This post is by Gwen Buck, policy adviser at Green Alliance, and Rebecca Willis, Green Alliance associate and professor in practice at Lancaster University.
In the same week parliament has announced a national Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, we are analysing the findings of our pilot deliberative democracy project, which brought citizens together with MPs to discuss, debate and deliberate ways for the UK to cut carbon across all sectors and get us on the path to net zero.
Yesterday’s announcement is a crucial step forward for climate politics. Coming hot on the heels of the government’s decision to legislate for a net zero carbon target, this Citizens’ Assembly will help the government to develop a climate strategy that people can understand, support and vote for. As the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report made crystal clear, most climate policy to date has been top down and expert led, and few attempts have been made to engage people or local communities in the need for, and benefits of, action.
We’re pleased to have led the way on the use of deliberative democracy as a tool to test the public mandate on climate action by MPs. Research we undertook with Lancaster University has shown why a national Citizens’ Assembly is needed.
Political leadership at odds with public and media messages
Following the school strikes and demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion, politicians know what protesters think, but they still don’t have a clear sense of what mandate for climate action they have from the wider electorate. The deliberative processes we facilitated brought a cross section of a community together with experts and allowed them to learn, think about and debate the best way forward.
We will soon be reporting on this pilot project, which was run in conjunction with Britain Thinks. But here is a foretaste of our findings. The two citizens’ juries we held were in Cardiff and Penrith. Randomly selected individuals, representative of the local constituency, were briefed on climate science and the UK’s legally binding commitments. They were then given some suggested policies and strategies for tackling climate change to consider. In Penrith, they also had the chance to discuss these with their local MP, Rory Stewart.
A key finding was that participants perceived a lack of political leadership on climate action, at odds with media messages about the impacts of climate change, as well as the worrying signs they had noticed themselves. They wanted the government to lay out a clear strategy, and indicate a momentum for change. Critically, they were more willing to support specific changes, such as a switch to electric vehicles, if they were part of a wider government-led strategy.
It’s significant that the Citizens’ Assembly involves six select commitees
To tackle the UK’s contribution to climate change, participants wanted to act now and not wait. In this context, the announcement that the new Citizens’ Assembly will encompass six select committees, covering a variety of sectors, is significant as collaboration across departments will be vital.
The UK’s 2015 commitment to phase out coal-fired power stations was the result of a huge joint effort by activists, NGOs and politicians. As a result, the UK recently achieved a first: two continuous weeks without using coal to generate electricity. This success, and the growth of renewables, means the focus of rapid decarbonisation now has to be on sectors other than the power sector, as the most significant emitters become transport, housing, industry and land use. The UK can only end its contribution to climate change if it pursues a holistic approach, targeting all these sectors of the economy.
We will report the findings of our pilot project in more detail soon, including recommendations for the new Citizens’ Assembly on climate change and net zero. For now, an indication of the mood of the people is nicely summed up in the words of one participant of our project: “We currently see the government so focused on Brexit that they’re unwilling to do anything about the issues currently affecting us, such as climate change. I’m so sick and tired of both sides when we really want action on this.”