Online climate change debates – can they influence the outcome of COP15?

27. November 2009 – 18:13 by Zebralog / Hans Hagedorn

cop15_logo_d_s On December 7th and 8th the COP15 will take place: Politicians, IGOs and NGOs will meet in the Danish capital and discuss how to reduce carbon emissions to decrease global warming. They aim to sign a new agreement for climate protection, a follow up of the Kyoto protocol. In forefront of the Copenhagen event, online debates try to influence the discussions’ outcome.

The Kyoto protocol will expire in 2012. Until then, a new global agreement on climate change is needed. But the outcome of COP15 - the Copenhagen Climate Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change - is still unclear; experts suppose that COP15 will end with a political agreement signed by world leaders instead of with a binding treaty. Especially that the US Senate delayed a decision about a climate change legislation bill lowered the expectations for the Copenhagen meeting.

Different approaches to online discussion

To influence the governments meeting in Copenhagen, civil groups got into action, using different approaches to online debate and online activism to motivate and inform the public.

Here are some of the approaches they try:

  • The online campaign TckTckTck - representing environmental and humanitarian organizations, faith-based groups, youth groups, trade unions and individuals - is using mass participation to put pressure on the politicians. The people participating in online debates and polls for a binding treaty in Copenhagen are also the people voting for governments. So the organizers hope that the voice of a mass of people could influence the meeting. TckTckTck has chosen the so called Open Campaign to gather a lot of support and a lot of media attention: The website serves as the organizing hub for a lot of different actions, all using the TckTckTck logo as a unifying element.
  • The British focus on concrete action: In 2010, all people of Great Britain, individuals as well as companies, schools, libraries etc, should reduce their carbon emission by 10 percent. Therefore, the organizers behind work together with energy companies, which give tips and support how to cut carbon emissions. Other countries should join the action. If enough people and companies participate and show the government how easy it is to reduce emissions, the governments could only join in, so the organizers´ plan.
  • The project World Wide Views on Global Warming worked with a classic deliberation process: In September 2009, 4.000 people from all over the world came together in their countries, discussed measures to reduce global warming and formulated their ideas. Each meeting brought together 100 randomly selected people. All quantative results of the meetings were aggregated through the project-website. The core functionality of this website is simple, however very innovative and informative: By comparing polling results of different world regions (e.g. Bangladesh and USA) you get a good impression of the differences and similarities in the opinion of an informed public.  The Danish minister for climate protection serves as the projects chairman - the project wwwviews therefore has a close link to the COP15 participants.
  • Of course climate activists also use social networks like Facebook: The Facebook group “Copenhagen. We Are Climate!” was set up short-term before the COP15 in November. It recruited about 2,700 members in five days, created an active discussion and sharing of links and information and collected video submissions of group members.

Online-campaigners going offline: TckTckTck-supporters of Greenpeace Switzerland.
Flickr, Greenpeace_Switzerland, CC by-nc-nd US 2.0

These are just some international examples of the online debate in favour of a binding treaty in Copenhagen. Even more is happening on the national level, with websites offering information and organisation bases for on- and offline campaigns. Most actions share similar goals: The temperature increase should be kept below 2 degrees, emission should be reduced by 20-40% till 2020, and also development countries should be enabled to cut their emissions. It is striking to note that one can hardly find major online-projects in disagreement of a binding treaty. Apperently those forces do not rely much on public campaigning.


But are these online debates powerful enough to have a real influence on COP15?

From the authors’ impression governments as well as the public are influenced mainly by following considerations:

  • Ecologic considerations like: Do the country and its people suffer from effects of the global warming?

Then the government is more likely to support binding agreements on cutting carbon emissions. The Maldives for example, a developing country, but seriously threatened by sea-rise, wants to contribute to mandatory limits of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Economic considerations like: Does a binding treaty threaten work-places in the carbon and oil industry?

In the USA, the official position to climate change and global warming changed with Barack Obamas inauguration. Nevertheless, it is not easy for the Senate to decide about a bill concerning climate change legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Lawmakers from coal and manufactory heavy states are under pressure from their voters - the people fear for their jobs and are therefore worried about a climate deal that would bind the US to cut carbon emissions.

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is another country that noticeably suffers from effects of global warming, e.g. floods, storms and droughts, leading people into poverty. Therefore, complaints about environment were increasing at a rate of 30% a year in 2006.

So following Chinas latest five year plan, the energy intensity should have been cut by 20% till the end of 2010, reducing the carbon emissions by an estimated 1 billion tons - but Beijing has already fallen behind its schedule here. The government also plans to obtain 15% of Chinas energy from nuclear or renewable energy sources.

But the country also has a rapidly growing industry and depends heavily on coal for economy extension. Also, the oil and coal sectors are dominated by state owned enterprises, so the government itself has an interested to keep these companies alive and prosper. So, there are still no promises coming from Beijing for COP15.

In the case of Brazil, economic and ecologic considerations go hand in hand. The country wants to cut its carbon  emissions about 40% till 2020, mainly by reducing the deforestation of the rain forest. Economic considerations on the other hand let politicians to support mandatory limits of carbon emissions as well: Brazil is producing sugarcane, main source for bio ethanol, and is hoping to raise its export.

Is the online world half-blinded?

We reckon that it is not possible to measure the direct effect of online-dialogues on the negotiations in Copenhagen. However, our impression is that online-media play play a different role in the public discussion of either ecologic or economic implications: While the ecologic side is covered widely by many projects, there is little evidence for serious discussion of the economic side of the medal. That means that most of the barriers to an binding treaty in Copenhagen are not addressed properly in the online sphere. Therefore, we belive that climate campaigners should focus more on the economic issues, in order to get a deal done.

By Hans Hagedorn, Simone Gerdesmeier, Zebralog

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  1. 2 Responses to “Online climate change debates – can they influence the outcome of COP15?”

  2. By Simon Smith on Dec 1, 2009

    Very useful post, Hans.
    Worth also mentioning the Debategraph project being run by David Price in association with the Independent newspaper in the UK.
    I think you’ll find more attention to economic issues there, possibly because the debate’s attracting people from the newspaper’s website who are less likely to be activists.

  3. By Zebralog / Hans Hagedorn on Dec 2, 2009

    I’ve seen some Debategraph projects now and I like the visualisation very much. However I still miss a workflow around this visualisation, which would integrate necomers, aggregate the discussion to intermediate results, vote on final findings etc.

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