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The Irish have been doing it for years. When their politicians face a complex problem, they present it to a panel of citizens to hash out and find a common position. It worked for same-sex marriage and abortion; now the British and French governments are running “deliberative democracy” panels to suggest how their countries might confront the climate emergency.
These representative samples of citizens are discussing practical measures to tackle climate change. But the simple fact of their discussion is also helping to deal with a different problem, advocates say – crumbling faith in democracy.
In Ireland, after the financial crash of 2008, deliberative assemblies “were a way to bring angry citizens into the room and save our democracy,” says David Farrell, a politics professor in Dublin.
After taking part in a climate change panel in the English city of Leeds, Fatima Zainab was struck by the group’s dynamics, which contrasted starkly with the vituperative political debates she sees on social media. “When you put people in a room and they are facing each other,” she says, “the human element comes in.”
When she opened her invitation last August, Fatima Zainab felt excited and a little daunted. The letter informed her that she had been chosen for a Citizens’ Jury that would consider what Leeds should do about climate change.
Ms. Zainab, who lives with her parents, was about to start her first year at Leeds University. “I don’t know much about climate change. I don’t have any strong opinions,” she recalls thinking.
She was one of 21 people who served on the Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury that deliberated for nearly 30 hours over nine weeks last fall. That put her at the crux of two key dangers threatening today’s world: global warming and weakening faith in democracy.
Some suggest these dangers can be fought in tandem by convening Athenian-style citizen forums, a process known as deliberative democracy. “Climate is an issue that brings people together,” says Laurie Drake, a Canadian expert on such forums, arguing that climate doesn’t have to be a divisive problem. “Deliberative democracy … offers a different way for trust to be created between the average citizen and government.”
Last March, Leeds municipal council declared a climate emergency. Next, elected officials wanted to know what residents thought should be done to cut carbon emissions in this city of 800,000 in northern England.
To find out, the council sought an alternative forum for collegial debate. The idea of citizens’ juries or assemblies is to put a representative sample of citizens in a room where they hear a range of opinions as part of a structured debate. Citizens then reason from facts toward a common position. By doing so, say proponents of this method, participants grapple with complex policy dilemmas that have become mired in a polarized political impasse.
“The name of the game is not to get people to change their minds but to make sure that their view is better informed,” says David Farrell, a politics professor at University College Dublin.
Angry citizens, acute need
The need for corrective action seems acute now, as voters throw up their hands at corrosive, zero-sum politics. Those who do engage in politics are distrustful of leaders who seem to reflect elite interests rather than respond to ordinary voters’ demands. Those same leaders fret about how to govern in an era of news cycles driven by social media and hyperbolic political tribalism.
Many countries have experimented with direct democracy; it has proved especially useful in Ireland, where the method helped resolve two deep-seated and contentious issues.
In 2012, politicians and citizens came together for a constitutional convention that recommended legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2017, an Irish Citizens’ Assembly recommended lifting a constitutional ban on abortion. Both proposals were put to public referendums and passed by large majorities.
But Professor Farrell, who lobbied for these experiments, says the goal was much broader than policy change. After the financial crash in 2008-09, many in Ireland had lost faith in its representative political system. Deliberative assemblies were “a way to bring angry citizens into the room and save our democracy,” he says.
Today angry citizens abound. An exhaustive global study by Cambridge University in January found that voters in nearly all democracies have become increasingly dissatisfied with their political institutions. Since the 1990s, the average share of dissatisfied voters in mature democracies has risen from one-third to one-half, with sharp recent upticks in the United States and the United Kingdom.
But climate is an issue that energizes voters, particularly younger voters, who have rallied to demand that politicians act.
Could the climate emergency, a global challenge that defies borders, become a galvanizing cause that, over time, helps to bind a fractured democracy like the U.K.? And could deliberative assemblies that channel public voices into decision-making provide a catalyst for change?
“A lot of countries and cities and communities are choosing to go down this (citizens’ assembly) route,” says Lorraine Whitmarsh, a professor of environmental psychology who directs the UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University.
“It’s a contentious issue and this is an ideal type of issue where you want that kind of debate. You need to break down the kind of polarization that is starting to emerge.”
Ask the people
One demand of Extinction Rebellion, the civil disobedience group formed in the U.K. in 2018, was that the British government should hold a national citizens’ assembly on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
That demand is now a reality: Climate Assembly UK held its first meeting in late January. The 110-member body, culled from a U.K.-wide invitation list of 30,000, was due to make its recommendations in April on how the government can meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050. That deadline will now be missed, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic that forced organizers to postpone the last meeting in March.
The U.K. approach echoes a similar undertaking in France. Its Citizens’ Convention on the Climate, which has 150 members, launched last year; President Emmanuel Macron has promised that its proposals will be put directly to the government or to a national referendum. Spain may be next after its coalition government declared a climate emergency on Jan. 21 and said it also wanted to hold a citizens’ assembly.
“Politicians focus on the issues that voters are concerned about, and our voters are increasingly concerned about climate change,” says Rachel Reeves, a member of Parliament who chairs the House of Commons select committee on business, energy, and industrial strategy, which cosponsored the U.K. assembly.
“It’s about bringing people together to try and find out what changes people are willing to make, individually and collectively as a country, to meet our ambitious (climate) targets,” she says.
This surge of interest in deliberative bodies doesn’t surprise Peter Bryant of Shared Future CIC, a nonprofit, who helped run the Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury and who is now working with authorities in nearby Lancaster on another climate jury.
Mr. Bryant has organized 35 juries across the U.K. on local issues ranging from natural gas fracking to alcohol licensing to hate crimes. He sees them as a way to strengthen democracy at a time when trust in politicians is fraying.
“People are just put off by party politics and the system that we have. But they’re really interested in being involved in decision-making around issues that affect them and their communities,” he says.
In Britain, faith in democracy is at a nadir after the long Brexit stalemate. In an annual survey, published last April by the independent research group Hansard Society, nearly half of respondents said they felt that they had no influence over national policy. That was the highest level since the survey began in 2004.
Members of the new national Climate Assembly may have such influence, but they may not. When the assembly opened in Birmingham the filmmaker and environmentalist David Attenborough thanked them for “deliberating carefully on behalf of all of us.” But he also warned that it may prove hard to make MPs – who serve five-year terms – focus on climate change.
"It is very difficult to persuade politicians that they should give money and time and attention and worry about an issue which is not going to come to a climax – and people won't know if it is successful or not successful – for 10 years hence, 15 years hence," Mr. Attenborough said.
Bridge that gap!
This tension is intrinsic to climate policymaking and has led some analysts to question whether democracies are up to the task. Are voters ready to elect politicians who promise not more but less – less flying, less driving, less red meat – as necessary sacrifices, even if they may not live to see the rewards?
“The climate crisis is an issue that requires long-term thinking across the generations, yet electoral politics is geared toward responding to immediate grievances,” wrote David Runciman, a politics and history professor at Cambridge University, in Foreign Policy last year.
Citizens’ assemblies could bridge that gap, Professor Runciman suggested. But only if politicians are bound by their proposals so that their deliberations actually matter.
Ms. Reeves, the MP, says the climate assembly will help inform Parliament’s decisions, in particular by signaling what trade-offs voters are ready to make so as to reduce emissions. “We need to be confident that we are taking people with us, and that we’re hearing what they’ve got to say,” she says.
That has not always happened. In 2018, Parliament all but ignored recommendations made by a citizens’ assembly on senior care that it had set up. Even in Ireland, which is frequently held up as an exemplar of deliberative democracy, lawmakers did little to put a citizens’ assembly’s proposals on climate change into effect.
The cooperative Dutch
Citizens’ assemblies aren’t the only route to muster political will on climate. The Netherlands has drawn up an ambitious carbon reduction plan after a year-long consultation known as a polder, which brought together industry, consumers, and politicians to create a consensual framework.
The model is uniquely Dutch, a legacy of centuries of cooperation to maintain dikes and canals. “We had to cooperate because the water made no difference between citizens,” says Ed Nijpels, a former lawmaker who led the climate negotiations.
The climate polder hit speed bumps, however, when its initial report was criticized for burdening households with the cost of a clean-energy transition. “The moment these proposals began touching people’s cars and houses they got scared,” says Louise van Schaik, head of sustainability and climate change at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
This political backlash was quelled by proposals to shift more of the financial burden of the transition onto industry. Last summer, the Netherlands’ four-party coalition government approved an accord aimed at cutting emissions by 49% in 2030 from 1990 levels.
Mr. Nijpels says that normal party politics would likely have scuppered a deal. “To be honest, I don’t think they could’ve done this without [the polder process]. It was the only way to get to this target of 49%,” he says.
Swapping stories, making recommendations
In Leeds, Ms. Zainab and her fellow jurors found plenty of common ground at their weekly meetings, held in the open-plan offices of an engineering company. They swapped stories of their lives and their interests, and friendships blossomed on the sidelines.
Each session lasted three hours. Experts vetted by an independent panel briefed the jury and answered their questions.
One member didn’t believe there was a climate emergency, but saw the health benefit of policies to cut road congestion and air pollution. (Proponents say it’s important not to exclude skeptics from these bodies; at Climate Assembly UK, 19 of the 110 participants identified themselves as “not at all” or “not very” concerned about climate change.)
Ms. Zainab was among the youngest jurors, and she deferred at first to older members. “They had louder voices,” she says. By the end, though, she was all-in, and was chosen as the first speaker for the public launch of the jury’s final recommendations, which ranged from better bus services to more generous subsidies for home insulation and more government help for green startups.
One item had unanimous support: The city should take over privately-run bus routes and expand them, a move that – along with congestion charges and bike lanes – would help make private cars “a last resort for transportation.”
That resonates with panel member Maxine Wood, an office administrator who bought her first car after having a baby. “The reason people drive is convenience. There aren’t enough buses,” she says.
Like Ms. Zainab, she was struck by the jury’s group dynamics, which contrasted starkly with the vituperative political debates she sees on social media. “When you put people in a room and they’re facing each other, the human element comes in,” she says.
An airport protest changes a diet
One issue highlighted the tradeoffs implicit in climate decisions and the messy nature of real-life politics: the planned expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport from 4 million to 7 million annual passenger capacity, and consequent rise in carbon emissions.
Many of the jurors used the airport, and discussion was heated. But in the end they voted nearly unanimously to oppose the expansion. This was largely symbolic, since the airport is private and already had planning permission to expand, so jurors also called on the municipal council to block a planned highway to the new terminal.
In December the council did so, deciding on a rail link instead. But Daniel Corner, a university student on the jury, felt let down by the compromise. “Trains aren’t as bad as cars, but it’s still putting people on planes that are churning out pollution,” he says.
Still, he hopes that deliberative bodies like the one he served on offer a way forward.
“If you get people from both sides of the political spectrum and put them in a room together and teach them on a subject ... we are all able to reach a compromise,” he says.
Asked about his own behavior, he pulls out a handwritten groceries list. “I’m doing my shopping after this,” he says. He used to eat meat daily. Now the only animal protein on the list is cod fillets.
Third in our Navigating Uncertainty series.