How citizens’ juries can help to create a mandate for climate action

citizens jury smallToday, a pub landlady, a student and a retired police inspector will be amongst those sitting in a church hall in the Lake District, debating the future of climate policy in the UK.

Green Alliance’s second citizens’ jury on climate change comes to Penrith. It is a chance for a community to come together, in the wake of parliament’s national climate emergency declaration, and make decisions on what it wants to see the government do to tackle climate change.

Back in November, Green Alliance, in collaboration with Lancaster University, released a report which aimed to answer what so many environmentalists have been struggling with for decades: why, when the science is so clear on the devastating effects of climate change, are only a handful of MPs doing anything about it?

Based on anonymous interviews with MPs from across the political spectrum, the research was very clear: MPs just aren’t confident that they have a mandate from their constituents to act. MPs identified a particular group of voters, mostly affluent, educated city dwellers, who were vocal advocates of climate action. But for the overwhelming majority of people, climate change was seen as a non-issue.

A recommendation of the report was to use deliberative democracy to put people at the heart of climate policy, to allow citizens and experts to meet on equal terms, to assess evidence, debate and agree solutions and show politicians it wasn’t just the usual suspects who wanted them to act. In essence, that there was a mandate for climate action.

The Republic of Ireland is ahead of the game
This method has been tried and tested in other countries, with impressive results. Arguably, the highest profile being in the Republic of Ireland. After a motion to the Irish parliament, the Citizen’s Assembly of Ireland was formed and 100 people considered five topics, ranging from the Eighth Amendment (see this short film “when citizens assemble”) to climate change. The Assemblies took place over multiple weekends, with input from expert, impartial and factual advisors. Their conclusions formed the basis of a number of reports and recommendations which went on to be debated by politicians.

It’s been done in the UK too. Last year in the UK, the Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committees set up a citizens’ assembly on adult social care chaired by Clive Betts MP and Dr Sarah Wollaston MP they concluded that:

“The Citizens’ Assembly process has been invaluable and could mark a new way of involving the public in how we make decisions in the future. Assembly members have shown that through dialogue, considered thinking and debate it is possible to achieve consensus on solutions for seemingly intractable problems.”

Politicians need to know the public is on board
Thanks in large part to Extinction Rebellion, the idea of doing a national citizens’ assembly on climate change in the UK is gathering pace. People want answers. And, two weeks ago, the Committee on Climate Change released its much anticipated report showing how the UK could get to net zero by 2050, thus ending the UK’s contribution to climate change. But here’s the crux: 62 per cent of the changes needed to get to net zero by 2050 would require at least some level of societal or behavioural change. Whether that’s people having their gas boilers changed to a zero carbon alternative, or swapping their cars to electric, it’s going to be essential to get public buy-in for the changes which need to happen. And politicians need to know that the public are on board.

Working with Britain Thinks, Green Alliance set up two citizens’ juries on climate change: one in Cardiff in March and the one today in Penrith.

The golden rule of deliberative democracy is to provide members of the public with impartial information to allow them to arrive at an informed ‘citizen’ perspective on complex issues, such as climate action. We armed our participants with knowledge of up to date science, the UK’s legally binding commitments and recommendations for tackling climate change.

From our first jury we found that some participants thought that the UK government was mistaken in not doing more to act on climate change now. Though climate change hadn’t been at the top of their list of concerns, the more we delved into it, the more it was clear that they wanted to see government action across the economy, not just from the power sector where most action has been concentrated to date.

Truly democratic with tangible results
Most participants anecdotally saw climate change happening, for example a retired truck driver had noticed “very little snow these days, I think global warming is affecting the UK.” When deliberating different policy options, there was a real optimism and pride in what the UK could become if the government acted now, with one participant saying “we live in south Wales and saw what happened with the coal mines – this [onshore wind and solar] could turn that around.” It was inspiring to watch members of the public spending time to debate how they wanted to tackle climate change.

Everyone had a different viewpoint, and of course some policy suggestions were less popular than others, but even if they were never going to turn into climate activists, participants wanted government action and to feel that everyone was doing their bit to face up to the challenge. We live in a time of polarisation, fake news and shaky politics, so this coming together of people from different perspectives to debate openly and reasonably with all the facts felt so refreshing and exciting.

For too long discussions on climate have been dominated either by those who are passionate about fighting it, or those denying its existence. The majority of people have been left out of the equation. As climate is now finally at the top of the agenda, these citizens’ juries are a truly democratic and tangible way to involve people in the decisions that have to be made.

We will be reporting on the outcomes, so watch this space.

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