In one mad sunny week over the Easter weekend, Extinction Rebellion brought public attention to the problem of climate change in a way that had rarely been achieved before. The group’s most ambitious demand – to cut greenhouse gas emissions completely by 2025 – is unlikely to be met. But another – for governments to be led by the decisions of citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice – has a successful history in many parts of the world.
Not to be confused with people’s assemblies (a more informal gathering, often of existing activists) citizens’ assemblies are a way of exploring public views on a particular topic and coming up with concrete solutions. They sit under the umbrella term ‘mini-publics’ as an example of deliberative democracy, alongside citizens’ juries, planning cells and consensus conferences.
Sarah Allen, engagement lead at public participation charity Involve, is a big advocate of citizens’ assemblies as a tool for resolving complicated policy problems. She recently designed and ran assemblies on adult social care for a couple of House of Commons committees and on Brexit for a research project, and is now working on one for the National Assembly for Wales which will consider the main challenges facing the principality over the next 20 years.
Citizens’ assemblies are a bit like focus groups, but usually larger and longer; they can take up a single weekend or up to a year in some cases. Allen explains on the phone that participants are chosen at random to represent the broader population and are paid for their time so that everyone can afford to take part.
All citizens’ assemblies have three stages. The first involves learning about the problem, when everyone is given a primer in the subject and hears from people advocating different solutions. Then there is a period of consideration and discussion, often in small groups. The assembly as a whole then has to decide about what it would do to solve the problem at hand.
Allen says the learning phase is particularly important. “The discussions are designed to give participants a better understanding of why people might hold a different view of the subject and encourage people to critically reflect on their own opinions.”
Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in public policy at the University of Edinburgh, says in an interview that research into mini-publics shows that they are good at taking a balanced view. “When citizens are given the right opportunity, space and support, they can consider an impressive range of evidence, perspectives and testimonies and then on balance make an informed recommendation.”
The idea of citizens’ assemblies has been around for well over a decade. It was pioneered in British Columbia, Canada, in 2004 to consider the thorny issue of electoral reform, and later played a key part in assessing public feeling about abortion and same-sex marriage in Ireland, which paved the way for a successful referendum in favour of repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution.
Linda Doyle, coordinator of the citizens’ assembly working group for Extinction Rebellion, became interested in the idea of citizens’ assemblies when a friend took part in one in her native Ireland. “Citizens’ assemblies are well known there now,” she tells me in an interview, “They’ve played a big role on the political scene.”
Although they’re not yet well known in the UK, the idea of using a citizen’s assembly to unravel environmental problems isn’t new.
In the early 1990s, Texas installed a huge amount of renewable energy after deliberative polls conducted by utility companies found that the public were in support of the idea.
Ireland also held a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2017, which concluded that the state must take a lead role on mitigation. It recommended that government prioritise public transport spending over new roads, tax greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and stop subsidising peat extraction. Strikingly, 80% of participants said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities.
In 2009, the World Wide Views on Global Warming project gave thousands of people from across the world the chance to discuss climate change. The project, led by the Danish Board of Technology, is one of the largest experiments in deliberative democracy to date.
Escobar says it was a problematic process (”they all are”), but the results eventually fed into the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. “Climate change is a global problem and what we have is a very nationalistic world setup,” he said. “Mini publics have been one of the few participatory models that have been thought of as adaptable to deal with global threats.”
Escobar says citizens’ assemblies reorganise how voices in a debate are given space and heard. They would not exclude the views of climate change activists or conservationists or people who contest aspects of climate policy, he says, but they can help to filter out full-on climate denial. “With most issues in public policy you have a spectrum of debate, but in climate change naturally there is a scientific consensus and if you are to try and represent sceptical views it will be problematic because it cannot be proportional to the other side.”
Those arguments still have to make their way into the assembly so they can be scrutinised and refuted, but “it could be one of the mechanisms that helps to displace the current state of affairs in terms of current actors and policy priorities and power plays, and create a space where people need to justify their positions more clearly.”
Allen is also optimistic: “I think it’s possibly the one thing that can happen now that would make the most difference in pushing forward the climate agenda.”
She says a citizens’ assembly would give politicians much better information about what people’s actual preferences are and what tradeoffs they’d make. “One of the reasons that politicians aren’t moving forward is because they’re worried about public backlash on, for example, wind farms. But if you can get people in the room and ask how you think targets should be met and here are your realistic options, they have got to choose one. Participants can’t say ‘we’d like more, higher quality services but we’re not prepared to pay for them.’”
They are invaluable for getting the public on board too, and securing more consensus. “With climate change we have to sacrifice some aspects of our current lifestyles,” Doyle says, “and nobody wants to hear politicians telling them because we’ve had it before; it’s not as if austerity was applied across all echelons of society equally. We really believe that to get the public on board with this it would be useful to have a citizens’ assembly, because when people hear it from their peers, from someone like a single mother, a farmer, who say ‘we’re fucked, we’re really afraid’, that will be really powerful.”
Participants also benefit. Escobar says that people who have taken part nearly always find it satisfying and come out of the process both exhausted and delighted. “They have a strong sense of having done a civic duty on behalf of others and they’re exhausted because very rarely people get to get exposed so systematically to evidence and arguments – it’s very intense.”
But there is a flip side: some people, particularly those who haven’t taken part in public processes before, suddenly discover how simplistic public and media discourse actually is. “There is a long debate about whether this means people are more likely to participate and become more active citizens,” says Escobar. “The theory is that the more people participate the more the more we develop our civic muscle and democracy enters this virtuous cycle. But that assumes that these opportunities are readily available, when these are still instances of extraordinary rather than ordinary democracy. So when these citizens’ go back to their realities…expecting some carefully crafted engagement they are disappointed.”
He warns that mini-publics have to be seen as part of the wider democratic system, “otherwise they’re quite problematic because they’re exclusive to those that have been selected.” “We shouldn’t think of them as isolated bodies, we should think of them as a stage in a broader process which might also include referendums, more standard policymaking, [and] further committee action.”
Allen describes citizen’s assemblies as plugging a democratic gap. “When an issue is complicated like climate change and has becoming politically stuck, the best way to unblock it and make a decision on the future of the country is a citizens’ assembly because it’s a representative sample of the population; people get to learn about the issue first and discuss it with one another and get to a detailed and nuanced position. You can’t do that with the other democratic tools we have,” so they.
They can also be used to kick-start wider participation. In Canada for example, citizens’ assemblies supported participants to go back to their communities and run town hall meetings to engage more people about the issues. “They are not party-political events,” says Escobar, “not dominated by power or money or partisan logics. It is about reason, evidence, arguments, perspectives and different forms of knowledge – local, technical, scientific, even emotional.” He notes that the results of Irish abortion referendum showed that the citizens’ assembly was more reflective of actual public views than parliament itself.
The idea is gaining traction in the UK. In April, Oxford City Council became the first local authority to promise a citizens’ assembly on climate change, three months after formally declaring a climate emergency. More recently Extinction Rebellion representatives met with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and environmental secretary Michael Gove, who promised to follow up on the idea.
Doyle is cautiously optimistic and stresses how citizens’ assemblies can shift power back to the public. “This is democracy: people come out of it feeling invigorated, feeling great and quite empowered by the process and the fact that they’re really having a say. This really brings the human element to political discussion.”