Until a few years ago, climate change had never crossed my mind. Growing up in Texas, the subject was not brought up in school, in the local news, or in conversations. Now, rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about this looming threat to our way of life and everything that makes this world inhabitable. Our tools have proven ineffective in dealing with this existential threat, so it’s time to innovate. Here is my radical proposition: empower ordinary Americans to act on climate change by convening citizens’ assemblies.
Citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative sample of a population to learn about a problem, deliberate on solutions to resolve it and vote on recommendations. In recent years, this model of civic engagement has gained traction around the world, where leaders have faced enormous challenges in legislating on divisive issues like climate change.
And this year alone, the world’s first citizens’ assembly, representing a snapshot of the world’s population, was called to coincide with the COP26 climate summit. The group of one hundred participants declared the legitimate right of ordinary citizens to shape decisions that will impact their lives to an audience of world leaders. “I think we who suffer the most from climate change should have a place in climate decision-making,” said Mulki Devi, a farmer and assembly member from Bihar, India, who attended the Glasgow summit. .
Inclusion is built into the citizens’ assembly model and, by design, assemblies reflect the diversity inherent in a population. Organizers use a method called sorting (a type of lottery selection) to identify and recruit participants based on variables such as geography, age, gender, socio-economic background, and opinions about the event. climate change.
The credibility of an assembly, and therefore its wider impact, depends on the confidence of outsiders in the process. Fairness, equity and transparency should be central facets of the design of an assembly. The people most affected by climate change, for example, are often the poorest members of society and those who live in rural areas. To facilitate the participation of these vulnerable communities, assemblies often provide travel, translation services and digital access.
The learning phase of any assembly is particularly important, because knowledge informs subsequent deliberations. Participants can spend dozens of hours studying background documents and presentations by experts and witnesses. Credible assemblies publish these documents online to ensure transparency for external observers. Once participants have reached the deliberative phase, this transparency gives way to the privacy of closed-door discussions.
When it comes to translating past Assembly proposals into policy, governments have not always been faithful to embracing citizens’ input. Nevertheless, many deliberations of the assembly produced tangible results. In Ireland, for example, a citizens’ assembly was convened by parliament in 2016 to weigh in on abortion and climate change, among other topics. The proposals of this assembly were put to a referendum, which resulted in the cancellation in 2018 of the abortion ban in Ireland and a historic action plan for the climate. More recently, Washington state hosted the first United States citizens’ climate assembly in 2021. Many of their proposals have been incorporated into pending state legislation, and some – including a cap. statewide on greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution on vulnerable communities – have since been enacted.
Beyond the political results, we know that the assemblies have a powerful and activating influence on the participants. Assembly members often report feeling more inspired, connected and civically engaged after their experience. The magic lies in the deliberative process: learning about the local impacts of an issue, working with members of their own community to find common ground, and think deeply about the future they wish to shape together.
Empirical research supports these claims and strengthens the evidence for the effect assemblies can have on participants, the public, and policy outcomes. In a recent article on the similarities between behavioral changes linked to COVID-19 and the actions needed to stem climate change, the authors conclude that “co-produce and include the contribution of citizens in the design of solutions [can] help increase public confidence and ensure the public is on board and more receptive. In another article, the authors note that citizens’ assemblies can chart a collaborative path towards climate action by creating a structured dialogue among the constituents of society, providing a political mandate to act on climate change and increasing the dynamics of action.
This point on public confidence deserves our attention. In recent years, public resistance to government policies such as fuel taxes and mask warrants have hampered climate and pandemic responses. A psychological concept known as “reactance” comes into play when people resist change in response to a perceived threat to their freedom. This was exemplified by the yellow vests movement, a popular French protest sparked by a fuel tax in 2018. The movement was sparked by people who regularly walked long distances, but quickly grew to include hundreds thousands of French citizens. This type of resistance poses a serious threat to climate action and is particularly strong in individualistic societies like the United States and Europe. Engaging citizens before political action leads to stronger policies and minimizes the reactance effect. Recognizing this phenomenon belatedly, the French government’s response to the yellow vests movement was to initiate a citizens’ assembly on carbon pollution.
The United States continues to have one of the worst climate change results in the developed world. Congress’ failure to act on the climate stems from an unengaged public, politicians who feel they have no mandate, and a powerful lobbying base struggling to maintain the status quo. These challenges may seem insurmountable, but citizens’ assemblies have had success in this area.
What drew me to the value of citizen assemblies is their power to transform participants, and the power of these citizens in turn to transform society. They present a unique strategy for harnessing the collective wisdom of all, not just the privileged and political classes, to inform our response to this crisis. While citizens’ assemblies are not a quick fix, they provide the innovation we need to maintain a healthy and progressing democracy. Convening ordinary people to learn, deliberate and propose solutions will help us rediscover our common ground and hopefully move us from climate mourning to coordinated climate action.
Sarah roth is an energy, environment and climate change professional based in Washington, DC. She is an activist member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.