So, practically and precisely, how could citizens' assemblies help us respond to climate crisis?


In our continuing engagement with the XR phenomenon, it’s clear that they intended that their next stage - concurrent with their occupations - will involve the sortition-based, expertise-heavy deliberation processes known as citizens assemblies. They are ambitious that these assemblies could provide an alternative, contending political legitimacy to existing parliaments, governments and municipalities.

Let’s see. But in the meantime, as one way they can be helpful to the Extinction Rebellion targets - of net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 - we should ask: Who can they mobilise to make this happen, and how?

Isabella Kaminski has written an excellent piece for Open Democracy, talking to a range of democratic innovation experts, which lays out clearly what CA’s have to offer, based on precedent and experience. Here’s a listicle of the main points:

A Citizens Assembly is actually a “mini-public”

Not to be confused with people’s assemblies (a more informal gathering, often of existing activists) citizens’ assemblies are a way of exploring public views on a particular topic and coming up with concrete solutions.

They sit under the umbrella term ‘mini-publics’ as an example of deliberative democracy, alongside citizens’ juries, planning cells and consensus conferences.

All citizens’ assemblies have three stages

  1. The first involves learning about the problem, when everyone is given a primer in the subject and hears from people advocating different solutions.

  2. Then there is a period of consideration and discussion, often in small groups.

  3. The assembly as a whole then has to decide about what it would do to solve the problem at hand.

Allen says the learning phase is particularly important. “The discussions are designed to give participants a better understanding of why people might hold a different view of the subject and encourage people to critically reflect on their own opinions.”

They tend to produce a balanced view

“When citizens are given the right opportunity, space and support, they can consider an impressive range of evidence, perspectives and testimonies and then on balance make an informed recommendation.” (Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in public policy at the University of Edinburgh)

They might be particularly good at getting beyond the national perspective, and helping people deal with global threats

In 2009, the World Wide Views on Global Warming project gave thousands of people from across the world the chance to discuss climate change. The project, led by the Danish Board of Technology, is one of the largest experiments in deliberative democracy to date.

Escobar says it was a problematic process (”they all are”), but the results eventually fed into the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. “Climate change is a global problem and what we have is a very nationalistic world setup,” he said. “Mini publics have been one of the few participatory models that have been thought of as adaptable to deal with global threats.”

CA’s encourage debate - but screen out full-on climate denial

Escobar says citizens’ assemblies reorganise how voices in a debate are given space and heard. They would not exclude the views of climate change activists or conservationists or people who contest aspects of climate policy, he says, but they can help to filter out full-on climate denial. “With most issues in public policy you have a spectrum of debate, but in climate change naturally there is a scientific consensus and if you are to try and represent sceptical views it will be problematic because it cannot be proportional to the other side.”

Those arguments still have to make their way into the assembly so they can be scrutinised and refuted, but “it could be one of the mechanisms that helps to displace the current state of affairs in terms of current actors and policy priorities and power plays, and create a space where people need to justify their positions more clearly.”

CA’s can enable a better buy-in to the tougher decisions about what to prioritise

A citizens’ assembly would give politicians much better information about what people’s actual preferences are and what tradeoffs they’d make. “One of the reasons that politicians aren’t moving forward is because they’re worried about public backlash on, for example, wind farms. But if you can get people in the room and ask how you think targets should be met and here are your realistic options, they have got to choose one. Participants can’t say ‘we’d like more, higher quality services but we’re not prepared to pay for them.’”

Example: Ireland held a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2017, which concluded that the state must take a lead role on mitigation. It recommended that government prioritise public transport spending over new roads, tax greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and stop subsidising peat extraction. Strikingly, 80% of participants said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities.

They improve the reputation of democracy overall

Citizen Assemblies are invaluable for getting the public on board too, and securing more consensus. “With climate change we have to sacrifice some aspects of our current lifestyles,” Doyle says, “and nobody wants to hear politicians telling them because we’ve had it before; it’s not as if austerity was applied across all echelons of society equally. We really believe that to get the public on board with this it would be useful to have a citizens’ assembly, because when people hear it from their peers, from someone like a single mother, a farmer, who say ‘we’re fucked, we’re really afraid’, that will be really powerful.”

Those participating often feel energised, but return to their standard media world - and feel disillusioned with normality

Participants also benefit. Escobar says that people who have taken part nearly always find it satisfying and come out of the process both exhausted and delighted. “They have a strong sense of having done a civic duty on behalf of others and they’re exhausted because very rarely people get to get exposed so systematically to evidence and arguments - it’s very intense.”

But there is a flip side: some people, particularly those who haven’t taken part in public processes before, suddenly discover how simplistic public and media discourse actually is. “There is a long debate about whether this means people are more likely to participate and become more active citizens,” says Escobar.

“The theory is that the more people participate the more the more we develop our civic muscle and democracy enters this virtuous cycle. But that assumes that these opportunities are readily available, when these are still instances of extraordinary rather than ordinary democracy. So when these citizens’ go back to their realities…expecting some carefully crafted engagement they are disappointed.”

More here.