How Could Citizens’ Assemblies be Used to Tackle Climate Change?

From May 20 to 26, 2019, you can join the national conversation to define what a Green New Deal for Canada will look like. Stay tuned for dates and locations where you can join workers, Indigenous peoples, students, trade unions, migrants, community organizations and people across the country to gather, define and design a plan for a safe future and more prosperous present. Citizens’ assemblies are invaluable for getting the public on board and securing more consensus. Building consensus among peers –someone like a single mother, a neighbor, a farmer–is far more powerful that government’s exhortations to act. 

Extinction Rebellion Tell the Truth Protest, London February 22 2019. | David Holt via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

On one mad sunny week over the Easter weekend, Extinction Rebellion brought public attention to the problem of climate change in a way that had rarely been achieved before. The group’s most ambitious demand – to cut greenhouse gas emissions completely by 2025 – is unlikely to be met. But another – for governments to be led by the decisions of citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice – has a successful history in many parts of the world.

Not to be confused with people’s assemblies (a more informal gathering, often of existing activists) citizens’ assemblies are a way of exploring public views on a particular topic and coming up with concrete solutions. They sit under the umbrella term ‘mini-publics’ as an example of deliberative democracy, alongside citizens’ juries, planning cells and consensus conferences.

Sarah Allen, engagement lead at public participation charity Involve, is a big advocate of citizens’ assemblies as a tool for resolving complicated policy problems.

Citizens’ assemblies are a bit like focus groups, but usually larger and longer; they can take up a single weekend or up to a year in some cases. Allen explains on the phone that participants are chosen at random to represent the broader population and are paid for their time so that everyone can afford to take part.

Citizen’s Assemblies were first pioneered in British Columbia, Canada, in 2004 to consider the thorny issue of electoral reform.

All citizens’ assemblies have three stages. The first involves learning about the problem, when everyone is given a primer in the subject and hears from people advocating different solutions. Then there is a period of consideration and discussion, often in small groups. The assembly as a whole then has to decide about what it would do to solve the problem at hand.  MORE


How Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly helped Climate Action

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