It’s been called the ‘climate spring’– the very welcome, and very necessary, upswell of public concern and political attention on climate change. School strikes, the Extinction Rebellion protests, advocacy for a Green New Deal in the US, the Committee on Climate Change calling for a more stringent target, and the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ by the UK Parliament, Wales, Scotland and many local areas: all this has come together to shift the politics of climate change up a gear. What next?
One idea that has attracted a lot of interest is the proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, one of Extinction Rebellion’s demands. Oxford has already committed to holding its own Assembly; Sadiq Khan has shown interest; my own home town of Kendal will shortly hold a Citizens’ Jury. My research with politiciansshows why these sorts of processes are needed. As the Committee on Climate Change made clear in their net-zero report, climate policy has been top-down and expert-led, with few attempts made to engage citizens or local areas in the need for, and benefits of, the transition to a zero-carbon society. While politicians now know what the protesters think, they still don’t have a clear sense of the mandate for climate action from the wider electorate. Deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies and Citizens’ Juries could help to turn that around.
As someone who has long argued for better deliberation in policymaking (I started writing about it in 2004, and haven’t really stopped) I’m so pleased to see this issue getting the attention it deserves. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with other enthusiasts about how we can make the most of this moment. I think that three things are needed:
1) A national Citizens’ Assembly, run by the UK Parliament
This would follow the model of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. It would be commissioned by Parliament on a cross-party basis, perhaps by a number of Select Committees (Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Business, Enterprise & Industrial Strategy). There is a precedent for this: the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Carerun by two Select Committees as part of an inquiry into the long-term funding of adult social care. Ideally, though, this would not be a one-off, but would become an established part of the UK’s response to climate change. There could be an Assembly to feed into the process of setting the five-yearly carbon budgets as set out in the UK’s Climate Change Act, for example. Given that primary legislation will be required to amend the Act and embed a net-zero carbon target, Citizens’ Assemblies could be part of this new legislation. As with the advice from the Committee on Climate Change, the government would not be legally obliged to implement the Assembly’s findings, but would be required to consider and respond to them.
2) Support for local areas to run their own deliberative processes
Many local areas are considering a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Jury (this blog explains the difference) to chart their own way forward. Given that many decisions about climate action are taken at a local level, and will need local support, this makes a lot of sense. There doesn’t seem to be much benefit in trying to force all local areas to follow the same approach, though. What works for London is unlikely to suit a rural District Council. But it would help greatly to have a central hub of resources and case studies, to make it easier for Local Authorities to access expertise; and a widely-agreed set of principles for how such processes could run. This could be facilitated by the Local Government Association, with support from the Cabinet Office and independent deliberation specialists. As with the national process, it would be essential to be very clear about how the results of any such process would be used, to improve climate policymaking.
3) Greater use of deliberation in wider policymaking and research
Last, I’d really like to see more use of deliberative processes (Assemblies, Juries, deliberative workshops and other fora) in policymaking more generally. There is a much evidence to suggest that a more inclusive approach to politics and policymaking could guard against increasing political polarisation, as Claire Ainsley argues in this book about UK class politics. The current formal consultation system for government policy proposals has its uses, but it’s not an effective way of engaging people who aren’t part of the Westminster bubble. For example, energy governance – an area that I’m working on at the moment, with the University of Exeter – would certainly benefit from a wider dialogue about how we can capitalise on the innovation sweeping our energy system, to engage people in the transition to a zero-carbon society. Green Alliance is running its own Citizens’ Juries, working with MPs to gain a better understanding of what climate action constituents would like to see, as part of its Climate Leadership Programme for MPs – this is another way in which such processes can be used to support better decision-making.
Deliberation won’t, in and of itself, solve the climate crisis. We need far-reaching action, which will require radical policy, and confrontation of vested interests. But this policy and action will only be achievable if people understand and support it. The more we find out about how to build a public mandate for climate action, and the more we include people in genuine debate and deliberation, the more likely we are to find a way through.