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IDEAS

Strangers in a room, hammering out climate solutions together

Meaningful climate action requires people’s consent and participation. How to make that happen? Ask them.

An electric car charging station in London.
An electric car charging station in London.Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Marc Robson’s grandfather, a coal miner in the northeast of England, lost his job when the pits closed in the 1980s. “They were left with no retraining, no re-skilling,” Robson says. “They just had to go off and find jobs elsewhere.” This experience shaped Robson’s family, and, nearly 40 years later, it shaped his contribution to a fascinating experiment in democracy: Climate Assembly UK.

Robson was one of 108 people who took part in the Assembly, which was commissioned by the UK’s Parliament. The idea behind it was simple and bold: Let the people decide how their country should meet its climate ambitions. As a group, the 108 participants mirrored their country in terms of age, gender, social background, and attitudes about climate change — including those who said they were “not at all concerned.” Over a series of weekends, at first meeting in person and then online after COVID-19 struck, they listened to expert evidence, discussed their own views and experiences, and then developed a set of recommendations to present to politicians. As an academic working on climate governance, I was pleased to have a role as an “expert lead,” managing the Assembly and advising the citizens.

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What’s the point of asking a group of randomly selected citizens to make decisions about a complex scientific, economic, and social problem like the climate crisis? Why not leave it to the experts? Because, in short, expertise is necessary but not sufficient. Having worked in this area for many years, I’ve seen firsthand the tendency for climate experts to draw up what they see as the perfect road map or strategy for government action. They often forget something crucial: In a democracy, quite rightly, experts don’t get the final say. Any strategy needs support from politicians and from people. To reduce greenhouse gases to near zero and avoid the worst climate chaos, we will need to change how we travel, how we heat and cool our homes, and even how we eat. All of these things require people’s consent and active participation. The best way to find out how to elicit this is to ask them.

There’s a basic democratic principle at stake here, too. In the United Kingdom, as in the United States, climate politics is dominated by those who have influence and resources. Plenty of research shows that high-carbon interests, like the oil and gas companies, airlines, and carmakers, spend money and time making sure that legislation works in their interests. Given this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that people’s distrust of politics and politicians is increasing. Deliberative processes like citizens' assemblies can help here, by stripping politics back to basics. The notion of the “social contract” between citizen and state is one of the oldest and most fundamental ideas in politics: Citizens agree to be ruled and to surrender a certain amount of liberty in return for collective action in the interests of society. An assembly is a living, breathing negotiation of this social contract.

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That’s what it felt like listening to the debates with Marc Robson and his 107 fellow citizens. They were discussing what they could do to reduce greenhouse gases — in their homes, in the way they travel, and in what they eat. But crucially, they were also telling government what they needed: clear leadership from across the political spectrum; education of citizens and companies about the climate crisis and the need to eliminate greenhouse gases; and a climate strategy that would be fair for all, making sure no one lost out from the transition.

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The United States is more polarized on climate issues than the UK. According to recent polling data, 13 percent of Americans reject the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, while only 4 percent of people in the UK do so. But I think this makes deliberations like the Climate Assembly even more important in the United States. A critical feature of these processes is the chance for people to engage with others from very different backgrounds and with divergent political beliefs. Last year, a fascinating experiment, “America in One Room,” showed that spending time with people with differing views can help in finding common ground where it exists, and in respecting differences where necessary. Encouraged by these findings, a group in Washington state is aiming to establish a Climate Assembly there and has the backing of a number of local politicians.

A Citizens’ Assembly is not an easy answer to the political dilemmas of the climate crisis. It can only advise and create the political space for action on climate. The recommendations from Climate Assembly UK have now been thrown back into a political world where the influence of high-carbon interests is still strong. The citizens have spoken — but will their voices be heard above the din of politics as usual?

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For Robson, though, and for many of his fellow participants, the experience was transformational. Before the Assembly, he said, climate change “wasn’t something that I actively looked at or thought I’d be getting involved in.” But taking part “opened my eyes to the scale, how big a problem we have got.” He wants everyone to have the chance that he did, to learn, understand, and contribute.

His grandfather mined coal. He himself works in the gas industry, fitting gas meters. But if the government takes up the recommendations of the Assembly, he hopes that “they’ll retrain and re-skill me so that instead of me fitting gas meters, I’ll be fitting heat pumps or electric vehicle points.”

A proper political response to the climate crisis means acknowledging that climate change is not just a scientific or technical issue but a deeply social one. It is about whether families like Robson’s prosper or suffer. It is about how people act collectively to shape their societies on this increasingly changeable planet that is home to us all.

Rebecca Willis is a professor in practice at Lancaster University in England and an expert lead for Climate Assembly UK. She is the author of “Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change.” Follow her on Twitter @bankfieldbecky.