Citizens Assemblies: a Silver Bullet for Climate Change?
When it comes to the environment, participatory decision-making seems to be remarkably effective at achieving desired outcomes both in terms of sustainability and in terms of fairness. A much-cited study by researchers at Harvard and Yale revealed that people in the present do, in fact, care about future generations. When split into groups and asked what to do with a given pool of resources, a full 68% of individuals chose to use their resources wisely, saving a sustainable amount for future generations to benefit from. The issue was with the remaining 32% of individuals who used up more than their fair share of resources: because the process was repetitive, all resources were eventually depleted further down the line, leaving future generations with nothing.
However, and here’s where participatory decision-making comes in, when the groups were asked to deliberate and take decisions on how best to use their resources as a group - all of a sudden the dynamic changed. The small minority of selfish individuals were overruled by the majority who chose to use the group’s resources sustainably, in some cases even changing their minds about how best to use the resources. And the results were remarkable: a full 100% of resources were sustained for the future, generation after generation, indefinitely, forever. (1)
Direct democracy, a form of democracy in which people decide on policy initiatives directly, has a huge potential to reach such outcomes. As the environmental social scientist Christos Zografos puts it: “on the one hand it helps challenge the hegemony of single ways of thinking” which in the case of the climate could be understood as the hegemony of interests preventing governments from taking action, and a willingness to listen to other perspectives, “on the other hand, it helps to build alternatives […] in practice”. The key institution for this is the deliberative assembly in which “citizens make decisions by listening to, and discussing, different views on a matter, reflecting on each view, and trying to arrive at a common decision without coercion.” (2)
Given the potential to spur government action on the pressing environmental crisis, it comes as a surprise that so few international observers have taken note of the two citizens’ assemblies on the climate that have just taken place. Both the UK and France have undertaken such assemblies and have produced an invaluable roadmap on how to tackle climate change.
The idea of a Citizens’ Assembly - or Citizens’ Convention on the Climate as it is known in France - is that certain important issues could benefit from being debated and decided upon by citizens themselves. A Citizens’ Assembly would provide a structure for this debate to take place in, inviting a set of randomly selected citizens to meet across several intensive weekends to listen to the views of scientists, experts, business and civil society representatives on a given topic. With these inputs then they develop a clearer understanding of the issue at stake and take decisions collectively to shape their nation’s response to the issue (via submitting proposals to committees, parliament, referendum etc).
In response to the mounting pressure of the Gilets Jaunes movement that sparked a nation-wide discussion on climate change and the state’s unpopular measures taken to address it, in April 2019 President Emanuel Macron announced the creation of a Citizens’ Convention. It was tasked to define “a series of proposals to combat climate change, in order to achieve a reduction of at least 40% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990) in a spirit of social justice.” (3) Whereas the remit of the French Convention committed it to submitting proposals either to a national referendum, a vote in Parliament or directly through executive orders, the British counterpart was somewhat more limited in scope and intended to inform only.
The People Speak
“When we are in a society based entirely on profit can we really succeed in moving towards a change? Are we going to be allowed to do this when it calls into question the interests of big business?” — Guillaume, representative on the French Convention for the Climate (4)
In an historic effort reminiscent of the cahiers de doléances which surveyed the opinions of countless commoners across the nation in an attempt to manage the revolutionary fever boiling in France in 1789, the Convention on the Climate has brought citizens’ perspectives to the fore. Though officially composed of 150 individuals drawn by lot, the Convention received inputs from external organisations, NGOs, school student representatives, scientists and experts as well as thousands of citizens whom sent in their contributions - all of which were collated and organised into the five working-group topics: Consumption, Transport, Housing, Food, Production and Work. The scale and depth of inputs is remarkable and lays testament to what the Convention was later to submit in its final report.
Take the student representatives of CAVL Nantes for example - one of the 19 schools who sent in a contribution for the Convention’s attention. Recommended actions for school premises include reducing water pressure in taps, reducing meat availability in the canteen and 7 measures for reducing energy consumption. High school syllabi are singled out for reforms such as mandating economics syllabi to cover alternatives to economic growth, the inclusion of a chapter on the social and solidarity economy, and workshops on hand-made ecological consumer goods.
In the UK Assembly participation by civil society was more limited and it is interesting to look at how both countries structured their respective Assemblies, and how this may have influenced their results.
While both the UK and France’s opening sessions included a state of the art discussion on why tackling climate change has proved difficult, the UK dedicated less than an hour to this whereas France spent over three hours during multiple sessions to this subject. The French were also invited to question what was the scope, purpose and power of the Convention on the Climate directly to the Prime Minister of France and the following day to the Governance Committee co-presidents. Incidentally, whereas three of the thirteen members of this Governance Committee are experts in participatory democracy, no such experts are to be found on the British governing committee.
This could explain the differences in how much or how little agency was given to the citizens of the Assembly. So although both sets of citizens listened to expert panels, were able to ask questions to them, and were able to draft and vote on proposals, ultimately drafting their unique final report, the French had far more leeway in structuring the entire process.
By the end of their second weekend, the French had already identified a weakness with their structure which restricted them to work within 5 pre-established working group topics. Instead, they demanded that an additional working group be created for transversal topics. On top of this, they identified key inputs and voices that were not represented in the Convention’s program and called for this multiplicity of perspectives to be included. Both changes were promptly made. The following weekend the working groups were asked if they needed additional inputs to better formulate their proposals. In week five these then got the chance to put their questions and emerging policy recommendations to the test faced with a panel of industry experts drafted in not to inform but to respond to citizens’ queries.
The brits, for their part, didn’t benefit from any of this.
What did they come up with?
Consumption (and over-consumption) was singled out as a major issue across the board - of the five french working groups it received the second highest amount of external inputs. These range from banning advertising, planned obsolescence and sales such as Black Friday to enforcing a right to repair for consumer goods and extending their warranties and encouraging the giving and sharing economy and the purchase of second hand goods.
These very same proposals were debated and agreed upon by the British Citizens Assembly. 74% of the UK Assembly backed ‘advertising bans and restrictions’ on high emissions products or sectors, while a full 92% agreed on legislating ‘labelling and information about the carbon emissions caused by different products and services’. The french took it one step further by stating that such labelling ought to take up at least 50% of the label and also be applied to advertising. Advertising, in fact, ought to be banned outright for products over a certain threshold.
A mock-up of what a Carbon Score could look like.
Both assemblies looked at how transport related emissions could be reduced. With regards to personal car use which represents the majority of transport related emissions in both countries, improving and expanding public transport was a key priority both in terms of additional bus and train services as well as consumer-end cost reductions. Britain also prioritised the getting rid of high-polluting vehicles by proposing a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2030–2035. France prioritised car-pooling and cycling as means to address home-work journey emissions - proposing a €500-€1800 bonus to employees who shift to these alternatives.
With respects to the aviation industry, both agreed on the need for an incremental tax on frequent flyers. The brits preferred to find a solution “that allows people to continue to fly” and relied on investments “in the development and use of new technologies for air travel”. The french for their part voted for an outright ban on the construction of new airports and runways, as well as a ban on all internal flights that can otherwise be made in under less than 3 hours by other means.
On the topic of food, clear preferences were stated to better inform the public about more sustainable eating habits (eat local, seasonal, and less meat). Demand-side policy recommendations focused on better labelling and education and providing grants to sustainable farming industries. France lay heavy emphasis on shifting towards agro-ecology and mandating that 50% of all agricultural production be agro-ecological by 2050.
The Convention also pushed towards joining the growing-list of pioneering countries who have embedded Rights for Nature into their legal apparatus by introducing the crime of ecocide into penal law and reforming the French Constitution by proposing that Article 1 be extended to include: “The Republic guarantees the preservation of biodiversity, the environment and the fight against climate change”. A full 99% voted for legislating the crime of ecocide and to “[a]dopt a law which penalises the crime of ecocide within the framework of the 9 planetary boundaries, and which integrates the duty of vigilance and the crime of recklessness, the implementation of which is guaranteed by the High Authority of Planetary Boundaries.”
In Britain a specific focus was given to how carbon might be removed from the atmosphere in the scenario that carbon is still emitted beyond 2050. Once hearing the evidence, technological silver bullets such as BECCS (Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Removal) were strongly opposed though it continues to be a mainstay in policy-making circles, partly because it allows countries to keep emitting CO2 well into mid-century.
France for her part looked at how to finance the transition to a low-carbon future. Proposals here included introducing a Tobin tax on all financial transactions, introducing a new tax tier for incomes over €250,000, the immediate or progressive suppression of subsidies for fossil fuels and a cancellation of debt for eurozone countries thus enabling them to “direct the liberated funds towards financing the climate transition”. (5)
The inner workings of democracy
Citizens Assemblies are undoubtedly a powerful mechanism with which states can enact deep and meaningful changes legitimised by the deliberations of its citizens. This is the process of democracy at work and it is not surprising to find both assemblies identifying the dissemination of their findings and further debate as a necessary follow-up to galvanising states into action.
“Government should be better held to account for their action on net zero by an on-going relationship with citizens through mechanisms like regular citizens’ assemblies” (82% support) (6)
Though many points were common to both, discrepancies between the French and British assemblies reveal important differences in how they were set up. Part of these are due to the different mandates given out to each assembly - the French President demanding that they submit their proposals directly to Parliament, to the legislature or to a referendum. Indeed it is perhaps due to this much bigger mandate that the French participants had more than double the time to investigate, deliberate and draft their report than did their British counterparts (142 hours scheduled across 21 days versus 55 hours scheduled across 13 days).
Equally important however was the range of voices the assemblies were exposed to and their ability to call forward new speakers if certain perspectives were found to be lacking. The last speaker to address the British working group on aviation for instance, was the Head of Sustainability at Rolls Royce who began her talk with a moving recollection from her childhood which is worth quoting at length:
“I grew up in a town called Netley. It's just outside Southampton. If anyone knows it, it's on the banks of the Solent. One of my earliest childhood memories was standing there and watching these huge cruise liners leave from Southampton Harbour and sitting there and thinking, wow, where are these people going? Who are they going to meet? What are they going to experience when they get there? Flash forward 20 years and I've still never been on a cruise liner. I get seasick and also the idea of being out at sea for days on end kind of fills me with dread. But I have had the opportunity to travel the world, and flying is giving me that opportunity. Thanks to flying, I've had the opportunity to experience other cultures, to meet new people, to experience different climates in a way that has shaped me as a person. And I have no doubt that you will have similar experiences yourself.”
The words of the previous speaker, whom echoed the Committee on Climate Change's warning that air travel can grow by no more than 25%, were all but forgotten faced with this moving picture of a young girl wishing to see the world. It is perhaps not surprising that the British voted to maintain their ability to fly because “this would protect people’s freedom and happiness, as well as having benefits for business and the economy”. (7)
How to make it work
The process of organising a citizens assembly on any sensitive topic is a delicate matter. Who gets to chose who’s voices are heard and in what format has huge implications for the conclusions that are then arrived to. It is necessary then, to ensure that the process of selecting speakers is both unbiased and representative of a wide-range of perspectives. Furthermore, it is crucial that the members of the assembly have the time to question speakers at various points in the process as well as have the ability to call in new speakers should they feel information is lacking.
The importance of these two points becomes all too evident when one looks at the proposals formulated by the assemblies: almost all of them were either mentioned or advocated by the experts themselves. The less options presented, the more restricted the assembly will be. Without independence and autonomy a citizens assembly risks losing its legitimacy - the turmoil surrounding the organisation of Scotland’s Citizens’ Assembly due to start this month is a case in point.
Moreover, it requires strong and sustained support both from below and from those who called for the assembly in the first place. Despite being assured that “nothing is out-of-bounds” and that their proposals will be put to parliament or even to a referendum, when someone grilled Mr. Édouard Philippe on when, exactly, the government would act on the Convention’s proposals, the French Prime Minister dithered. For the sake of clarity someone then asked if he could promise that the Convention’s proposals would in fact be applied and transmitted. He gave a flat-out “no” for an answer. “I can’t promise that, without knowing the proposals.” It was perhaps to be expected then that, once the Convention’s final report was published in January 2020, President Macron immediately rejected three of their 149 proposals. Undeterred by the large majority of support for the proposals, three months later that number had risen to eight.
Despite the excellent range of solutions both citizens assemblies put forward, which would undoubtedly swing Britain and France on track for reaching their net zero goals, a lack of political will continues to prevent progress from being made. This begs the question of why governments called for an independent and autonomous citizens’ assembly in the first place, only to then cherry-pick the outcomes they want. Indeed, it is difficult not to feel that they were called into being as a mere strategy to ease social unrest.
This isn’t uncommon. Inviting citizens to a participative process gives them the feeling that they are being listened to. As one commenter has argued: “The appearance of open participation … lends additional legitimacy to policies already considered, proposed and (almost) decided upon by the elites.” (8) According to one study of participatory processes, the second highest indicator for a policy proposal to be binned is that it challenges existing practices. (9) The highest indicator was cost. In the case of climate change however, it is clear - ever since Nicholas Stern’s influential 2006 Report - that it will be far more costly not to act. (10)
In many ways, the Harvard-Yale study was a perfect representation of the present. On the one hand, the vast majority would opt for far-reaching measures that would effectively tackle climate change and secure a safe future for generations to come. On the other hand, a small minority of people hold a disproportionate amount of power and act in ways that only increases their short-term gain, to the detriment of both people and planet. The real impediment to a successful citizens assembly is not its cost in monetary terms, but what it would cost to those in positions of power and privilege.
Drastically reducing CO2 emissions entails a complete reconfiguration of a socio-economic system fuelled by fossil fuels and growth. As many participants in the assemblies pointed out - not all are equally responsible for these emissions, nor has everyone benefited equally from the wealth and prosperity produced by them. What the citizens have recommended - from taxing financial transactions and high-flyers to nationalising key industries and reigning in consumerism - opens the doors to a complete overhaul of power and privilege. As David Attenborough recently put it: “the excesses that the capitalist system has brought us have to be reigned in… and that means that those that have a great deal perhaps have a little less, and those that have very little can have a little more.”
For a Citizens Climate Assembly to succeed it must do at least three things. First, ensure a wide diversity of views are represented. Second, ensure the assembly has enough time to listen, deliberate and draft proposals, and the autonomy to construct its own process. Third, respect the outcomes of the assembly without prejudice and act on them accordingly. Given the powerful vested interests preventing these conditions from ever combining, success can only rest in the continued struggle to remove these interests from influencing democratic institutions and reclaim its true meaning: rule of the people. If there’s one thing we have learnt from these two Citizens Assemblies it is that the people are the ones most likely to take action on climate change, and it just so happens that doing so will most likely lead to a better, fairer, and more equal society which puts the planet and wellbeing at its heart.
(1) Hauser et al., “Cooperating with the future”, Nature, 511, pp.220–223 (2014)
(2) Zografos, “Direct Democracy”, The Pluriverse (2019)
(3) Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, June 2020 Presentation File, p.4
(4) Questions relating to the Convention’s mission. French Convention for the Climate, Session 1, Saturday 5th October, 2019
(5) Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, June 2020 Presentation File, p.431
(6) “The path to net zero. Climate Assembly UK Full report” 2020, p.538
(7) “The path to net zero. Climate Assembly UK Full report” 2020, p.121
(8) R. Hoppe, 2011 “Institutional constraints and practical problems in deliberative and participatory policy making”, Policy & Politics vol 39 no 2, p.180
(9) Joan Font et al., 2017 “Cherry-picking participation: Explaining the fate of proposals from participatory processes”, European Journal of Political Research 57 (3), pp. 615-636
(10) N. Stern et al., 2006, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change