A climate for deliberation: Can citizens’ assemblies steer the climate revolution?

Alex McManis | Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow

In 2019, France assembled 150 ordinary citizens from all across the country to answer a broad question - how could France reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) in a spirit of social justice? The Citizens’ Convention on Climate was made up of citizens who reflected the gender diversity, age range, educational levels, regional background and professional qualifications in French society. They met for seven three-day sessions to listen to climate scientists, politicians, industry leaders and other experts, and find solutions to the climate crisis.


The French Citizens’ Convention developed 149 diverse and ambitious proposals. They ranged from introducing a crime of ecocide, to reducing taxes on train tickets, increasing vegetarian options in cafes, and changing the French constitution. If implemented they would cause massive changes in how the French eat, commute, and heat their homes. Impressively, 146 of the proposals have been accepted by President Macron; although they still need to be ratified by numerous parliamentary votes and public referendums before they can be enacted.


France is not the only example of holding a successful climate assembly. Ireland held a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2017. Its recommendations informed a 2019 overhaul of Irish climate policies. The UK is also running a climate assembly. Its final report is due in September.


Why hold citizens' assemblies on climate policy?


While many environmentalists argue that ordinary people do not understand the scale of the climate crisis, evidence from recent assemblies disputes that and suggests citizens’ assemblies can trigger important advances in climate policies. The assemblies show how concerned people really are and place enormous pressure on governments to act. They have a high level of legitimacy as the assemblies are considered impartial and appear to reflect what ordinary citizens think. It is difficult for politicians to claim they are listening to their citizens’ concerns, while contradicting an assembly’s findings. The recommendations of climate assemblies may also be viewed more favourably by the general public, who trust their peers more than they do politicians or academics.


Further, the citizens’ assemblies’ recommendations are often more ambitious and broader than those developed by political professionals. This is partly because the participants come from a wider range of geographic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds than political professionals. Consequently, they approach climate policy differently. Rebecca Willis, Professor in Practise at the Lancaster Environment Centre, argues that the political class have strong preconceptions about what are and are not acceptable ways to tackle climate change. It is difficult for individuals to challenge those assumptions because they feel they will alienate themselves from their colleagues. The general public are not limited by those same preconceptions, nor are they subject to the same levels of lobbying and partisan pressure, so often produce more innovative solutions.


All of these features make a citizens’ assembly an appealing way to formulate climate policy.


Reasons to be cautious


However, there are also barriers to their broader uptake. Establishing climate assemblies requires large amounts of political good-will. This is partly because comprehensive assemblies require massive funding. The assemblies involve hiring meeting spaces, paying for the travel and accommodation of participants from regional areas, and compensating participants for time off work. The French Citizens’ Convention, the most comprehensive to date, had a budget of more than €5.3 million (AUD 8.56 million).


More saliently, citizens’ assemblies also need political good-will because they require politicians to hand over policy-making power to the general public. To be truly effective, citizens have to believe it is worthwhile participating. Participants need guarantees that their proposals will be enacted or at least voted on by legislatures. Giving those guarantees is risky. Climate assemblies can lock less ambitious politicians into more aggressive actions than they desire, or alternatively lock pro-climate actors into less ambitious actions than intended.


In the case of the French Citizens’ Convention, Macron guaranteed that any proposals would be put to the parliament or a referendum “unfiltered”, meaning there would be no editing or watering down of the Convention’s proposals. But Marcon was working within a very particular political context. The Citizens’ Convention was initiated in response to the Yellow Vest protests, and accusations that Marcon’s administration was elitist and Paris-centric. He had little to lose by providing the Citizens’ Convention with strong guarantees. It is unclear whether other politicians would take the same risks.


Australia’s experience provides a more cautionary tale. The Gillard Government attempted to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate policy in 2009, but abandoned the policy after Labor lost its majority in the 2010 federal election. The policy was characterised as an abdication of government responsibility and a ‘smokescreen’ for introducing an emissions trading scheme. It failed to attract the necessary political will to even begin in the hyper-polarised environment of Australian climate politics.


Despite all of these limitations, climate assemblies seem to be a genuinely effective way of injecting new ideas into climate policy debates and building consensus about how society should move forward. But, more importantly, they engage ordinary people. Tackling climate change effectively will involve massive society-wide changes. People should have the opportunity to contribute to the debate about policy decisions that will change their lives. Any program that achieves that is surely worth considering.


Alex McManis is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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