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.Continue reading