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3 ways to ensure the Climate Assembly really addresses the climate emergency

Parliament is setting up citizens assemblies to demonstrate the public desire for climate action. But we’ve been here before – what will be different this time?

Rich Wilson
Rebecca Willis Rich Wilson Lucy Stone
19 July 2019
Protestors holding banner reading "we can do much better"
Climate protesters in Edinburgh, April 2019
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

The UK recently passed historic legislation setting a net-zero target for emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. Setting a target though, is one thing, delivering it is another. Achieving net-zero and responding to the climate emergency is not politics-as-usual.

In recognition of this, six Select Committees in Parliament have come together to run a citizen’s assembly on climate change this autumn. This step could be the first towards a wholesale rethink of the policy response needed. The process, however, needs to last. It needs to engage the broader public and connect it to the various local deliberative exercises taking place throughout the UK. Only then might it deliver on its promise of creating a clear picture of the public support and political mandate for action.

“Government ignored participants because by participating they ceased to be ‘ordinary voters’”

Much of the excitement around Citizen Assemblies stems from the Irish Citizen Assembly, which generated a public mandate for new policies on tricky and polarising topics like abortion, aging and fixed term parliaments. But there is a longer history of deliberation. Back in 2007, the UK government commissioned a Citizen Summit on Climate Change.

Then, just as now, was a time of high hopes that deliberative democracy could fix politics. At the time Rich Wilson (co-author of this article) was the director of the participation charity Involve which played a role in promoting, running, evaluating and commissioning citizen summits. These were usually big, well-resourced deliberative events, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. When run well they had a powerful sense of occasion; leaving the participants with a real belief that they were affecting politics. Trouble was, they weren’t.

Research commissioned by the Sustainable Development Commission found that government decision-makers were ignoring these deliberative events because they felt that participants in these events ceased being ‘ordinary voters’ by the very experience of going through a deliberative process. So the opinions of the participants, even if demographically representative of the UK, didn’t give decision-makers the mandate they needed to make brave choices.

Citizen Spring

Since the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, many local areas have declared a ‘climate emergency’. The establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury is becoming a popular follow-up, as a way of developing a climate strategy with public support.

Citizens Assemblies are different to summits in that they can stand for weeks, even years, but the reason for their success or failure is the same. This success comes down to whether they can help people, especially politicians, take new bold decisions they otherwise didn’t feel they had the mandate for.

Today levels of concern about climate change are at their highest ever level in the UK. The mandate for action is big and growing, and the government seems to be responsive, even if it is just signalling for now. The real challenge will be holding this mandate together when it turns from ambitions to specifics. Just look at the Gilets Jaunes opposition to fuel taxation in France for an example of how dissent can stop a pro-climate policy. It’s easy to imagine a low carbon policy framework triggering the same passions and divisions surfaced by Brexit.

No one wants that.

So how can a Citizens Assembly deliver a mandate that helps Government take the actions necessary to fulfil its policy commitments, while avoiding disenchantment and disorder? To do this we think there are three things a Citizens Assembly needs to do:

1: Generate a public debate

The key to the success of the Irish Citizens Assemblies was the broad media engagement which meant that the conversation was simultaneously taking places in pubs, homes, tv shows, papers and social media.

To help create a national conversation we need mainstream and social media engagement during and after the debate so the public can contribute to the discussion. There has never been a better time to do this, indeed given the current interest in climate change, it may be unavoidable. But for it to unite rather than divide, we need to design the conversation space in from the start.

2: Connect the local assemblies and conversations

The national conversation does not just take place in Westminster. If people are to feel agency and connection, the deliberative processes taking part on their patch need to be acknowledged and fed in.

As local councils and cities start to run their own citizen assemblies and juries, this will create a rich network of discussion and ideas from across the country. Connecting up these conversations into this national conversation should create a mandate for all levels of government from parish to national. We should even seek to encourage community organisations like schools to have their own Citizen Summit. All of which needs to add to the national conversation in a meaningful way. Stimulating, supporting and capturing these different levels of conversations by all walks of life will be important.

3: Last for at least 5 years

There is no quick fix for climate change. This is not a process that can reach a conclusion in two events. We are now at the start of what needs to be a transformation of our society, from transport to homes to manufacturing over the coming decades. The social contract for the far-reaching policies required will need to be built and sustained over this time. An assembly which stands for at least five years, the people’s house, would acknowledge the ongoing and evolving nature of meeting the challenge of climate change.

More time will also allow for people to be involved at different life stages. This is an opportunity to embed longer-term thinking, which in itself would be helpful.

With time we hope the assembly process could become an integral element of the policy development and refinement process. It’s not as if there is a policy mix we know will work. It will be a learning journey, that we need as many of us as possible to be on.

Because, yes first and foremost we do need government to lead the charge to address the climate emergency, but it can only do this with the consent and cooperation of us, the people.

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