Citizen Action Monitor

How a citizens’ assembly could play a critical role in UK’s Extinction Rebellion’s climate emergency plans

But UK’s parliamentary committee gets 5 things wrong in announcing it will establish a citizens’ assembly.

No 2513 Posted by fw, August 30, 2019

“The climate crisis demands an urgent, realistic and sustained response from governments around the world: such a response will inevitably require sacrifices from all of us. And there lies the rub for our systems of representative democracy. How can politicians facing short-term constraints (particularly the need to be re-elected every few years) be expected to take the necessary decisions that require long-term and, probably, quite painful change on the part of the citizens who get to vote for them? … At the heart of a citizens’ assembly is random selection: in much the same way as for jury duty, regular citizens are selected at random. They have not run for office; they are not there to represent special interests. The citizen members are there to represent themselves, and thereby the greater population, of which they are a representative sample. … One might be forgiven for thinking that the recent announcement by the select committees of the House of Commons that they will establish a citizens’ assembly on climate change this autumn is a sign that the political establishment has listened. But actually this is not the case…”David Farrell, Resilience

Professor David Farrell is the head of politics and international relations at University College Dublin.

So, the UK parliament seems to have gotten off to a bad start with its proposal to establish a citizen’s assembly on climate change this fall, making 5 missteps, including: tightly defining the agenda; allowing only two weekends of meetings; and insisting that expertise is to come solely from civil servants.

Interestingly, however, the London borough of Camden has already established Britain’s first citizens’ assembly “to consider what can be done to confront the climate emergency.” At the bottom of my post is a link to The Guardian’s story on Camden’s initiative.

Below is my repost of David Farrell’s concise article, including my added subheadings, text highlighting, and a See Also link to the Camden story.

Alternatively, read Farrell’s piece on Resilience’s website by clicking on the following linked title.

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Climate Change Politics-as-Usual can’t Fix the Climate Crisis. Maybe it’s Time to Try a Citizens’ Assembly by David Farrell, Resilience, August 29, 2019

Our systems of representative democracy are not up to the challenges of the climate crisis

The climate crisis demands an urgent, realistic and sustained response from governments around the world: such a response will inevitably require sacrifices from all of us. And there lies the rub for our systems of representative democracy.

Politicians facing re-election every few years can’t be expected to make tough decisions requiring long-term solutions

How can politicians facing short-term constraints (particularly the need to be re-elected every few years) be expected to take the necessary decisions that require long-term and, probably, quite painful change on the part of the citizens who get to vote for them?

Ireland’s use of a citizens’ assembly facilitated discussions, leading to a report for parliament, and referendum

This is where a citizens’ assembly could help, as the experience in Ireland shows. The country’s ban on abortion was an intractable problem that generation after generation of political leaders had failed to resolve. In 2016, under intense domestic and international pressure, the Irish government established a citizens’ assembly and tasked it with coming up with recommendations. It met over the course of five long weekends spread across five months. The 99 citizen members heard from expert witnesses, advocates and women who had been affected by Ireland’s abortion ban. In carefully facilitated roundtable discussions the members deliberated on the subject, producing a series of recommendations that were then sent back to parliament. A special all-party committee of parliament spent a number of months debating the recommendations. The result of this was the decision to have a referendum, which passed by a two-thirds majority in the summer of 2018.

A citizens’ assembly could play a role in UK’s Extinction Rebellion’s climate emergency plans

In Britain, the Extinction Rebellion group believes that a citizens’ assembly could play a similarly important role in addressing the climate emergency.

Here is the essence of the citizens’ assembly approach

At the heart of a citizens’ assembly is random selection: in much the same way as for jury duty, regular citizens are selected at random. They have not run for office; they are not there to represent special interests. The citizen members are there to represent themselves, and thereby the greater population, of which they are a representative sample.

Regular citizens are given a voice in helping to influence debates on important public policy

This is bringing “disorganized society” into the room – giving regular citizens a voice in helping to drive debates on important public policy. These citizens, in turn, are put in the special position of –

  • informing and educating the political classes –
  • helping our political leaders to work through the complexities of a difficult issue;
  • informing them of aspects they might not have considered before;
  • giving them a sense of where citizens might be prepared to go;
  • even providing some degree of political cover.

XR activists would not advocate for specific policies; they merely want government to set up the assembly

What is laudable about the Extinction Rebellion agenda is that the activists are not pushing for particular policy decisions on the climate emergency: they are merely asking that their government agrees to establish a citizens’ assembly and give it the task of bringing forward proposals.

Government establishes the assembly, but the final report of recommendations goes to parliament for debate

There are certain things that need to happen for this to work properly. The citizens’ assembly should be established by government, not parliament (because it is the government that ultimately calls the shots), but it should report back to parliament so that all political parties are given the opportunity to debate its recommendations.

Assembly should define its own agenda

The agenda should be defined carefully. An ideal way to ensure this would be to allow the assembly itself to clarify it owns terms, guided by the experts advising it.

Assembly’s recommendations should not be ignored

It is critically important that the assembly’s recommendations are dealt with respectfully: this does not mean that they are necessarily all accepted, but they should not be ignored. The Irish model of having an all-party committee debate the report would be worth emulating.

Assembly’s process should be open and transparent

Although government sponsors it, the assembly should be run independently of government (with methods such as tendering out the task to an agency with appropriate expertise). And the process should be run openly and transparently with all documents going online, live streaming of expert presentations, and full details of the key names involved in running and advising the process. Everything possible should be done to ensure that the process is seen as objective and above board.

The process needs time to complete its work

And the process needs time. The climate emergency cannot be dealt with adequately in a few weekends. The citizens’ assembly needs time and space to allow the members to develop sufficient expertise on the topic to be able to deliberate in a suitably informed way.

UK parliamentary committee gets 5 things wrong in announcing it will establish a citizens’ assembly

One might be forgiven for thinking that the recent announcement by the select committees of the House of Commons that they will establish a citizens’ assembly on climate change this autumn is a sign that the political establishment has listened. But actually this is not the case:

  • that is parliament acting – not government.
  • The agenda has been tightly defined (focused on existing 2050 targets, which many now feel are not enough).
  • The scope is also unrealistic (only two weekends of meetings,
  • expertise provided solely by civil servants).
  • There is a danger that this process will be tokenistic, inadequate, and provide parliament with the cover that the “climate crisis” box has been ticked.

Political leaders have missed an important opportunity to deliver a courageous response to the climate emergency

This climate emergency requires a courageous response from our political leaders. This is a real test for our system of representative democracy, built on the notion that our parliamentarian ne’er-do-wells are available for a good kicking every few years. Climate breakdown presents a real conundrum because it requires a long-term solution, one that goes beyond an election cycle.

A citizens’ assembly – given sufficient time, resources and expert assistance – offers one means to solve the problem of taking difficult, long-term decisions in a political system governed by short-term rules.

SEE ALSO

Britain’s first climate assembly: can it help fix democracy too? By Mark Rice-Oxley, The Guardian, July 19, 2019 — This is Britain’s first climate assembly, a randomly selected panel of local people convened by the London borough of Camden to consider what can be done to confront the climate emergency. The jurors have been assembled to listen to briefings, pose questions, assess facts, debate and discuss, and then ultimately recommend action to Camden council. The big question before them is what action the district can take to limit global heating and its impact.

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