Tinkering or Transformation?

Updated: Mar 31

Why we should call on climate assemblies to do more political work

By Alexa Waud. Art by Natanin Rachpradit

Hearing that "climate change has been put on the political agenda" has become common in the last year. In the UK, from Oxford to Leeds, local authorities have taken their approach straight from the Extinction Rebellion (XR) handbook: declare a climate emergency and get more people involved. Citizen’s Assemblies on climate change are cropping up around the country, and a national assembly was convened in early 2020. Commitments to net-zero, climate emergency declarations, and citizens assemblies are all being used as evidence of this agenda-setting.

Local authorities are on a peculiar trajectory, however, in moving from climate emergency declaration to climate assembly. Historically, moments of societal emergency have tended to see democratic processes suspended in favour of swift action, and yet these declarations appear to do the opposite. How is that possible? In order to understand this trajectory, the participatory process of climate assemblies (how they are run) must be separated from their content (what they are about). While climate assemblies are indeed intervening in the existing political landscape by creating the space for all sorts of people to be involved in climate action, they are simultaneously deepening an apolitical climate agenda. Their apolitical content is more compatible with an emergency declaration because, as I explain below, these assemblies presuppose the framework within which the climate crisis must be dealt. Consequently, there is an inherent tension embedded in climate assemblies: they depoliticise the content while broadening participation in climate action. In these spaces, the appearance of climate change on the agenda has been far from political.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change?

Citizens’ assemblies are a method; a way to do participatory democracy with 50 people or more spending at least 30 hours learning about policy issues, deliberating policy options, and deciding how a government should act. They have a specific research question, are supposed to be thorough and well-resourced, and usually focus on an intractable issue. Importantly, the recommendations made by the citizens’ assembly feed into policy. They are not campaigns intended to educate or promote a behavioural change (you would only reach 40-100 people!). In the past, Ireland hosted a citizens’ assembly on its abortion ban, and the Canadian province of British Columbia on electoral reform. The former recommended an end to Ireland’s abortion ban about one year before a referendum did the same. The latter recommended that British Columbia replace its first-past-the-post voting system, but its referendum one year later just fell short of the support needed to institute that change.

In the context of climate assemblies, the process involves communicating climate science and politics, creating space for the assembly members to explore topic areas in depth (housing, transport, energy, adaptation), and giving them a platform to make recommendations to the government. The assemblies focus on a specific question, for example: will we aim to meet our decarbonisation target by 2030 or 2050; what criteria must new climate policies meet?

In the UK, climate assemblies are evolving. Each time an assembly is concluded new lessons are learnt. A coalition of practitioners have been working towards citizens’ assembly standards to ensure that the term "citizens’ assembly" itself does not get diluted in the midst of their proliferation. These standards are a framework that — when followed — create assemblies with the power to democratise control and strengthen climate agendas.

Eco-Authoritarianism vs Eco-Democracy

Most of the commentary on climate assemblies has focused on the need to democratise climate action. These commentaries intervene in a debate between eco-authoritarianism and eco-democracy: Do we need to suspend democracy so that a powerful state can make the decisions to decarbonise quickly and without contestation? Those who make this argument believe only decisive, unilateral action on climate can achieve the speed and scale of decarbonisation necessary; democracy will just slow things down.

Or, on the other hand, is democracy integral and necessary for climate action? Proponents of eco-democracy argue that involving people in the decisions that affect their lives is the right thing to do, and is essential for achieving broad-based support. The backlash against carbon pricing in France’s Gilets Jaunes movement was just one example of how elite-orchestrated climate policies can backfire when they do not resonate with the public. Furthermore, participatory governance can actually improve the quality of policy. In the case of climate, this could mean bringing considerations to the fore which would have escaped bureaucrats.

By switching into emergency gear governments can follow an eco-authoritarian path.

I critiqued the "wartime measures" approach to climate action in an earlier issue of Anthroposphere, outlining how declaring an emergency, be it war or climate, allows powerful actors to bypass democratic debate. By switching into emergency gear governments can follow an eco-authoritarian path. As James Lovelock, the ecologist and Gaia theorist has said,

"Orderly survival requires an unusual degree of human understanding and leadership and may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival emergency."

Herein lies the paradox of climate assemblies in the UK: an emergency declaration is being used as a precedent to increase democratic participation when emergency declarations most often do the opposite.

Post-political climate content

The idea that "climate change has been put on the political agenda" is misleading. Yes, it has been put on the policy or the governance agenda – allowing for ever stronger ambitions and the mathematical gymnastics of emissions calculations. Within national and local government, however, its agenda setting has been narrow. Geography professor Erik Swyngedouw draws on political theorists to explore how, despite the fact that the environment has been politically mobilised, its current articulation lacks a proper political dimension.

But what is "political" to Swyngedouw? He writes, "the ultimate aim of proper political intervention is to change the given socio-environmental ordering in a certain matter." In other words, a political intervention fundamentally changes existing hierarchies, relationships, and processes. It cancels one version of the future because it chooses another, and it recognises that there will be winners and losers in the transition. In the world of climate action, systemic change becomes possible through political intervention, but cases where the present is merely tinkered-with Swyngedouw would call post-political.

If you follow XR, the post-political climate consensus may sound familiar. XR has, in a way, opened an avenue for civil disobedience with post-political content. At the same time as decrying business-as-usual governments who are not doing enough, XR’s calls to action are very much business-as-usual, i.e. calling on science and consensus to do political work. "Listen to the science," they exclaim, "tell the truth!" But science does not tell us what to do; what the future should be is a political question.

What if climate assemblies were admitting to the fact that we must choose one of multiple futures at stake to push for?

Like the movement that demanded them, citizens’ assemblies are getting more people involved in climate action than ever before. Yet, as a deliberative method, we are not asking enough of them. They can handle more than discussions about timelines and carbon measurements. What if the goal was not merely to present information, scientific or otherwise, as purely neutral; what if they were deliberately contentious, admitting to the fact that there were multiple futures at stake, and we must choose which to push for?

Politicising climate assemblies

Fortunately, far from all climate action is post-political. Climate organising, especially that of the decolonial, global justice variety, does present alternative visions of the future and its socio-environmental relations. Wet’suwet’en in Canada are fighting for a climate just and decolonial future by blocking the development of a gas pipeline, and questioning the power of the Canadian government in their territory. When climate assemblies first started cropping up in 2019, we were even seeing real political disputes within the UK’s Labour and the US’s Democratic parties, and interestingly climate change has been an integral part of these debates. Citizens’ assembly organisers can look to many properly political climate interventions for inspiration.

What would it look like if a forum for participatory democracy, be it an assembly or otherwise, had properly political climate content? Some scholars advocate for a blank slate approach that allows participants to frame the issue how they want. However, a blank slate can be as disempowering as it is empowering: with an issue as complex as climate, people get scared off by the void. One of the strengths of the climate assembly model is the diversity of participants, and this approach risks pushing people of colour, working class people, and women to the margins of the imagining. Articulate mansplainers, for lack of a better image, would be able to more readily draw their idea onto the blank slate.

An alternative approach may not yet have a name, but we can begin developing it. Through theoretical attention, a search for counter-examples, and a commitment to practice, the content of climate assemblies can be re-politicised. We can look to feminist economic geographers J.K. Gibson-Graham for a lesson on how scholar-activists bring new realities into being: through attention-diverse, non-capitalist economies they are able to theorise alternative futures. We can also turn our gaze to political climate action, and theorise how it can be done in a formal, deliberative forum. Putting these theories into practice will require experimentation: what worked, how do we change that, and what new strategy do we try? Although this is not yet happening in citizens’ assemblies on climate change, it is possible.*

Climate action needs more politics

Akin to the claim that climate action needs more democracy, not less; climate action needs more politics, not less. Climate assemblies, as spaces for learning and debate, are fertile ground for both. Perhaps, the Coronavirus crisis has created the space and precedent for more political content. The global recession, already unfolding, will force us to think about what world we want to build from society’s ruins. Do we want to rebuild the old one, and maintain the myth of post-political climate consensus? In which case we would use citizens’ assemblies to continue to debate the timeline and scale of policies within an existing regime. Or, do we want to be honest about the precarity of our reality, and the fact that there are multiple futures on the table? Choosing one future is foreclosing others – which one do we choose?

*This piece was first written in February 2020, and then adapted early in the Coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. Since the time of writing, some climate assemblies appear to be moving in the direction of properly political content and deliberations. The Scottish Climate Assembly, for instance, asked its members: “how should Scotland change to address climate change in a fair and effective way?” Its design and experimental approach keep conversations away from the post-political technicalities, and instead gave members space to deliberate possible futures. Paying attention to how this more political approach succeeded and how it fell short will help contribute to the process of re-politicising climate assemblies.

Alexa Waud is an organiser and researcher based in London. She works on urban climate justice issues with a focus on housing, fuel poverty and democracy.