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Citizens’ assemblies can help build a social tipping point on climate change

By Chris Shaw on February 25, 2020

In the lead-up to the UN climate summit in Glasgow, we need to ensure that the citizens’ climate assemblies happening around the UK live up to their potential.

NHS citizens assembly

If you have ever made a significant change for the better in your life, like quitting smoking or taking up exercise, you may find yourself looking back at your previous life wondering how you could have ever justified those old habits as OK. It is as though you have crossed a tipping point into a new way of looking at yourself and the world around you. 

We may be reaching a similar tipping point on climate change. Recent decisions to turn down airport expansion in Bristol and Heathrow because they are not compatible with tackling climate change are just a couple of examples of previously unimaginable shifts in perception of climate change risks.

National and local citizens’ climate assemblies

This top-down institutional tipping point needs to be matched with a bottom-up social tipping point on climate change. Two key events bookending 2020 may help drive that social tipping point in the UK. 

At the national Climate Assembly, 110 randomly selected but demographically representative people are spending four weekends ‘talking climate’ and getting to grips with how the UK can reach net-zero by 2050. In November, the UK will host the annual UN climate conference, seen as the most important climate conference since the 2015 Paris Agreement, where it’s make-or-break for countries to commit to curbing carbon emissions.

The national Climate Assembly is running in tandem with a series of more local assemblies. City councils across the country have been tripping over themselves to declare climate emergencies, and are undertaking citizens’ assembly and jury exercises to help create understanding of the climate emergency policies people want to see in their neighbourhoods. 

Citizens’ assemblies – or variations of them – are something that many in the climate movement have been advocating for a long time. Central to the work we do at Climate Outreach is the conviction that we can’t solve a problem like climate change without deep-rooted and widespread public consent, and a national conversation about the unprecedented transition ahead of us. 

The power of citizens’ assemblies 

We’re working with a number of local authorities across the country on the design and delivery of city-led public dialogues on climate change – and Oxford, where we are based, has led the way.

Oxford City Council was one of the first local authorities in the UK to call a citizen’s assembly. We supported them in planning the assembly by developing a series of issues for the assembly members to deliberate on, and delivered one of the ‘expert talks’ to the 42 citizens taking part.

To respond to the recommendations of the assembly members, Oxford City Council announced a £19 million plan to tackle the climate emergency. We are now working with the Council to advise on how to communicate their new sustainability strategy, using insights that have emerged from the assembly.

Ensuring citizens’ assemblies live up to their potential

These initiatives are a welcome addition to efforts to build a broad and deep social consensus for climate action, but face several challenges. The recommendations from the assemblies and juries are not legally binding – if they are not acted on as they were in Oxford, there is a risk that people will feel disheartened with the democratic process.

There is also a lot of variation in how local authorities are approaching citizen engagement. This is a healthy expression of decentralised democracy, with local people being asked to respond to the issues that are relevant to delivering net-zero in their towns and cities. On the other hand, it indicates a mixed bag of ideas about what declaring a climate emergency means, and what areas of life are on the table for discussion.

Another challenge is that only a small number of people are participating directly in these processes. How do their proposals get communicated to the people who were not in the room, did not hear the expert speakers and did not take part in facilitated discussions with their peers? How do we make the recommendations reached by a handful of people meaningful to the rest of the public?

The start of a national conversation

Citizens’ assemblies and juries should be seen as the start of a conversation – we can’t consider the job done once the chairs are put away and the doors shut.

These initiatives should be supported with a process such as our narrative workshops, where people can explore these recommendations through the lens of their own values. It is through our values and worldviews that we make sense of climate change, and can knit together the diverse perspectives and policy options being prioritised in the different assemblies into a coherent national story of how we respond to a rapidly changing climate.

We need to be talking about climate change with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours – we take our social cues about what’s important from what we hear our peers talking about. Climate conversations can still be hard though and that’s why one of our most popular resources, particularly for local climate action groups, is our Talking Climate Handbook. 

The UK along with many other countries has seen a surge in public concern for climate change over the past year, which is a good sign. But in a nation bruised by Brexit, and with dwindling levels of trust in key institutions (and each other), a lot is riding on the citizen engagement activities re-igniting some compassion and sense of shared purpose – as a start, not an endpoint.

We’re going to need that shared purpose to make the UN climate conference taking place in November a success, and everything that will follow.

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Climate policies that don’t have public support are vulnerable – we need to build a strong social mandate for climate action. The National Citizens’ Assembly, by bringing people together to explore this complex issue and ultimately what net zero means for our lives, is an essential part of the puzzle, argues Dr Adam Corner.

Citizens’ assemblies can help build a social tipping point on climate change

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No responses to Citizens’ assemblies can help build a social tipping point on climate change

  1. J Ivimey says: says:

    In answer to the question: ‘How do we make the recommendations reached by a handful of people meaningful to the rest of the public?’ – may we not be guided by the process with which Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland went through? They were discussing the issue of abortion and whether to make it legal or not.
    I don’t know how it was organised or publicised but I believe the recommendations made and the subsequent changes in the law have been generally accepted?

  2. Amel Ayoub says: says:

    I think it is very important to go down to the floor and to the citizens to build up a concrete data from actually real life. This will facilitate the applications of
    solutions which will come out from their negotiations to mitigating the terrible scenario of climate change.

  3. DR. JOHN ADDENBROKE-SHARPLEYj j says: says:


By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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