Doing democracy differently: The UK Climate Assembly

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Citizens’ assemblies on climate change are great at getting people involved to reach consensus on difficult issues, but they need to be given tasks that match the scale of the problems we are facing. Sonia Randhawa writes.

We are in a climate emergency.

If you were in doubt, look at the US, where five of the country’s largest ever fires have happened this year.

Beyond that, the Greenland ice sheet is now thought to have passed a point of no return: the feedback loop due to the loss of white, reflective ice means the ice sheet will keep losing mass every year, until it disappears. 

But these statistics will not force the political change we need to secure our children’s (and our own) future. We can point out that Covid-19 and future pandemics are linked to our fraught, domineering relationship with nature till we run out of breath, but nothing will change.

What can change things is people of different views, from different life experiences, different ages and races and genders coming together respectfully to discuss the evidence and come up with solutions.

At the national level, Ireland has led the way, with a citizens’ assembly on climate change in 2019. This was followed by the French Climate Convention last year; and in September 2020, the UK Climate Assembly published its findings.

Two stark lessons emerge from these assemblies.

First, when presented with the facts about the climate emergency, people are united in their calls for government action.

But, second, the task being given to these assemblies needs to be more ambitious.

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To put things into perspective, if the Greenland ice sheet’s melting cannot be halted and reversed, we have already accepted seven metres of sea level rise – and we know the rate of the ice-melt is increasing and going faster than scientific estimates are predicting.

So we don’t know how long it will take for that ice to melt; we just know that it will. The best estimates last year – before the latest bad news came out – were that 400 million people are likely to lose their homes by the end of this century. 

We need to achieve net zero emissions far more quickly than these assemblies are being asked to do.

I want my kids, and my kids’ kids to have at least as good a life as I have. I’m sure you do too. To give them half a chance of that, we need to seriously tackle emissions today. Yet, emissions are still going up – the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the rate of increase in emissions; but it hasn’t actually stopped the growth.

So citizens’ assemblies are great at getting people involved to reach consensus on these difficult issues. They show that we can do democracy so much better than we are doing it at the moment. But these assemblies need to be given tasks that match the scale of the problems we are facing – and, right now, that isn’t happening.

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