Tinkering or Transformation?

Updated: Sep 14

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

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