Are citizens' assemblies really the answer to the climate crisis?

Extinction Rebellion has called for assemblies to be held next year, but Ireland's experience is a cautionary tale. 

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Before MPs trudged out to the campaign trail in the December election, they made a decision that was nothing to do with Brexit. Though hardly covered in the media, it could have profound implications for the UK’s future.

Six major parliamentary committees agreed to holding a citizens’ assembly on climate change. They were quick in sending out invitations before parliament was dissolved, to ensure a new government doesn’t shelve the proposal.

More than 30,000 letters will be hitting the doormats of randomly selected households across the UK this month, at the same time that election leaflets are being stuffed through letterboxes. One hundred and ten people will be selected for a citizens assembly, to be held in Birmingham over four weekends between January and March 2020. Its objective? To discuss how the UK can meet net-zero emissions by 2050, and what members of the public can do to help reduce carbon emissions.

2019 has been the year of environmental politics. Prominent campaigns by environmental justice groups of all ages have focussed public attention on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion, which staged a colourful series of uprisings in metropolitan centres across the UK in April and October, has long championed citizens’ assemblies as a way of democratically reaching solutions to climate breakdown.

But the decision to hold citizens’ assemblies has divided opinion. Advocates say the move will allow citizens to bypass politicians who have been slow in taking necessary action. Opponents fear it may amount to little more than a talking shop, delaying the actions needed to meet net-zero emissions by the 2025 deadline that XR has proposed. 

As weariness with existing democratic structures grows across Europe, people have shown an increased appetite for alternative models. Citizens’ assemblies played a prominent role in reforms in the Republic of Ireland, where same-sex marriage and abortion were both legalised after receiving backing from a 99-person assembly (they were later ratified in a referendum). 

Elsewhere in Europe, the Polish city of Gdansk has used citizens’ assemblies since 2016. Following a heated public response to local government decisions that allegedly compounded the effects of major flooding, the assembly was brought in to draft policies that could deal with future flooding more effectively. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has pledged assemblies in an attempt to quell gilets jaunes unrest. Belgium’s German-speaking region, meanwhile, is in the process of establishing the world’s first permanent citizens’ assembly.

David Farrell, a politics professor at University College Dublin, helped successfully lobby the Irish government to adopt the citizens’ assembly approach in 2011, in the aftermath of the global financial crash. He’s currently “inundated” with requests to advise other countries about the process.

"It’s common for those who are critical of processes like this to argue that ‘it would never work here’. That’s what we faced in 2010 when we started campaigning for citizens’ assemblies in Ireland”, he says. 

The assemblies typically take place in conference centres or hotel function rooms where delegates watch presentations from experts about the topic at hand. After seeing expert evidence and pouring over additional reading material, the delegates then talk among themselves and carry out votes in order to make collective decisions as a group on various aspects of a particular policy. 

Although recent examples of citizens’ assemblies provide something of a blueprint, they're also a cautionary tale. Away from headline stories of successful assemblies on abortion and marriage equality, Ireland’s experience also shows the limitations of this bold form of direct democracy. 

For one thing, they are notoriously slow. Though the UK citizens assembly on climate change will take place over four weekends, the Irish citizens’ assembly is a lesson in how sluggish progress can be: citizens first met to discuss abortion in November 2016, with a confirmatory referendum taking place in May 2018, and the law finally changing in January 2019. It’s a timescale that seems ill-suited to the urgency of the climate crisis.

Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, is cautious. Assemblies can play “a useful and important role in determining some of the more difficult questions about how the UK can end its contribution to the climate crisis,” he says, “[they] must never be used as an excuse for delaying the urgent action we know we need right now.” 

There’s also the question of whether a citizens’ assembly is necessary for a subject about which the majority already agree. While abortion and same-sex marriage were considered taboo in Ireland, climate change is far less controversial, and the overwhelming majority of the electorate support a reduction in carbon emissions. 

“Many of the immediate actions… already command universal consensus,” Timms says. “We don’t need a citizens’ assembly to tell us that the government must invest urgently in a massive programme of home energy efficiency and public transport, for example.”

Though the assembly could provide a space for the public to push for more radical policies (polling shows that the majority of the electorate would support a target of net-zero emissions by 2030, rather than the government’s 2050 deadline), some fear that radicalism is precluded by narrow terms. Rather than determining targets, the assembly will only look at how to decarbonise by the government's prescribed target of 2050.

“Our demands call for a citizens’ assembly organised independent of government”, Marijn Van De Geer, a spokesperson for the environmental movement says. This would mean the government “does not have any undue influence over the agenda, evidence, or the eventual conclusions”, she adds. 

Most concerning, perhaps, is that the assembly’s recommendations will only carry advisory status, rather than being binding upon the government. In Ireland, a number of recommendations made by the assemblies have been ignored or put on indefinite hold by the Irish government. A 2013 recommendation that the voting age be lowered to 16 was never enacted. In 2015, the assembly’s recommendation to reform an age limit for presidential candidates was also rejected by the public in a referendum. If the UK’s latest experiment with direct democracy through the 2016 Brexit referendum has taught onlookers anything, it's that a measure with public support doesn't necessarily translate into law or treaty that MPs will vote for. 

“We believe [the assembly's] advice and conclusions will not be implemented and that its purpose will be just another consultative exercise”, Van De Geer says. “We would ask for an upfront, public commitment from the government to uphold and implement the citizens' assembly recommendations.”

However, Timms says he believes politicians will come under considerable public pressure to enact the recommendations: “There is no guarantee that MPs will adopt its proposals, but they will carry considerable moral weight. Civil society has already shown it has a strong voice and a powerful will when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis, and it is up to all of us listen to the assembly’s findings and commit to pushing for greater climate action.”

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.