Climate change is back on the agenda in a serious way. Yesterday the UK parliament became the first in the world to declare a national climate emergency. It joined over 60 local authorities and Scotland who had already taken similar steps. Today the Committee on Climate Change is calling for the UK government to toughen its targets to reach for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A Cabinet Minister has floated the idea of legislation in the near future.
Amongst all the noise, at least three points seem reasonably clear. The UK has key and immediate decisions to make about climate change and the policies needed to prevent it. These decisions are likely to impact significantly on all our lives and those of the generations that follow us. Effective action on climate change is only likely to be possible if the public gets on board with the steps required.
These facts - and the complexity of questions about climate solutions - are what make Extinction Rebellion’s call for a citizens’ assembly on climate change a winning idea.
Why a citizens' assembly?
Parliaments and governments around the world have used citizens’ assemblies to unlock progress on complex issues that politicians have struggled to address. Ireland’s citizens’ assembly on abortion remains the most well-known example. But even here in the UK, two committees’ of the House of Commons last year used a citizens’ assembly to explore how to fund adult social care long-term. The chairs of those two committees, Clive Betts MP and Dr Sarah Wollaston MP concluded:
“Having access to the considered views of the Assembly was vital. And listening to the views of a representative group gave us a reliable insight into the solutions that could command broad consensus. [….] With the Assembly showing the way in what could be achieved, the members of our committees, from different political parties and representing different parts of the country, were able to agree a unanimous report.”
And this is what makes citizens’ assemblies so powerful. They bring together people from all walks of life, then help them to bridge divides, find common ground - and ultimately to develop recommendations that can command public support. Better still, they do this while presenting participants with balanced evidence on the issue and allowing them to hear firsthand from key stakeholders with very different views and perspectives.
Depending on its remit, a citizens’ assembly on climate change would show what recommendations the public would make on the principles that should underpin UK climate change policies, emissions targets, and the actions needed to meet these goals. It would give the government a clear understanding of what the public would and wouldn’t support in terms of climate action, and why.
What key principles underpin a citizens’ assembly?
Effective citizens’ assembly are carefully designed and run. It is crucially important that they follow some fundamental principles.
- Commissioned by those who will listen seriously to the outcomes. A citizens’ assembly is a significant undertaking – it requires commitment, time and resource and its recommendations need to clearly flow to those with the power to act. Whilst advisory in nature, the recommendations hold the weight, substance and legitimacy of public voice on an issue. This is true whether the assembly is held at national, devolved or local level - all of which are feasible when it comes to climate change.
- Members of the citizens’ assembly are randomly invited but selected to be demographically representative of the wider population. Attitudinal criteria - such as people’s existing views on climate change - are also sometimes included. The idea is that a citizens’ assembly looks and feels like a mini version of the wider public – they are often called “mini-publics”. Importantly participants are not self-selected. They are paid to participate in the assembly as recognition of their time contribution and to ensure that finance is not a barrier to participation.
Time for deliberation. Assembly members need time to listen, learn, question, deliberate and come to conclusions. For a UK wide citizens’ assembly on climate change this will probably mean 3-6 weekends of meeting. All citizens’ assemblies go through three main phases:
Learning - participants hear from witnesses who include technical experts to provide factual background information, and key stakeholders with a wide range of policy preferences.
Deliberation - participants consider what they have learnt, individually and in conversation with their fellow participants.
Decision-making - participants reach a range of recommendations. This can be through a vote and/or consensus-building process.
- The assembly has to be run by an organisation independent of the content. This organisation focuses solely on the process and structure of the assembly - how people engage and deliberate on the topic in question. This includes providing both lead and table facilitators to guide assembly members through the process, and ensure everyone contributes to discussions which are constructive.
- The whole process is guided by an Advisory Group made up of specialists and stakeholders from a range of perspectives. This group plays a key role in ensuring that the evidence presented to assembly members is balanced, comprehensive and factually accurate.
The case for citizens’ assemblies on climate is gathering pace. Sadiq Khan has said he will explore the idea of a citizens’ assembly for the capital. At least two local councils have signalled their intention to commission. Michael Gove has said he is ‘open-minded’ about the idea.
Whoever ultimately runs the assemblies, we want to use our experience to help.
Some might say the time for talking is over. But, perhaps the right type of talking now needs to begin.