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Covid, climate change & citizens’ assemblies: the critical role of deliberation for planned transitions

By Adam Corner on April 23, 2020

Lockdowns, thankfully, are short-term measures, so only require securing temporary public consent. Climate policies – if we are serious about getting them right – need to be grounded in a broad social mandate that can last for decades.

Grocery shopping in Sheffield during 2020 Covid-19 pandemic

It now seems like a long time ago, but as 2019 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of anticipation building amongst the UK climate community.

Following an injection of energy into the public discourse from the IPCC’s 1.5C report and by global campaign efforts like the Friday’s For Future school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement, the UK government became the latest in a growing list of countries to announce a ‘net zero’ policy.

We’d asked in 2018 whether the public was ready for net zero. In a sign of how quickly the ‘overton window’ on climate change seemed to have shifted, most journalists reacted to the UK’s net zero announcement by asking whether a date of 2050 was soon enough (rather than questioning the feasibility of the ambition).

Looking ahead to 2020, there were two key developments bookending what looked set to be a landmark year for climate change in the UK: the country’s first ever national citizens’ assembly on climate change at the beginning of the year, and a crucial UN conference in November (now postponed).

The UK Citizens’ Assembly continues – in a new global context

The surge in interest in engaging citizens on the coming transformations towards net zero was a welcome development, as a broad social mandate is critical to underpin the transition to net zero.

Should citizens’ juries and assemblies be a “one off” – or should deliberation be included at every stage of climate policy design and implementation? This was a question participants explored at a workshop co-run by the Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) and Centre for Climate and Social Transformations (CAST).

Following some pioneering local authority examples, and taking inspiration from similar exercises in Ireland and France, 110 representative citizens were convened for three of the four planned weekends, at a venue in Birmingham.

But, like almost everything else, the UK citizens’ assembly ground to a halt as the Covid-19 outbreak spread rapidly around the world. Adapting quickly to the impossibility of bringing a group of over 100 people together ‘in person’ for the foreseeable future, the final ‘weekend’ of the assembly is being conducted instead over a series of virtual group meetings.

Participants now have the chance to not only continue the conversations they were already having on climate change and net zero, but to engage with what – if anything – can be learned from the way we have responded to Covid-19, a different type of societal emergency.

Unplanned transitions

Many lives have been lost to the Covid-19 virus, and many more have been seriously impacted (emotionally, educationally, or economically) by the response to the virus.

Whilst support for the lockdown has been almost universal among the UK public, the emergency measures brought in to freeze almost all ‘in person’ social and economic activity were driven by necessity, and not ‘planned’ in the way that our response to climate change still can (and should) be.

The optimism that defined the end of 2019 on climate change was always tempered, for most, with an acute sense that we were reaching the ‘starting line’ on climate change many years too late. As welcome as climate emergency declarations, net zero policies, and a pivot towards public engagement were, they were pieces of a fearsomely complicated jigsaw puzzle that should have been firmly in place many years ago.

And as we watch the necessary (but unplanned) policies to contain one emergency unfold before our eyes, it is clear that the window of opportunity for managing a planned transition to address the climate emergency is rapidly starting to close. Indeed, resources aimed at addressing the climate emergency declarations that had been building up over the past 18 months have been deployed in favour of addressing the Covid-19 emergency.

In countries like the UK, climate change is unlikely to ever look and feel exactly like a pandemic, but the prospect of pandemic-esque events on a rolling basis around the world is very much a plausible scenario if global emissions are not reined in fast enough. We are already living through the early, but savage stages of a climate in flux, with some communities around the world facing death tolls and economic losses that are on a par with those from Covid-19.

But there is still a huge amount that we can do to avoid a world in which responses to climate change are driven by necessity rather than based on considered societal choices. Because while unplanned transitions like the Covid-19 response are workable in the short term, they would be impossible to maintain on an ongoing basis, in large part because the social consent for them would crumble fast.

Deliberation around climate policies is more critical than ever

Credit is due to the UK’s climate assembly team for finding a way to persevere with the final stage of the deliberations, although perhaps even more credit is due to the participants who are committing to conclude their discussions on one societal emergency, in the midst of another.

There has been no shortage of commentary on if, and how, we can ‘learn from’ the pandemic for climate change. There are clearly opportunities to bed-in and maintain certain types of behavioural changes that would be positive low-carbon steps, and a recognition in early polling that cleaner air, less traffic, and a less frantic/wasteful relationship with food are positive side-effects of the lockdown policies. There are even some signs – although it is very early to conclude anything confidently – that the UK public recognises the need for a response to climate change that mirrors the ambition of our response to the pandemic.

But there are also serious risks that having had a ‘taste’ of restrictions on travel and consumption choices, many will recoil from the idea that (even on a lesser scale) some of these restrictions or adjustments should continue. With a global recession looming that will dwarf the 2008 financial crash and aftermath, countries and citizens alike may find it harder to justify investing financially in low-carbon choices (although the economic logic of making the right low-carbon choices remains unaltered).

So while bold ideas and visions are needed in the aftermath of Covid-19 to rebuild in a cleaner, greener way, these visions need buy-in from the broad range of communities and constituencies who were arguably just starting to be brought into the climate conversation as 2019 drew to a close.

Climate policies – whether focused on decarbonising or on building resilience to climate impacts – must have deep-rooted and broad based public consent, so that they are implemented without a backlash, and stay in place once they are implemented. We can look to existing research on public engagement with climate change to help guide us, but new data on how members of the public are understanding and drawing parallels (or differences) between Covid-19 and climate change is going to be critical for getting communication strategies right.

The date for the postponed UN climate conference is yet to be agreed, but with spring/summer 2021 pencilled in, the need for deliberation and discussion on climate change (whether in person or online) is more critical than ever.

Lockdowns, thankfully, are short-term measures, so only require securing temporary public consent. Climate policies – if we are serious about getting them right – need to be grounded in a broad social mandate that can last for decades. Whatever else changes around us, we can’t lose focus on the imperative to decarbonise our societies fast, and we need to keep talking climate.

This blog is a follow-up to an event co-run by the Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) and Centre for Climate and Social Transformations (CAST) and draws on discussions with Dr Candice Howarth, co-convenor of the event.

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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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