During my last days in Cancun, I attended a roundtable discussion called the Global Referendum/ Referendum for Climate Justice: The Next Steps. The discussion was co-sponsored by the Council of Canadians, Common Frontiers, Hemispheric Social Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Jubilee South Americas, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives and Red Mexicana de Accion frente al Libre Commerico. The roundtable was held in one of two gymnasiums at the Foro International de la Justicia Climatico de los Pueblos (the International Forum of Climate Justice - Dialogue of the Communities). Thirty people from Colombia, Spain, the US, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Canada participated, sharing experiences and perspectives.
The call for a global referendum and popular "consultas" (consultations) on climate change emerged from the World People's Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010. The goal of the roundtable was to explore challenges, share experiences and develop strategies around this exciting new proposal.
The Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA) provided some background on the referendum proposal that emerged several months before the Peoples' Conference. The People's Agreement, finalized at the People's Conference, called for "a global referendum or popular consultation on climate change in which all are consulted regarding the following issues; the level of emission reductions on the part of developed countries and transnational corporations, financing to be offered by developed countries, the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal, the need for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, and the need to change the current capitalist system." The HSA highlighted how referendums are great tools for mobilizing public participation and popularizing key issues.
The HAS spoke about their experience with the Colombian referendum on the right to water. In 2008, over 2 million signatures in support of a water referendum on the right to water and water privatization were presented to Congress. However, the Colombian House of Representatives rejected the call and told organizers that they had to get another 2 million signatures. Despite this, the Colombian experience shows how referendums can mobilize mass amounts of people.
Organizations including KAIROS, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Public Service Alliance of Canada and Common Frontiers conducted a ‘consultas' in Canada stemming from the call from Cochabamba. Andrea Harden-Donahue from the Council of Canadians shared her experience with this poll.
Andrea noted how the political climate and government of the day is not conducive to a national referendum. So the organizations hired the polling firm Environics to survey 1000 Canadians on questions concerning climate change. The results were extremely heartening and showed that the Canadian government's policies do not reflect the views of Canadians. The poll showed that:
87% of Canadians strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: "The root cause of climate change is too much focus on economic growth and consumerism. We need to have an economy that is in harmony with nature, which recognizes and respects the planet."
The remaining poll results can be read here.
Tom Kucharz from Ecologistas en Accion spoke about the three types of referendums in Spain including a formal referendum, a legislation initiative and popular consultations. A referendum on reducing work hours to 36 hours was rejected. Catalunya had a legal popular initiative on the use of transgenic products. In another referendum, 2 million people voted on the external debt with 96% rejecting the external debt.
Participants outlined criteria for successful outcomes including clear, simple questions, clear guidelines for referendums, creative mechanisms, strong organization and information sharing and collaboration with other groups and international networks. Participants highlighted the importance of including people from vulnerable lands, who live far away or who live in different regions. Others raised questions on how referendums can be used as educational tools. The participants discussed challenges, concerns and risks including sample sizes, countries' capacities and political climates which are not conducive to referendums. The roundtable was a dynamic and informative discussion on an emerging tool that holds much promise in mobilizing people around climate justice and genuine democratic participation.
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