We were three quarters of the way through Climate Assembly UK, the national citizens’ assembly on climate change, when coronavirus struck.

I was part of the core team running the assembly, and my sadness about the broader tragedies of Covid-19 was mixed with a real sense of disappointment that we couldn’t hold our final weekend of deliberation. This disappointment was expressed by the 108 participants across the UK too. When we asked what to do next, assembly members were clear: they wanted to finish the assembly online.

 a room full of round tables and participants sat around the tables
Climate Assembly UK: Weekend 1

Assembly members saw the recovery as a chance to reset the economy.

It was the height of lockdown, mid-May, by the time we were up and running again... on Zoom. After three weekends of in-person discussions, the assembly had become a confident and knowledgeable group, and they were keen to talk about the links between the pandemic and climate action.

The discussion and voting on this produced a remarkably strong outcome. Assembly members saw the recovery as a chance to reset the economy. Rather than supporting business-as-usual, participants wanted the government to back new green industries: 79% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that steps taken by the government to help the economy recover should be designed to help achieve net zero.

[assembly members]...add in wider social and ethical dimensions, which are often missing in debates among ‘expert’ stakeholders.

As I listened to these discussions, I was reminded of something that has struck me many times about deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies. While I am always impressed by people’s ability to get a grasp of the technical detail,  they also add in wider social and ethical dimensions, which are often missing in debates among ‘expert’ stakeholders. One of the first deliberative processes I ever observed, about twenty years ago, was a citizens’ jury on nanotechnology regulation. Watching the debates unfold, it became clear that the participants’ attitudes to nanotechnology were not just based on their emerging understanding of the technology itself – what it is, how it works and what it’s used for. Instead, they were concerned about wider issues: who owns it? Who controls it? How will it change our lives? Whose responsibility is it if something goes wrong? When it came to drafting recommendations, these considerations were front-of-mind for participants.

This was exactly how discussions about Covid-19 unfolded in the Climate Assembly. Assembly members were keen to debate underlying issues of power and influence, with some seeing the pandemic as a chance to reset the economy. As one participant said, echoing a widely held view, “I don’t think oil or gas companies should be given bailouts, you’re wanting to stop them anyway, so why support them – support the people who work for them but not the companies”.

All these findings point to the ability of citizens to make sophisticated judgements, not just about the merits of particular technologies or approaches, but about the politics and power relations that lie behind them.

In their recommendations, participants were effectively providing a challenge to the power of established high-carbon industries, like airlines or the oil and gas sector, which have been lobbying for government support without accompanying climate commitments. In other assembly discussions, similar points were raised, resulting in recommendations calling for greater climate accountability for companies lobbying government, for example. Assembly members also voiced concern over technologies that promise to remove carbon from the atmosphere, like carbon capture and storage, worrying that such approaches might provide an excuse for inaction elsewhere. All these findings point to the ability of citizens to make sophisticated judgements, not just about the merits of particular technologies or approaches, but about the politics and power relations that lie behind them.

It is this unsettling of the established order that I find so interesting, and useful, about deliberative processes. Participants do not share the same assumptions, or working culture, of ‘experts’ (whether climate experts or public health experts). Instead, they bring a new perspective, one that is grounded in their own values, outlook and life experience. In doing so, they challenge orthodoxies and ask difficult questions. This is the magic of deliberation.

I think that if it is to be successful, Deliberation needs to go beyond the commissioning of one-off processes, like citizens’ assemblies.

This doesn’t make deliberation an easy answer to the political dilemmas of the climate crisis, or indeed of Covid recovery. A good number of MPs, and the Committee on Climate Change, have already used the findings of the Climate Assembly in their work. But the citizens’ recommendations are being thrown back into a political world where, as we know from much research, high-carbon interests have disproportionate influence. The people have spoken – but will their voices be heard above the din of politics-as-usual?

Ultimately, I think that if it is to be successful, deliberation needs to go beyond the commissioning of one-off processes, like citizens’ assemblies. It needs instead to be an outlook: an ongoing to-and-fro between politicians and the electorate. A way of doing politics that acknowledges and, where necessary, confronts vested interests.

In practice, this means building citizen deliberation into policymaking as a matter of course, supplementing standard methods of consultation. It means an honesty, on the part of government and others, that tackling climate or Covid is not just a scientific or technical challenge, but a deeply social one. Having witnessed the Climate Assembly deliberations first-hand, I firmly believe that this would not only give us better climate strategies, but better politics too.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Rebecca Willis is an Expert Lead for Climate Assembly UK, and author of Too Hot To Handle? The democratic challenge of climate change, published by Bristol University Press.