Climate assemblies are becoming more common across the world as governments and others consider how best to tackle the climate crisis .As their use has grown, so has interest in how they are commissioned, run, and evaluated. Research into their impact on decision-makers has also increased. However very few studies have looked at the long-term impact on assembly members themselves. Sarah Allan discusses new research that shows this impact could be long-lasting and cover changes in both attitudes and behaviours.
Climate Assembly UK was commissioned by six select committees of the House of Commons to examine the question, ‘How should the UK reach its climate target of net zero emissions by 2050?’. It brought together 108 members of the public who together broadly reflected the UK population in terms of their demographics, climate attitudes and geography. Assembly members met over six weekends to hear evidence from speakers with a wide range of different perspectives, discuss what they thought with one another and reach their conclusions.
The focus of the assembly was on providing input to the six select committees to inform their work. Assembly members were not asked to make changes to their own lives, nor were they given information or support aimed at helping them to do so. And yet, in the weeks and months after the assembly ended, its members started telling me and my colleagues Involve about changes they were making to how they lived. They had bought an electric car, become a parish councillor, started a climate-friendly business, and more. Our interest was piqued. Were the people contacting us the exception or had lots of assembly members made similar changes?
We teamed up with Stephen Elstub and Jayne Carrick from Newcastle University to find out. Together we sent assembly members two additional research surveys – one in April 2021, roughly a year after the end of the assembly events, and the second in September 2022, two years after the launch of the assembly’s final report. 73% of assembly members responded to one or both of the surveys and gave permission for the Newcastle University team to use their results. Analysis shows that the small number of differences between these assembly members’ backgrounds and attitudes, and those of the assembly members who filled out our research surveys during the assembly, do not explain our findings.
What we found
The survey results suggest that taking part in Climate Assembly UK had a big impact on the climate views and actions of assembly members, and possibly on their political attitudes and actions. They also suggest that this impact took place for assembly members regardless of their backgrounds or previous perspectives on climate.
Five of the results that I personally found most striking were the following:
- How much assembly members’ concern about climate change increased after the assembly. We already knew that more assembly members were ‘very concerned’ about climate change at the end of the assembly events than at its start (56% compared to 46%). However what surprised me was the extent to which this figure continued to rise after the assembly finished (by April 2021 it was 72%, by September 2022 it was 74%). In comparison, the percentage of the UK population who said they were ‘very concerned’ about climate change remained roughly consistent: Ipsos Mori polling suggests 52% of the population were ‘very concerned’ in July 2019 and 54% were ‘very concerned’ in July 2022.
- The number of assembly members who had made changes in their own lives since the assembly and how many changes they had made. The surveys show that at least 79 assembly members had made one or more climate-friendly changes to their lives since taking part (91% of the post assembly survey respondents); and that at least 39 assembly members (49%) had made 10 or more changes. These ranged from paying more attention to climate change in the news (68%), and discussing climate change more with people around them (63%), to reducing the amount of meat and dairy in their diets (56%), decreasing electricity use in the home (59%), and becoming involved in tackling climate change at work (22%). Other changes included how people travelled and insulated their homes. Assembly members attributed all but 23 of these 693 changes to ‘environmental reasons’ and/or said they were ‘contributed to’ by taking part in the assembly.
- The range of assembly members who had made changes in their lives since the assembly. The researchers at Newcastle University found no significant relationship between the number of changes assembly members had made to their lives since the assembly (as just outlined) and differences in their age, gender, ethnicity, level of education and attitudes, including their level of concern about climate change at the start of the assembly and how assembly members view their politics on a left-right ideological scale.
- Assembly members’ ongoing enthusiasm for citizens’ assemblies. Since the assembly, its members have become less convinced that their recommendations will influence government policy or the work of parliament. At the end of the assembly, 42% of respondents thought Climate Assembly UK would influence government policy ‘a lot’ or ‘quite a lot’. This then fell to 26% by April 2021 and 14% by September 2022. The equivalent figures for parliament are 46%, 39% and 31%. Despite this, 89% to 94% of respondents to the post-assembly surveys ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that citizens’ assemblies should be used more often. That represents no change at all since the end of the assembly; assembly members are still just as enthusiastic about the use of citizens’ assemblies.
- Tentative findings about changes to assembly members’ political attitudes and actions. Without comparable figures for the UK population as a whole, we cannot draw many conclusions from this area of our findings. However they tentatively suggest that assembly members participated more across a range of measures (e.g. signing a petition, attending a protest) after the assembly than they did before it. The survey responses also show that both the extent to which assembly members felt they had a say in what the UK Parliament does and their belief that the UK political system works fairly well increased during the assembly, but then fell away again after it finished. There is a statistically significant relationship between this negative change since the assembly, and assembly members’ decreasing belief that their recommendations would have an influence.
What do these findings mean?
To me, these findings have a range of implications, as well as raising questions for further research.
Firstly, It feels important to understand if the above results hold true for participants in other climate assemblies, and also for participants in citizens’ assemblies looking at different topics. Many practitioners working in this space are well-connected through the excellent work of bodies like Democracy R&D (global), Involve’s own UK networks, and the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies (Europe-wide), the latter of which has recently published work on impact measures for climate assemblies. Perhaps the sector could agree a set of standard questions that get asked before, during and after a wide range of assemblies?
Another set of implications are around the role assemblies and other similar processes could play in the fight against climate change. One question I have is how small can you go? For example, could a mini-deliberative process that people could do with their friends and family at home have a significant positive impact on people’s climate attitudes and actions, as well as giving people an experience of what deliberation feels like and why it would be a good idea to use it more? There is a research project here that could also have implications for issues beyond climate change.
Finally, there are questions about the information, support and opportunities offered to assembly members during and after assembly (and similar) processes. On Involve’s to-do list for this year is working with others to create a network for former participants in the UK. There are also smaller scale questions about what it is desirable and feasible to offer assembly members around individual climate assembly processes.
My colleagues and I are very interested to hear what others are looking at and working on in these spaces. Do get in touch if you would like to talk.
You can read the full findings of the research in After Climate Assembly UK: did the views and behaviours of assembly members change? and its annexes (available separately). More information about Climate Assembly UK is available on the assembly’s website and on Involve’s project page for the assembly.
About the author
Sarah Allan is Director of Capacity Building and Standards at Involve.
An edited version of this post appears on the Involve website.