Following an increase in the use of citizens’ assemblies to aid policymakers in seeking solutions to the problems posed by climate change, Robert Liao asks why this particular subject is so commonly the theme of citizens’ assemblies, before analysing whether such processes produce recommendations that genuinely inform policymaking.
The so-called ‘deliberative wave’ of recent years and months has seen citizens’ assemblies convened by a number of national and local or regional governments. Of these assemblies, climate change is the most popular topic. In the past year, high-profile climate assemblies in the UK, France, Scotland, Denmark and Germany have made recommendations for policymakers, while further assemblies have been convened or announced in Austria and Spain. Local democracy is seeing a similar surge in climate assemblies: a January post on the Unit’s blog found that nine out of 13 recent local citizens’ assemblies in the UK focused on climate change or air quality.
This post explores two questions: Why, exactly, is climate change so popular as a topic for citizens’ assemblies? And do these deliberative mini-publics actually produce recommendations which inform green policymaking?
Why Climate Change?
The most obvious answer to this question is that climate change is, arguably, the biggest threat facing humanity, and we are already feeling its devastating effects. The climate plays an ever-bigger role in global politics: over 100 countries have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Given this, it is to be expected that green policy would be an important issue to put to citizens’ assemblies.
But citizens’ assemblies may be especially well–suited to finding solutions on an issue such as climate change. In an age of unprecedented division and polarisation, it is increasingly difficult to reach a political consensus. This is particularly true for what are sometimes called ‘wicked problems’: multi-faceted dilemmas[DB1] that resist solution through conventional channels. It is precisely these problems that cause politicians greatest difficulty: politicians know that action is needed, but they fear being punished at the polls for whatever actions they opt for. Rebecca Willis, one of the expert leads for Climate Assembly UK, has identified a ‘dual reality’, in which most politicians acknowledge the growing danger of climate change but carry on with politics as usual. In a study following a series of interviews with MPs, she determined that climate action is still seen as an issue outside the political mainstream, and so few MPs consider it in their interest to act decisively on the climate.
By bringing members of the public into deliberative policy discussions informed by high-quality evidence, citizens’ assemblies are designed to enable constructive policymaking on such ‘wicked’ issues. While citizens’ assemblies are sometimes portrayed as an alternative to decision-making by elected representatives, they are in fact best utilised as aids to such decision-making: the idea is that they can help policymakers in identifying solutions to difficult problems that may command lasting public respect.
That at least is the theory, but does it work in practice? A growing body of literature suggests that it does. One point is that citizens’ assemblies yield recommendations that deserve serious attention. The political scientist James Fishkin has demonstrated how deliberative polls result in participants becoming more reasoned and informed. Other studies suggest that exposure to opposing viewpoints and arguments results in greater understanding and a move towards consensus. Past experience indicates that climate assemblies are capable of producing green policy proposals with the same level of ambition as recommended by climate experts. Germany’s climate assembly recently finalised recommendations that included some policies, such as an autobahn speed limit, that politicians had feared they would be punished for at the ballot box. Former president Horst Köhler has suggested this proves the public are further along than politicians.
Evidence from British Columbia and Oregon suggests that the broader citizenry trusts the proposals of deliberative bodies made up of ‘people like us’. Studies in Canada and Ireland have found that survey respondents who know that a proposal has come from a citizens’ assembly are more likely to support it than those who do not, while polling in France indicates 60% of respondents consider the French climate convention’s authority to make recommendations on behalf of the French people legitimate.
In the coming years, climate policy may impact every part of our lives, perhaps significantly changing the way we eat, travel, shop for goods and heat our homes. If governments are to ask us to make far-reaching changes, they must have the public onside if they are to succeed and avoid the perception that these changes are being imposed. Climate assemblies may be a vital tool in indicating the policy direction and pace at which the public are prepared to move.
Fairness in Green Policy
In the words of Committee on Climate Change (CCC) member Piers Forster, the climate is about to get ‘a lot more personal’. These changes, penetrating every aspect of life, will disadvantage certain groups far more than others: some workers will lack the skills needed in a net-zero economy; unequal access to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure risks excluding some people and regions from the green transition; and carbon fuel taxes are unlikely to be popular among car-dependent workers, as seen in France in 2018–9. To be sustainable, climate policy will need to be fair to all workers, groups and regions.
Here, again, climate assemblies have demonstrated their value. Climate Assembly UK was lauded for thoroughly incorporating fairness into its recommendations, prioritising education to help consumers make informed choices about consumption and emphasising the importance of equal access to green products and services. Overall, the assembly found strong support for tougher policies, signalling a clear public desire for ambitious climate action. But it also showed that people will only be willing to change if changes are fair. Fairness, therefore, must form an integral part of future climate measures. Climate assemblies, through which members of the public themselves grapple with reconciling scientific advice with the practicalities of their own lives, are well–equipped to propose how to shape such measures.
Communities are grasping this lesson: Britain has seen a growing number of deliberative mini-publics helping to shape local green policy. These include the four local citizens’ juries held by the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. As the UK-wide assembly did, these stressed the importance of fairness, agreeing that lower-income households should not bear the costs of carbon-cutting and that climate action must increase social equality. They also argued for green measures tailored to local circumstances. The Tees Valley jury, for instance, called for old mineshafts to be repurposed for renewable energy, while the South Wales Valleys jurors advocated more local green jobs.
Perhaps the most crucial question is: do climate assemblies actually make a difference? Are their carefully considered, consensus-based judgments taken seriously by politicians in crafting climate policy?
There exists always the possibility that policymakers meet climate assemblies with welcoming words and little more: such assemblies are, after all, advisory. Even well-intentioned governments may find implementing climate assemblies’ recommendations hard: despite President Emmanuel Macron’s promises to enact the French citizens’ climate convention’s ‘unfiltered’ proposals, French parliamentarians have approved a climate bill that ignores over half of those proposals. Most of those which remain are in watered-down form, leading to criticism from environmental groups, some politicians, convention members and France’s independent climate watchdog. This, clearly, is undesirable: it risks public resentment, and a perception of government insincerity in receptiveness both to citizen suggestions and to genuine climate action. That could damage the entire climate assembly process.
But many climate assemblies do appear to be having an impact. Climate Assembly UK’s findings deeply influenced the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget, with the report’s balanced pathway drawing upon the Assembly’s emphasis on fairness and Chief Executive Chris Stark expressing interest in further deliberative exercises at the Budget’s launch event. Politicians have also engaged with the Assembly: the BEIS select committee in the Commons recently published a report urging the government to accept the Assembly’s proposals as the basis for its policy and move forward in publishing plans to educate Britons about the climate. In other cases, such as Scotland and Jersey, decision-makers are obliged to respond to climate assemblies officially – in Jersey’s case with justifications where proposals have not been adopted, and a timetable for implementation. These mechanisms are in line with the BEIS committee’s recommendation for a point-by-point response from the UK government to Climate Assembly UK’s report, and – as the Unit’s Alan Renwick argued in his submission to the BEIS committee inquiry – should be upheld as best practice in embedding citizens’ assemblies in green policymaking.
Politicians have sometimes looked at the prospect of citizens’ assemblies with concern, fearing that such bodies may usurp their own decision-making role. But politicians need not have that fear. In fact, climate assemblies may help them in securing policy changes that are capable both of addressing the climate crisis and of retaining public support. Speaking in the Commons debate on Climate Assembly UK in November 2020, for example, Anthony Browne MP underscored the importance of ‘taking the people with us’ and praised the ‘sensible’ Assembly members for their pragmatism. The CCC and the BEIS committee have urged the government to further engage with the public through additional citizens’ assemblies. Such efforts to involve citizens in decision-making may prove essential to ensuring future climate policy is fair, inclusive and effective.
About the author
Robert Liao was a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit until the end of July.