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Citizens’ Assembly: 2019 is the year we finally start ‘talking climate’

By Adam Corner on June 21, 2019

After years of languishing at the margins of the public discourse, it looks like 2019 will be the year that – finally – we start ‘talking climate’.

Today’s announcement (by not one but six government select committees) that a UK Citizens’ Assembly on climate change will be held in the autumn, comes hot on the heels of the Scottish government outlining a Big Climate Conversation scheduled for the summer. A series of regional, city-led public dialogues will take place over a similar period of time (for example, in Oxford). And the Irish government beat everyone to it, convening its citizens for a national conversation on climate change (and other important topics) last year.

A Citizens’ Assembly is one of the key demands of the Extinction Rebellion group, and there’s no question that the group’s bold civil disobedience (including locking down parts of central London for a week) has propelled both climate change and the concept of a Citizens’ Assembly up the political agenda. But Citizens’ Assemblies – or variations of them – are something that many in the climate movement (from social scientists to public engagement specialists) 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.

Public dialogue needs to be done well for people to engage

The evidence is clear from our own extensive public dialogue work that most people, when given the chance to reflect on what climate change and a societal response to it means – in their own terms, and with reference to their own values and aspirations for the future – relish the opportunity and are keen to engage.

We produced a toolkit on holding climate conversations for the Scottish Government, providing an important input to the planned ‘Big Climate Conversation’ approach this summer. And through our ‘Global Narratives Project’, we have led and facilitated dozens of climate conversations with communities around the world, including Alberta, Canada (home of the tar sands, and where a transition to clean energy urgently needs to get underway) and in India, with partners who are testing and developing narratives for engaging members of the Indian public on climate change. So the fact that there is a sudden explosion in interest in talking to people about climate change is hugely positive.

Done properly, public dialogue enriches and enhances political decision making – and through deliberation, rather than forcing people into a binary decision (as in a referendum), the process and conclusions can avoid the toxic polarisation that has now smothered the public discourse on membership of the European Union. The turn towards Citizens’ Assemblies is a big step forward, and should help to lock in the sense of momentum that has swept through the climate movement in the UK and further afield in the first half of 2019.

Public decisions are unlikely to be consensual

It is arguably no surprise that policy makers are now turning towards the public, after many years of keeping climate change hidden behind a technocratic screen. As the Committee on Climate Change’s recent Net-zero report showed, almost everything that we need to do to get from here to net-zero (they estimated 65%) involves people to some extent – supporting policies, changing behaviours, or being prepared to do things differently.

But advocates for public dialogue should not be naive about the risks, as well as the benefits, of partially handing over the reins for critical public policy issues like climate change to a representative group of citizens. Public decisions on how to decarbonise our societies are unlikely to be consensual. ‘The public’ may not want to move as far or as fast as Extinction Rebellion, for example, are advocating.

Our own work on how people think about net-zero goals suggests they are broadly supportive, but that totemic issues like reducing meat-eating and avoiding flying will be a major uphill battle – something the new Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST Centre), in which we are a core partner, will focus on. ‘Talking climate’ is a crucial and long overdue step to getting to grips with climate change. But if we’re serious about a just transition towards sustainability that includes everyone, we should expect this year’s Citizens’ Assemblies to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation with the public. 

Previously published on Climate Home

3 responses to Citizens’ Assembly: 2019 is the year we finally start ‘talking climate’

  1. Sue Lines says: says:

    As a member of XR North Herts I am of course in favour of citizens’ assemblies. In practice I am curious and wary of the way this may play out with members of groups and political parties being well versed, confident and with worked out objectives. Where do the ordinary people who have huge concerns, who try to keep up to speed with the rapidly changing agenda but not confident and accustomed to regular debate and discussion fit in?

  2. Johnny Partridge says: says:

    Very interested, action is long overdue and urgent. Where will the assembly/s be? Will you be able to attend virtually or will delegates have to attend in person unless there are many? Choice between lack of immediacy and ICT issues or greater pollution via in person attendance.

  3. Fran Ryan says: says:

    Does anyone know how council plans to chose a ‘random sample’.

  4. Dave Sanderson says: says:

    I and no doubt thousands of others are keen to get involved. But how?
    Just hoping this will not be for a group of well-connected Londoners. Northerners need to be able to join is, as do the Welsh, Scots, N. Irish, etc etc.
    Need to balance off the old and young, rich and poor, different occupations and ethnic groups; likely to be a big group!
    Video-conferencing? E-mail submissions? Regional workshops? Or expensive rail journeys?

  5. Sarah Mumford says: says:

    Great step forward – next step is to move from talking climate to tackling climate of course!

  6. Sarah Thompson says: says:

    So how do we get to this event in the autumn. Can anyone attend? Or is it just politicians?

    • Anna replied: says:

      I believe that participants of a Citizen’s Assembly are chosen much like those chosen for jury service – a representative cross section of society is taken. The Extinction Rebellion website has a good section explaining how citizen’s assemblies work.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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