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Six select committees of the UK Parliament have announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on “combating climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions”.

Riley Thorold explores the significance of this announcement and argues that a more deliberative approach to climate action holds promise.

Democracy versus the climate? The dilemma

In general terms, democracy seems like an ideal system for tackling complex issues like climate change. Democracy, we tell ourselves, enables cooperation. A free press supports political learning and democracies encourage the critical assessment of policy, meaning major challenges can be overcome through experimentation and adaptation.

The problem is, this iterative process requires time – a luxury we lack, given the urgency of the situation. An emerging argument, popular in some environmentalism circles, asks whether there are systemic flaws in our democracies which prevent us acting fast enough to prevent irreversible climate change.

Political leaders in democracies, the argument goes, are short-sighted. Electoral cycles create biases in favour of the short-term which discourages the adoption of far-sighted policies to capture distant benefits. In a democracy, the will of the people generally trumps technical expertise, so decisions reflect the short-termism, naivete and prejudices of voters regardless of what climate scientists say. Misinformation is stoked by lobbyists and industries with an economic stake in the status quo (not least fossil fuel industries themselves) and money distorts the incentives of politicians seeking re-election.

These dynamics may be more extreme in the US, but they exist in many established democracies: climate policies don’t attract votes or political donations and so action often remains elusive. Add to this the characteristics of the issue (climate change mitigation is complex, has long-term effects and requires major lifestyle changes) and we start to understand the scale of the problem.

For some, tackling climate change requires suspension of democracy itself. The Gaia theorist James Lovelock is particularly frank about this:

“even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”.

But he’s not alone. In recent years, several environmentalists have concluded that democracy is not up to the task of climate change. The election of Donald Trump in America and subsequent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement give credence to this view. Perhaps some kind of enlightened, environmental authoritarianism would fare better.

Do we need to take a gulp and make a choice between democracy and the climate? No!

These democracy sceptics don’t consider the politics of the issue. Environmental evidence – as compelling as it is – doesn’t automatically translate itself into policy, even if pushed by a benevolent dictator. Effective climate action requires social and political action which in turn requires public buy-in. There will be major social, political and economic obstacles, many of which are not yet apparent, and the public needs to be on board with this journey. If we are to scale this challenge, we need the legitimacy conferred by a responsive democracy.

This doesn’t change the fact that democracy is struggling in practice. The Australian experience is telling: after a great deal of struggle, a compromised carbon tax was introduced in 2011. This was immediately politicised and branded “a great big tax on everything” by the conservative opposition. In a divisive election campaign, the opposition coalition campaigned to “axe the tax” and they did so after being elected in 2014. In last month’s general election, environmental concerns were once again set aside when voters got inside the voting booth.

Could deliberative democracy help the climate?

Still, we should fight the urge to incriminate democracy itself.

At the RSA we take the opposite approach, expressed brilliantly by political philosopher John Dewey: “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy”.

Deliberative democracy, involving careful and lengthy reflection by regular citizens, could offer the deepening of democratic norms and the improvement of public debate that we need. Theoretically, the argument holds. Deliberation helps citizens to confront the complexities of an issue like climate change and arrive at coherent and nuanced responses. Insulated from the pressures of party and money, regular people can prioritise the long-term common good rather than what is politically exigent or personally advantageous.

Citizens’ assemblies give citizens from all walks of life the opportunity to hear evidence, reflect on an issue, find common ground and recommend what the government should do to – for example - mitigate climate change. Citizens’ assemblies could also vet, analyse and synthesise public information and political arguments to enable better communication. Broadly reflecting the wider population in miniature, citizens’ assemblies can attract widespread trust and their recommendations carry moral force.

The theory finds empirical support (recent critics fail to mention this). To take one example, a citizens’ assembly on climate action took place in 2017 in Ireland and showed that, given the time and the evidence, diverse citizens can agree on courageous proposals, including the national roll-out of low-carbon public vehicles and state support for community energy generation. Remarkably, 80% of the Members said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities.

Implementing the recommendations has admittedly been a challenge, but an internal review of government process, proposed by the assembly itself, is designed to prevent similar disruption and inertia in the future. Citizens’ assemblies can identify ambitious paths forward on complex issues like climate change and they can also help to reform the systems of government that inhibit action in the first place.

Our lacklustre fight against climate change is not the upshot of democracy per se. A more deliberative democracy can rebut democracy sceptics and support ambitious climate policy.

What’s been happening in the UK?

In the last 6 months there has been a flurry of deliberative activity in the UK relating to climate action. Bursting on to the scene earlier this year, Extinction Rebellion have demanded a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice to provide politicians with nuanced guidance and a mandate to act – an argument also made in an excellent Green Alliance report.

Subsequently, the UK parliament and over sixty local authorities have declared a climate emergency and Oxford and Camden councils have announced that they will be holding citizens’ assemblies on climate action.

But the most significant announcement came yesterday when six select committees of the UK parliament announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on “combating climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions”, which the government has committed to achieving by 2050.

For the reasons outlined above this development is promising, both for our democracy and our climate. But these benefits will only materialise if the process is done properly.

The factors that will make a citizens’ assembly on climate change a success

Just before the citizens' assembley was annouced, the RSA teamed up with colleagues at Involve to host a group of practitioners and experts to discuss the opportunities and difficulties involved with citizens’ assemblies on climate action. Many of the points raised provide solid guidance for how this upcoming citizens’ assembly should be designed and run.

1. It needs to be given profile, status and power

If this citizens’ assembly is going to have any impact, it must be given significant profile. It will help if major public figures, from all sides of the political debate champion the assembly.

The assembly should be given a status that reflects the magnitude of the issue – as is the case with expert-led public inquiries.

And ultimately, government must commit itself to respond in some way to the recommendations.It should commit, at the very least, to formally justifying its response to the assembly, so that inaction incurs a reputational cost.

The status of the assembly also depends on its quality and independence, which leads to the observation that…

2. It must have robust standards

Citizens’ assemblies gain legitimacy through the quality of the process, not the quantity of participants. Given that the process involves only a small number of people, its legitimacy depends on watertight standards:

  1. Members should be given enough time to properly reflect on the issue and consider a large pool of evidence. Recommendations should be made organically, not prematurely forced. Our experience suggests that this takes at least four days.
  2. The assembly must be ‘descriptively representative’ of the UK population, so that the discussion brings out diverse perspectives. Non-participants should be able to observe the process and see others like them among the members.
  3. The scope and remit of the citizens’ assembly should be crystal clear. If the question is ambiguous, the deliberation will be diffuse and the recommendations undeliverable. Even if the current targets are insufficient (as Extinction Rebellion argues), advising on how to achieve net zero emissions is a clear brief for the assembly. Without clear parameters up-front, the assembly is unlikely to have subsequent impact.
  4. The process should be expertly facilitated to make sure everyone is heard and feels comfortable. Facilitators help to coax out the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.
  5. The process must be independent. The different roles I’ve listed should be outsourced and the balance of the process should be overseen by an advisory group made up of experts on the topic and the process.

3. It must be systemic and dynamic

The citizens’ assembly must interrogate systemic causes of climate change, not just the symptoms. It must consider the economic and political system that has led us to our current crisis.

The assembly should consider climate change in its broadest sense, with all the associated feedback loops, socioeconomic dynamics and structural causes.

System design methodologies should be used throughout the organisation and delivery of the process.

We also need to align our democratic experimentations with wider institutional change to unlock transformational progress. It is likely the assembly will itself recommend such changes. As Matthew Taylor has recently argued, processes of deliberation are ideally combined with more agile and responsive governance structures. The recommendations of a deliberative process work best when they are channelled into a deliberative and entrepreneurial system of governance.

The stakes are high for a climate change citizens' assembly 

Citizens’ assemblies enable effective and legitimate action against climate change. They provide a democratic route out of our current malaise, but they need to be influential, high-quality, systemic and matched with broader reform. The announcement yesterday is important and potentially very constructive. Now we need to make sure we do it properly. The stakes are high.


The RSA is launching a campaign for Deliberative Democracy. Sign up here to keep up to date on our work on Citizens' Assemblies.

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