11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democracy and Global Warming

In the academic circles I run in, there is a lot of talk about how to bring citizen voices into debates over science and technology policy. So far, I've been involved in two "citizen consultations" on science policy, both of which have endeavored to give non-industry, non-government folks a chance to weigh in on the future of particular technologies or policies. But dozens of these types of experiments (called consensus conferences, deliberations, consultations, etc.) have occurred here in the United States and in Europe.

One such experiment is slated to occur on Saturday, September 26: it's called WorldWide Views on Global Warming. Approximately 100 citizens from various ethnic, socioeconomic and political backgrounds are scheduled to gather at my university's campus early Saturday morning. They've been given background materials reflecting some form of scientific consensus on climate change, and will be voting on various climate resolutions throughout the day. Our hope is to pass these resolutions on to the United States delegates who will be attending the Copenhagen climate talks in December.

What makes this meeting unlike other citizen consultations, however, is that it is happening in tandem with four other consultations just like it in the United States, which are in turn happening concurrently with 38 other international consultations. So, that means that about 4,500 citizens are meeting, over a 36-hour period, around the world, to try to understand and influence the COP15 deliberations in December.

This is extraordinary for a number of reasons. Logistically, it's remarkable that countries from Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and North America could pull off such an event. In a time when grant and philanthropic funding seems to have virtually dried up, the Danish Board of Technology -- the sponsoring organization for the event -- was able to create and distribute preparatory materials, encourage and motivate event organizers, and mobilize media coverage for the event. Our own event organizers has worked tirelessly, for very little money, to recruit participants, handle logistics and make sure the day runs smoothly.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that the event is trying to challenge the conventional wisdom that suggests that only the powerful can make climate policy, and that citizens have little say in how that policy gets made. Depending on how things go on the 26th, WorldWide Views has the potential to counter the cynical view that says that "average" citizens are not watching what is happening at COP15, that ordinary citizens will resist change, and that they are apathetic about climate issues when faced with other pressing problems, such as a failing economy.

I don't mean to imply that I have assumptions about the resolutions to come out of tomorrow's deliberations: Though I support climate policies that will actually move us toward, say, decarbonization (rather than toward some loophole-filled cap and trade system), that doesn't mean the 100 folks who show up on campus tomorrow will. In fact, we already know that some of them don't (they've told us so). And that's just fine. What's important is that there is an effort at citizen participation, and that this takes us one step closer to understanding how a deliberative, democratic forum for debating science policy might work.

I don't mean to imply that I'm starry-eyed about the event, either: We're not totally clear on how the results from the deliberations will be communicated to U.S. COP15 delegates -- the list of those delegates is being kept under iron key (though we do have access to many European delegates). This should strike all of us interested in democratic participation in the United States as odd. Furthermore, it's very clear that the geopolitical and economic realities surrounding some sort of global climate deal are seemingly so complex as to form a kind of Gordian Knot. That I understand, too.

Still, 100 people will show up at our door tomorrow, and I believe that means something important, that it's a form of communication and deliberation and meaning-making that counts. And perhaps the small impact that emerges from this event -- combined with 40 other small impacts from around the world -- will end up being something larger than any of us anticipate.

WorldWide Views is globally sponsored by the Danish Board of Technology. The five U.S. sites have received research funding from the National Science Foundation. The event is hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, though any outcomes from the event should not be attributed to the university.