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22 October 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 8:01am

Why Extinction Rebellion is demanding a citizens’ assembly to combat the climate crisis

By Linda Doyle

Extinction Rebellion has three demands. Although all revolve around the climate emergency facing the modern world, one essentially reaches back to the founders of democracy in Athens.

We want the government to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice. The idea is that this would be deliberative – coming to conclusions and policies based on discussion. This would help avoid bias, include more diverse and therefore representative voices than our elected bodies and represent an example of participative democracy – decisions from ordinary people.

Some say this is already being achieved because six parliamentary select committees have agreed to hold what they call a citizens’ assembly on net-zero carbon emissions. But definitions can be oh-so tricky. The proposed assembly will not have legislative power and will be asked how to decarbonise by 2050, a goal so inadequate it is effectively a death sentence for the planet.

Our demand calls for independence; with an oversight body established so that government can’t influence the agenda, evidence, or eventual conclusions. Truly independent assemblies would get to determine their own target date; one that you would expect to be closer to 2025, based on what scientists and experts believe is required.

The building blocks of the assemblies proposed by Extinction Rebellion consist of an oversight panel, a coordinating group, and an advisory board reviewing evidence base, as well as experts. But what is different about citizens’ assemblies is that they would include people from across various walks of life, meaning people across the country would see people like them. Not lobbyists, career politicians, or industry cheerleaders. 

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It says a lot about the state of politics that it would be dramatic and powerful to simply see the UK public represented on a body formulating policy.

Recommendations achieving enough support from the assembly could be binding with a threshold set as high as 80 per cent.

The normal response to suggestions for such changes to the way we do politics is that they are too radical and untested. Yet there are already examples.

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Three years ago, Gdansk had a major flooding incident in which two people died. When it was concluded that such extreme events would only increase with climate change, the mayor agreed to organise a citizens’ assembly to discuss the issue. About 60 residents were chosen to listen to expert testimony – and for transparency the final stage of the random selection process was carried out by a die-roll and live-streamed. If at least 80 per cent of the group agreed on a decision, it became law.

The next year when the city flooded again the municipality was able to respond swiftly partly due to the resolutions passed by the representative citizens’ assembly. Its success means that a citizens’ assembly can now be requested whenever at least 1,000 of Gdansk’s 350,000 adults sign a petition. Others have so far been formed on pollution, civic engagement, and equal rights.

City level or local deliberative democracy gives people power. That’s great because we need to decentralise decision making and let people organise themselves. But given the sheer urgency of our impending mass extinction, and the complexity of the challenge we face, only legislation at a national level can be sufficient, so a national citizens’ assembly is essential.

The detailed issues can be addressed: how can we transition to a net greenhouse gas society in a way that protects the most vulnerable? How can we replace all gas boilers in the UK without burdening those on lower incomes? How can we help farmers and fossil fuel industry workers transition to carbon neutral/negative forms of work? Or even prepare for what our shopping baskets will look like? Crops failures are already causing shortages of some vegetables in the UK. Presently, we can still import, but what happens when we have multi-bread basket failure? How far will you go to feed yourself once system collapse means there isn’t enough food on the shelves? We need to start deciding how to mitigate and adapt.

As put by the British band Massive Attack, which provided music for a new film about citizens’ assemblies, “the magnitude and urgency of climate emergency dwarfs Brexit, and yet the obvious paralysis of party politics reveals a government unable to respond adequately.”

The UK public deserves to determine a response to the crisis we face. Done well, politicians and decision makers will have a stake because it’s about having a mandate with cross-party support. Maybe decent politicians who know the five-year electoral cycle is the antithesis to the long-term thinking needed will get behind this because they know they can’t propose what’s needed now. Extinction Rebellion believes the intractable problems in our current parliamentary democracy are part of the reason why we face a climate and ecological emergency.

Let’s not sanitise the Athenians, obviously they didn’t mean women, slaves, or anyone other than some specific men should have a say. That was then; this is the future – more politics, more say, more power. Strength from the people – the definition of democracy – seems a good idea again.

Linda Doyle is the external co-ordinator of the Extinction Rebellion working group on citizens’ assemblies.