Citizens’ assemblies made up of a randomly selected group of people have proven – as a democratic process – to be able to address complex issues, such as climate change. Members of the climate assemblies in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Poland, Germany and the United States, at local and national levels, have investigated what can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on sectors such as transportation, agriculture, energy, buildings. They have all have delivered sets of concrete recommendations. What does it take to organise a successful citizens’ assembly on climate change?
Choosing the topic of the climate assembly
There are several elements that are worth exploring, in my view, starting with the topic selection. It is tempting to ask the assembly members to delve into the big questions, such as ‘What can be done to achieve carbon neutrality?’ or ‘How can we reduce all greenhouse gas emission by 2030?’ I understand that some people may see a citizens’ assembly as an opportunity to finally bypass the politicians, and to make the changes that required to achieve carbon neutrality fast. However, the amount of material that would need to be covered during a climate assembly with such a broad topic is enormous. This in turn creates a risk that some aspects might be addressed superficially, due to the lack of time, for example. And if it is expected that the recommendation of the citizens’ assembly will be implemented, it is better to take your time and digest everything carefully, so that the final recommendations are well thought out.
Certainly, it is possible to create a very large citizens’ assembly that would include hundreds of people, who would look simultaneously into all aspects of climate mitigation. And if there was a political will to take all of these recommendations onboard, I would say: go for it. However, when there is no political support for a very large process like this, another approach is possible. Since understanding climate mitigation thoroughly requires a lot of knowledge, a primary strategy for achieving climate neutrality can be created by a group of experts. This strategy can include various scenarios or options to choose from, and that is exactly where the citizens’ assembly could come in – to make decisions with regards to the most controversial or key issues.
For example, in Poland, there is an ongoing discussion about the feasibility of constructing the country’s first nuclear power plant. There are enthusiasts of nuclear power, and there are its opponents. It is a very concrete and important topic, and it fits perfectly within the format of a citizens’ assembly. If an assembly was to be established on this topic and meet for several months, we could expect and a clear and well-thought-out answer at the end of the deliberative process.
A climate assembly does not need to address all issues, all at once. There can be also a series of climate assemblies. A critical factor for selecting the topic is the amount of time that is set aside for the learning phase. It determines how much information can be provided, and whether it will be possible to cover a topic properly within a given time or not.
Considering political will
Another key element for the success of any citizens’ assembly is the political will to implement its recommendations. It is not necessary to change or create a new law in order to treat them as binding. A political declaration by a president, parliament, prime minister or a mayor and the city council (if the climate assembly is taking place on the local level) is enough. Because even if the final recommendations of the assembly were legally binding, it would still take political will to implement them well. In most city-level citizens’ assemblies in Poland, the mayor makes an upfront public declaration that all recommendations that receive the support of at least 80 percent of assembly will be treated as binding.
Designing the process of the climate assembly
What about the design of the process? Yes, it does have a huge influence on the quality of final recommendations, as well as the perception and credibility of the citizens’ assembly in the eyes of the public. Get the design right – there is no doubt about this. From my perspective, the governance structure should allow the independence of the coordinating team on the one hand, while at the same time there should be an oversight mechanism. Members of parliament from all political parties can be invited to perform this role.
The citizens’ assembly should be open for stakeholders and the general public to submit their comments, proposals and suggestions. Why? Because democracy is for everyone. The Center for Climate Assemblies’ list of basic standards for organising citizens’ assemblies includes the standard of openness. We have also recently added the standard of fun to the list. The process should be designed in such a way that it can be enjoyed by all of its participants.
Asking a large number of experts to contribute to creating the agenda for the learning phase works very well, in my experience. The other option is to establish a special advisory group. But then a question comes up – who is chosen to be in this group and by whom?
There is also this less tangible quality that I would look for when selecting the group to run the citizens’ assembly. What are their relations with people in general? Do they trust people to make wise and well-thought-out decisions? Can they see what is best in people? Inviting a coordinating team that knows how to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, where assembly members feel comfortable and free to speak up during the meetings also contributes to the overall success of a citizens’ assembly.
Marcin Gerwin, Ph.D. is a specialist in deliberative democracy and sustainability from Poland. He is a coordinator of the Center for Climate Assemblies, and an author of “Citizens’ Assemblies: Guide to democracy that works”.
Photo: Jaime Lopes / Unsplash