In "Worlds Apart: Multilateralism, Democracy and the Challenge of Climate Change", today at the "Democratizing Climate Governance" conference (Australian National University, Canberra), Professor Robyn Eckersley discussed if any progress could be made on climate change with a large number of countries involved. She suggested some procedural reforms which would improve the justice of the process. Also discussed was the benefits of a formal treaty versus a political agreement. She proposed a "mini-lateral council" to prepare proposals, including both large polluting nations as well as those from developing nations who will be effected.
However, she seem to assume that negotiations must be held in a physical forum, thus limiting how many, and who, could be involved. In my view the idea the problem of climate change was to be solved by thousands of people flying to Copenhagen seems bizarre. Despite the high environmental cost of the meeting, only a small number of people were able to take part. Even that relatively small number of people could not be accommodated by the processes used and the result was chaos.
It is now feasible to conduct decision making online. This can involve many more people and can be done at a far lower cost than sending people to meetings. This could change the power balance and so may be opposed by a few entrenched individuals, organisations and governments. However, there is no reason not to try.
Blended systems can be used. As an example, the documents at a face to face meeting and discussions can be make public live online. Delegates to a physical meeting can also be taking part in online forums and relaying those views to the meeting. Those online can put their views directly to the meeting.
Robyn Eckersley's presentation was interesting, but largely irrelevant, as it did not address today's realities of communication. The presentation was made to a room of only about 100 people. The ANU lecture theatre it was given in is equipped with a broadband Internet connection and lecture recording facilities. It requires pushing a couple of buttons to podcast proceedings. However, this was not done. What was said and the text was not made available to more than the small number of people present. As a result what was said is largely irrelevant.
The idea that decisions are made by people face to face is now largely obsolete. It is feasible and cost effective to make decisions on-line. There are techniques to allow people to get to know each other and develop the needed trust. Perhaps universities, such as ANU, could help by teaching these techniques to those involved in such negotiations.