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Pomona Hosts Global Warming Meeting

Pomona College hosted residents of the greater Los Angeles area on Saturday, September 26, to discuss views and perceptions about global warming. The meeting was one of five hosted in the United States as part of an event sprawling across six continents, 38 countries and including over 4,000 participants.

Politics professor Rick Worthington led the effort to bring one of the consultations to Pomona College.

The worldwide project was organized by the Danish Board of Technology, which aimed to give everyday citizens around the world a chance to weigh in on global climate policy in preparation for the upcoming Copenhagen talks (COP15), where world leaders will discuss environmental issues this December.

“The over-arching purpose [of World Wide Views on Global Warming] was to demonstrate that political decision-making processes on a global scale can benefit from the participation of ordinary people… it has set a path-breaking precedent by demonstrating that ordinary people merit, and can have, a voice within global political processes,” according to the event’s Web site.

To ensure that each group of participants accurately represented its local or regional population, each site attempted to match the participants to the demographic makeup of the area in terms of race, educational background, income, age and gender.

Pomona’s site was quite successful in mimicking the demographic makeup of the area; eight percent of accepted participants were African American, 12 percent Asian American, 37 percent white, 37 percent Latino and six percent from other racial backgrounds. Those with higher education were over-represented (70 percent had at least some college experience as opposed to 54 percent in the Los Angeles region), while higher-income participants were slightly under-represented (56 percent of participants lived in households with annual incomes below $50,000, compared to 44 percent for the Los Angeles region).

After being selected from among applicants who responded to advertisements, each applicant read a 40-page informational document provided by the Danish Board of Technology based upon the work of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists hailing from countries as diverse as Iran, Sierra Leone, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

President David Oxtoby addressed the participants at the beginning of the day, speaking briefly about Pomona College’s sustainability efforts and his own personal relationship to climate change as an environmental chemist. He asked participants to consider the complicated relationships between economics, environmental impacts, and politics as they broke up into their discussion groups.

The day was divided into four discussion sections and a recommendation section. In each discussion section, participants first watched an informational video and then had time to deliberate on several questions. Finally, each participant filled out several multiple-choice questions. The recommendations section gave participants an opportunity to draft recommended policies. All results, including answers to the multiple-choice questions and each site’s recommendations, were then posted to the results section of www.wwviews.org.

Results and recommendations differed greatly across the world. For example, 44 percent of Russians were only “slightly concerned” about climate change; 96 percent of Bangladeshis, on the other hand, were “very concerned” about climate change and urged that a deal be made at COP15. Participants at the Arizona site recommended a global climate change curriculum, while those in Jakarta, Indonesia, suggested that rich countries provide funds to support forest conservation in poorer countries. Ethiopian participants, stating that Africa will be “the main victim” of the rise of green house gas emissions, suggested that African nations “be compensated properly.” Overall, however, the global impetus for an international treaty was clear with 90 percent of World Wide Views participants saying it is “urgent” that a global climate deal be decided upon this December.

Although Pomona College hosted the Los Angeles site in order to provide an opportunity for local citizens to speak up, the event had benefits for organizers as well. A handful of Pomona students, many enrolled in Worthington’s class on the “Politics of Community Design,” got a chance to volunteer and observe the process.

Two Pomona students, Dawn Bickett PO ’10 and Grace Vermeer PO ’10, spent their summers working to prepare for the event, and will fly to Copenhagen for the COP15 talks in December as certified United Nations observers.

Through the event, Worthington, a scholar specializing in participatory democracy and science-related policy-making, also got a chance to further his academic pursuits.

Various individuals in the United States, including Professor Worthington, were first contacted in May 2008 as Denmark tried to enlist as many countries as possible for the event. After accepting, Worthington became the Los Angeles area coordinator and helped organize the sites in the United States with the help of Richard Sclove, an author and scholar who works in the Amherst, Massachusetts, area.

Along with the other organizers, Worthington attended a three-day training seminar in Copenhagen last March. He will accompany Bickett and Vermeer this December, and has received funding from the National Science Foundation to research the event’s efficacy.

Although Worthington expressed a hope that participants would support action to mitigate climate change, he said, “democracy is the most important thing about the event. We want to know what the people who’re gathering think.”

While polls can give a snapshot of uninformed opinion, Worthington suggested that World Wide View’s approach provides a unique opportunity for citizens around the world to generate and disseminate informed opinions.

When asked what he wanted the event to accomplish, Worthington said he hoped for “rich and engaging discussion,” and also that some decision-makers would listen.

The results of the United States sites will be forwarded to U.S. delegates to Copenhagen, and World Wide Views will target crucial senators like Barbara Boxer, the head of the Senate Committee on the Environment.

There is also a chance that World Wide Views could be adapted as a framework for citizens to give their input on other global issues.

“World Wide Views wants to create a framework for implementing and disseminating information. While the goal of this September’s gatherings was to enable constructive dialogue about climate change and global climate policy, there is no reason that World Wide Views’ methodology couldn’t be applied to other global policy issues,” Vermeer said.

Others are more skeptical about the representative nature of the participants.

“I really like the idea of World Wide Views,” said Amanda Ghassaei PO ’11. “But it seems to me that while they were aiming to get a fair cross-section of society, the fact that they were selecting from a pool of applicants who themselves decided to apply in the first place makes it unlikely that the views of the participants accurately mirrored those of society as a whole.”

This article was originally published in the October 2, 2009, edition of The Student Life.