Lina Brand Correa

8 March 2021

Lina Brand Correa is studying participatory and place-based democratic processes on climate action for her PCAN Fellowship. In this Commentary, she combines her research with a fictional scenario to illustrate what could happen if citizens’ assemblies are not well served and supported to undertake their role.

It’s 2025. The pressure on governments around the world to act on climate change has been mounting for years and from many sectors of society. As a result, many actors have committed to net-zero targets and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in the framework of the Paris Agreement. However, the commitments have not translated into action at the scale and speed required to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”.

Frustrations with a political system that seems unable to plan and act beyond electoral cycles and lobbying influences are mounting. With more people feeling the impacts of climate change, the pressure is still very much on. As a result, the UK government has embarked on a national net-zero citizens’ assembly, whose outcomes will become government policy. The government of the day has a clear majority in parliament, which will allow them to legislate on the policy swiftly and effectively.

Previous climate juries and assemblies that have taken place at the local and national level in the UK and elsewhere have resulted in very reasonable recommendations for climate action. However, these were not fully implemented, which led to the push for direct legislation of the outcomes of this net-zero citizens assembly. The excitement in the climate movement is palpable. This could finally be the process that leads to decisive and impactful climate action. What could possibly go wrong?

Assessing the past

The scenario above is deliberately provocative: participatory processes are giving us glimpses of how we can mainline public opinion into decision-making and regulate for the type of climate action that would match public concern. I am certainly excited by the developments and momentum in participatory and deliberative democratic processes. But how confident are we that these types of process will always truly reflect a public mandate?

As I embark on this research, I have distilled four main attributes to consider in relation to participatory processes from the literature on democracy and deliberation. These elements equally apply to processes around climate action, especially if we want these processes to be as democratic and legitimate as possible. These attributes are:

  • Representation: Who is included/excluded? How diverse are the voices present in the process?
  • Level of participation: What proportion of the population has been involved in the process? Are the doors for participation open?
  • Efficacy: What are the mechanisms through which change is achieved?
  • Quality of the process: are there opportunities to discuss and deliberate?

Climate juries/assemblies (from now on, let’s call them “mini publics”) that have already taken place in the UK rate well in terms of representation. Organisers and facilitators put a lot of effort in participant selection. Thorough work is done to make sure the sample of participants is random, and reflects the socio-demographic, and sometimes political views, of the population in question. Issues of representation sometimes are (and always should be) be addressed in relation to the framing of the question, the range of allowed answers, the structure and format of the session, and the selection of speakers to provide evidence.

However, in terms of levels of participation, mini publics fall short. Mini publics are generally comprised of 20-150 participants, representing far, far less than 1% of the population. For example, the Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury, with 21 participants in all its sessions, had a level of participation of 0.006% of the voting population of Leeds (or 0.009% of the population that voted in the 2019 General Election); the national Climate Assembly UK with 108 participants had a level of participation of 0.0002% of the voting population of UK (or 0.0003% of the population that voted in the 2019 GE).

This necessarily limits their representation. A representative sample in statistical terms (for example for an opinion poll), would require much larger numbers to come close to accurately representing the full spectrum of society.

Additionally, mini publics “close the door” for participation to all those who are not selected. Some mini publics encourage the “general public” to engage in the conversation, and have dedicated budgets for promotion and awareness raising (e.g. the Irish Citizens Assembly and the French Climate Assembly). But being “part of the conversation” doesn’t allow you to directly input in the process.

In terms of efficacy, most of the outcomes of mini publics become recommendations, which elected politicians then decide to take up or not. But this is not the only mechanism that mini publics have to effect change. Mini publics have been effective in making space for politicians to feel comfortable suggesting bolder climate action, in giving them a “mandate” to act upon. Mini publics also help balance the influence that powerful actors can have on politicians, giving ordinary citizens a voice. However indirect, these mechanisms can still be instrumental.

Mini publics also effect change in other ways, which are perhaps less visible but not less important. Participants generally report that being involved in these types of processes leads to changes in their own attitudes and even their behaviours towards climate change, and may create reverberations within communities through changed social norms and partnership building. Furthermore, mini publics generally offer a high quality process, with plenty of opportunities for meaningful debate, exposing people involved in them to a wide range of views and move beyond a confrontational style of politics and political discourse, which can have positive effects in our increasingly polarised societies.

Back to the future

Through vast media coverage, word is spreading of the importance and impact that the 2025 UK’s national net zero citizens’ assembly will have. Vested interest groups (e.g. fossil fuel companies, the aviation and car industries) have realised this and recognised an opportunity to influence the outcomes. They start a widespread lobbying campaign, contacting many of the participants to provide them “impartial” information, from “independent” scientific studies. In some cases, they even go as far as offering bribes to participants if they vote against certain (more transformative) proposals. The outcomes of the citizens’ assembly end up strongly supporting the status quo. Despite huge public outrage, the government committed to enact the outcomes of the assembly. The outcomes are passed into legislation, locking the country into years of further climate delay.

Key lessons

The benefits of mini publics are undeniable. Participants get an opportunity to engage in informed and calm debate, and policymakers get to hear the considered opinions of an inclusive sample of society, balancing the loud voice of other powerful actors. As more and more mini publics keep pushing the terms of debate on climate action at the local and national level, it could be tempting to push to increase their effectiveness. However, if we are to increase the effectiveness of mini publics, we need to make sure that the other three attributes (representation, levels of participation and quality of the process) are also improved.

The key issue with this “dystopian” net-zero assembly of the future is that important decisions are laid in the hands of very few people. In a way, that is what happens with our current system of representative democracy, but at least we all have a say in the selection of those representatives.

So how can we move towards a more participatory democracy while improving all of the four attributes I’ve described here? This won’t be achieved by designing a single perfect participatory process. Instead, it’s about broadening and deepening the opportunities for people to participate and opening our understanding of what participation looks like.

If the UK government is truly committed to increasing public participation as it makes its way towards net zero (as recommended by The CCC and the UN), then it has to back it up with the required resources and view of what participation looks like. This does not mean getting rid of processes like mini publics, but rather supporting local authorities to ride the “deliberative wave” and increase its reach. It can also establish mechanisms to take into account the vast “ecologies of participation” through which people already engage with climate issues.

Both of the above would be rooted in local realities, empowering people and creating a much needed sense of belonging and place. And, as a result, we’d have a much better chance of avoiding the fictional scenario described here.

Lina Brand Correa is a PCAN Fellow