive, like the German team discussing a tension which arose between deliberating and voting.
The only critical analysis of the project as such is indirectly provided in the chapter on the USA that discusses the lack of media interest. The authors analyse the failure to connect with ongoing US media debates on climate change; the organisers expected national news media to be interested in deliberative democracy as such. The chapter concludes that seeking media attention as a policy pathway may undermine the deliberative approach, suggesting that it could instead be more useful to ‘focus on more direct policy pathways’ (p 256).

Naïve
As a practical undertaking, WWViews must be considered an amazing feat. As a way of constituting a new global public it was very interesting, but as a means of influencing global climate change policy it was breathtakingly naïve.

When scaling up a participatory methodology that works in a small Scandinavian democracy, with clear and transparent procedures for decision-making, the DBT ignored the differences between national government and global governance.

The chapter about USA indicates that the project leaders lacked understanding of how global climate policy is created. The organisers never explained how deliberative democracy could be made effective in negotiations between countries with very different approaches to democracy, without shared laws and political institutions.

Need to address failure
It is very disappointing that the book focuses on aspects of the project that can be construed as successful – conducting public deliberation on a global scale – while avoiding the much more difficult issue of what it would take to create a global public with influence on policy making. This is a very important issue in a world where many environmental problems need to be addressed on a global level, which nobody has yet figured out how to make conducive to citizen engagement.

Participants in WWViews were interested in having a say in global environmental governance. The project did not deliver this, and it would have been fair to discuss why not.

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Dr Catharina Landström
Dr Catharina Landström is Senior Research Associate at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia
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