UK Citizens’ Assembly on Climate
Author’s note: these scripts correspond to the Physical Attraction podcast episodes on the Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change, first published in September 2020, which can be obtained here. For further listening, you can listen to our interview with Professor Rebecca Willis, who was one of the key facilitators of the Citizens’ Assembly.
Climate Updates: The Citizens’ Assembly
Hello all, and welcome to Physical Attraction.
On this set of episodes, we’re going to go in on a deep dive with a very interesting democratic exercise that has been taking place in the UK this year — the Climate Citizens’ Assembly.
I’m aware many of you are listening from outside the UK. But, since the problem that it’s supposed to solve: “What, specifically, should we do about climate change?” and the method of trying to solve that problem could be applied to virtually any country on Earth, I think it’s worth really going in-depth to talk about it.
Full disclosure before we begin: part of the reason I’m so keen to talk about this Assembly, which has just released its report, is because I was tangentially involved in it! I actually helped them count some of the votes and catalogue some of the responses. So my cards are on the table: I personally think it was a really great and fascinating initiative, and I hope that its recommendations are taken seriously and implemented, and I am happy to boost its signal in any way I can.
So, first off: what is a Citizens’ Assembly?
The idea of a Citizens’ Assembly is that you select a random sample of people from the nation which is designed to represent a cross-section of the public. Old and young, from different areas of the country, ethnic backgrounds, political leanings, etc. So technically speaking it’s not totally random — if people refuse to participate and the organisation ends up looking skewed, they will usually select more random candidates to represent people across broader groups, and get a better cross-section of society going.
They are then assembled and essentially allowed to debate the options open to the government to deal with some particular issue. There are experts on hand that they can directly ask questions of, they have resources available and arguments presented on all sides of a given issue, and they’re allowed to really go in-depth and thrash out what they think about the particular solutions to a problem. At the end — as in this case — they produce a report, with opinions and recommendations. So they have been used for a number of different issues, including recently and notably to discuss whether or not to change abortion law in Ireland. Perhaps in some cases, you can end the whole process with a referendum — a straight up or down vote on the recommendations of the assembly which is put to the entire public.
If this is the first time you’ve heard about a citizens’ assembly, it’s worth thinking a little about some of the advantages and disadvantages of this form of deliberative democracy.
Let’s talk advantages. Firstly, some advocates argue that the random nature of the selection allows these assemblies to be more representative of the country than our actual elected officials. Let’s face it: to get elected, you usually need to have certain advantages that other people don’t have. In the UK, for example, our Parliament is gradually looking more like the country as a whole — but it’s still true that around 30% of them went to fee-paying schools, compared to 7% of the nation as a whole. The vast majority of UK MPs went to university, compared to just 20% of the country as a whole. The most recent congressional elections in the US resulted in 101/435 representatives being women, which is a record, although still under 25%, and so on. Regardless of whether you think it should truly reflect the make-up of the nation, it’s still fair to say most Parliaments don’t, in one way or another.
So of course there’s this ongoing debate about whether you want the most competent people, who have the most governing experience, to be in charge — or whether it’s a more genuine democracy if everyone gets their hands on the levers of power. I would also say this is not necessarily a left-wing vs right-wing debate, either. Take the statement: “there aren’t enough ordinary people / people like me in Congress/Parliament.” I feel like people from across the political spectrum might feel this way. At the same time, there’s also elitism across the political spectrum — perhaps especially amongst politicians. So Citizens’ Assemblies offer you a way of injecting the opinions and views of ordinary people into the democratic process, without having them filtered through representatives who are selected in a certain way.
Advocates will also emphasise that the diversity of the assemblies is important. This is not about just ticking boxes, but genuine cognitive diversity. Take the issue of climate change: if it were left to me and a bunch of academics to sort things out, we might come up with all kinds of policy prescriptions for, say… agriculture… and totally miss out on the perspective of the farmers as to what it would be easiest and best for them to do. Sure, we might guess at what the farmers might think of X, Y, Z, but how could we actually know? You know your own business better than anyone else.
So the diversity of thought that you get in these assemblies can arguably lead to better decision-making — just as Dr Robert Smith who we spoke to in a previous episode details in his book. There are several social science studies which come to this conclusion — that, actually, choosing a bunch of people who think differently and getting them to come to a compromise can produce better outcomes than just choosing rule by an elite cadre of the smartest people. And this makes sense. To be honest, if the world was run only by elite academics with no input from anyone else, it would probably be a flaming ball of wreckage within about a week.
Another advantage of Citizens’ Assemblies, and to my mind probably the best one, is the deliberative, focused nature of the process. How often is it when it comes to election time that we see an unbelievably complex set of issues that are facing the government boiled down to a few catchy slogans? Even when it comes to debates, how often is it just about scoring points off the opponent with some withering put-down? How often do we see ridiculous, overblown rhetoric without any attention to detail, facts, or practicalities? The debate becomes so trivialised, and so polarised, so often.
This is probably in part because cynical politicians — on all sides — have realised that it’s easy to whip up votes by pitting groups of people against each other, appealing to the emotions and prejudices of the electorate, or by attacking your opponent, or even simply by lying. Amidst the drama and constant outrage, where is the room for actually debating policy — ideas, and what you’re going to do? This is far more likely to win votes than a slow, steady explanation of what your policies are and how they’re going to work to solve problems x, y and z. And this is especially true when the topic is a really emotional one for a lot of people — for example, one of the
Think of the ongoing political debate, or a recent contentious one, in your own country. Regardless of how you feel about how it’s going or how it panned out, would you characterise it as “well-informed on the issues”, “nuanced”, “deliberative”? I wonder.
Instead, ideally, with a citizens’ assembly, people can go beyond the slogans and ask: how is this going to work? How are we going to accomplish this task? They have the time and space to go in depth, and deliberate over things in detail.
What’s more, the incentive structure in a citizens’ assembly is different to the type you’d get in, say, a parliamentary democracy. The incentives for politicians often focus around being re-elected — to win within the given democratic system that’s in place. And this causes a lot of problems.
You have partisanship going completely through the roof. Here in the UK, it’s very rare for MPs to vote against their own party except on extremely contentious issues. For example, in the 11 years Margaret Thatcher was in power, and the 10 years Tony Blair was in power, their governments were defeated in Parliamentary votes just four times. So while you might think that you can vote for a relatively independent-minded MP, when it comes to Parliamentary votes, they will almost always go with their political party. Maybe your MP actually agrees with you on a given issue, but for the sake of party unity, they will abstain or pull the lever in the opposite direction.
When election time comes, you have to make a choice often between just two options, and the nature of partisanship means all of these political opinions are bundled in together. Inevitably a lot of people pick what they see as “the lesser of two evils” — often sacrificing their preferences in some areas, like say foreign policy, for a domestic policy they prefer.
Then, of course, there comes specific aspects of the mechanism for the election. Apologies for leaning on my old examples of the UK and the US again. But it’s clear that, in elections, some people’s voices do matter more. If you live in a swing state, or a marginal constituency, politicians, incentivised to win, will create policies and make promises that appeal to you. If you live in a safe area, they can just as often ignore aspects of your specific wants — what are you going to do, vote for the other guy? Some groups tend to vote more than others — particularly older generations tend to vote more than younger people — and politicians will cater to them more.
Specific aspects of the electoral and voting system can also tip the balance away from certain groups and towards others. The Electoral College, each state getting two Senators, First Past the Post here in the UK. First Past the Post meant that, for example, in the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives got 36% of the vote and 47% of the seats, Labour got 29% of the vote and 39% of the seats, and the Lib Dems got 23% of the vote and 9% of the seats.
It’s not just that the opinions of certain groups of voters tend to matter more in a democracy because of the electoral system. Depending on how your democracy functions, of course, wealth and power also have influence! Money in politics has been a perennial issue in the US, and the disproportionate influence of “special interests” — corporations, labour unions, religious groups, what have you — on politicians is a constant issue. 0.25% of the population donate 68% of the money to Congressional candidates. If that has no influence on the way they vote, then these individuals are obviously wasting a lot of money. Editors at powerful media outlets try to sway public opinion towards one candidate or another, and so on, and so forth. And so we see that the defence industry has an influence in foreign policy, the fossil fuel lobby tries to influence climate policy, and so on.
Removing the re-election incentive, as you have in Citizens’ Assemblies, flips the script. Their main incentive is not loyalty to a political party, or trying to get re-elected in the particular rules of the game they live in, but to actually solve the problem at hand through deliberation and discussion, and to come to some kind of compromise that is acceptable to most of the people involved in the Citizens’ Assembly. With a different incentive structure in place, you can come to different — arguably better — decisions.
Okay, having sung the praises of Citizens’ Assemblies for a little while, let’s now discuss some of the disadvantages.
The first one that people cite is a general lack of competence amongst the general public. Because the Citizens’ Assembly has no expertise, they might not really understand the issues that they are dealing with and the trade-offs that have to be made in government. In a world where Citizens’ Assemblies had power, you could easily have “the experts” and the politicians being overruled by random individuals in the nation, and you can argue that this would lead to worse decisions.
And I think this is really always a fundamental issue people have with any kind of democracy. You can be a political nut, an expert on every issue, someone with deeply nuanced opinions and beliefs that you’ve thought through and considered carefully; someone who is immune to having their opinions swayed by the media, whatever: your vote still counts as much as someone who likes the candidates’ haircut. Should it? Should we mind that people vote uninformed? If we say that people have to be “informed” to vote, do we run the risk of excluding people from democracy? I don’t think this is necessarily a trivial question, even though it might seem obvious.
There may be issues in selecting the people. For example, if the service in the Assembly is voluntary, the type of person who might agree to participate may already have strong views on the subject — which can influence the debate: the personalities and persuasiveness of individuals in these group discussions can obviously influence the outcome. Of course, this is also true of elections, where politically apathetic people don’t vote, but it may be magnified by the Citizens’ Assembly process. It’s quite a long time commitment in some cases; you may simply be unable or unwilling to give up a few weekends to debate and discuss a particular issue, even if you are compensated for it — and that’s a problem in itself.
Another issue is how they are presented with the given information. Of course, the Citizen’s Assembly is convened by some group of people, and the experts they can ask about, the evidence they are presented with, and the experts they can consult are also selected by some process or other. Critics of the Citizens Assembly will always try to attack this aspect of it as illegitimate or unfair in some way.
I think it’s worth being clear here. The reality is that it’s very, very, very difficult to have a so-called “balanced debate” without someone making some kind of editorial decision, somewhere along the line. In politics there is the concept of the Overton Window — with apologies I’m explaining stuff you already know — which is, in a way, the range of ideas that are considered acceptable to talk about in the public discourse, which are considered “reasonable”, and which politicians can discuss.
For example, let’s consider a political issue — the problem of aging populations in the West. Inside the Overton window might be the idea that we need to raise the retirement age, because people are living longer and therefore need to contribute more before drawing on a state pension. On the other hand, people might argue that the government needs to spend more on social care for the elderly due to the aging population. These concepts are well within the Overton Window for discussion. Solving the problem by mandatory execution of everyone over the age of 70 is not within the Overton Window.
Of course, we see that in societies, the Overton window can shift over time. Indeed, it’s constantly shifting, narrowing, widening on given issues. This can be due to changing circumstances, news and historical events, pressure campaigns and groups, or effective advocates who can push the debate one way or another. At one time, the idea that (some) women should be allowed to vote and that no women should have the vote was within the “Overton Window” of society’s debate. Now, obviously, suggesting that women should not be allowed to vote is well outside the Overton Window — no politician would dare to suggest it.
The sad truth is that even as you try to be “unbiased”, you are always making some kind of editorial choice. For a start, even in picking the question you want to be unbiased about, you can argue there’s some level of bias. Today, on Unbiased News, we will be debating the topic “Should we allow billionaires to live?”, and tune in tomorrow for “Taxes: are they theft?”
Of course, you can try and judge for yourself where the Overton Window is on a given issue, and pick experts accordingly. But your judgement could easily be incorrect. Climate change is, unfortunately, a classic example. A few years ago, the BBC in the UK used to have many debates where you essentially had a climate change denier on one side, and a scientist on the other. This was their idea of “fair and balanced” — asking the question “Is Climate Change a real problem?”. It was only recently that they changed their policy to, by and large, exclude climate denial from their own BBC Overton Window as a fringe idea that no longer counted as being balanced. In 2020, that debate is over. Now, the debates tend to try and answer the much more interesting and vital question: “What should we do to address climate change?” — which is really the question that the UK Citizens’ Assembly also tried to answer.
Once we have this clear: there’s no way to organise things that will stop someone from crying “bias”, without making any editorial decisions at all — then you can see that this will always be a line of attack on Citizens’ Assemblies: who picked the experts, did they make a good case for each point of view, etc. We can probably all agree that it’s better to have an informed debate, and for people to have informed points of view, but critics will always argue about who and how the “informing” of the voters is done. If the views of the assembly come to just reflect the views of the experts who are presenting the information — who will naturally all have their own views — then does it really circumvent the elitism of politicians, or the problems with a technocracy, that we said it was designed to do? On the other hand, perhaps you might argue that the process of “informing” voters in a representative democracy is hardly any better.
Needless to say, you can argue about this in electoral politics, also. In both cases, though, the ideal that is aimed for is transparency — so you can watch all of the debates and informational sessions and see how people are responding to them.
Obviously, there are some issues that a Citizens’ Assembly is not really appropriate for. If you’re deciding whether or not to press the nuclear button — or, for a more recent and relevant example, take a country into lockdown measures to deal with COVID-19 — then you simply don’t have
Of course, another issue with Citizens’ Assemblies is legitimacy. If they are just making recommendations, people won’t mind too much, but if the recommendations have serious power, people will of course ask — well, who voted for the assembly? Why didn’t I get asked to participate? Who says these people represent me? And so on.
For example, the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly to solve the — unbelievably contentious — Brexit debate in the UK, as it ploughed on into its third year in 2019, was raised. Brexiteers, who won the referendum in 2016, saw it as a plot to undermine the result of that referendum by guiding a bunch of citizens to make a certain decision. Advocates argued that the issues were far too nuanced by that point for a simple yes/no vote to count, and that informing people about the issues and allowing them to thrash it out in a controlled environment might produce more useful conclusions than the ill-informed and ill-tempered debate that was gripping the country at the moment. For more on this debate, you can read for example “The Myth of the Citizens’ Assembly” in Politico, which criticises the parallels that were drawn between the Irish CA and a hypothetical Brexit one.
Another issue is the lack of accountability: if the assembly screws up and makes policy decisions or recommendations that don’t work or end up being unpopular, they can’t be voted out of office. You can argue that this would lead the assembly to be over-focused on solving the problem, and not enough to the concerns of the electorate, because there are no consequences for failure or annoying a group of people. So, for example, politicians might argue that they have to make decisions not just on how to fix climate change, but also whether to prioritise it relative to other issues, which the Citizens’ Assembly might not consider since its whole job is to discuss climate change.
Cass Sunstein has argued that, although it might seem like it leads to compromise, the process of group deliberation can lead to a dynamic where things simply get more and more extreme in a given direction, and polarisation occurs.
In this Citizens’ Assembly, the ballots were secret. Of course, being able to vote in secret is considered pretty important in actual elections so that you’re not influenced by what others might think of your vote. Even so, though, you can of course see that the group dynamics are inevitably going to be influential. If you’re in a group discussion with someone strident and with an unpleasant personality, you might vote against them for those reasons as much as anything else. Similarly, if the group generally starts off with a majority keen on something, they may be able to persuade and peer pressure the others.
This argument reminds me of a classic event from history — during the French Revolution. Please, listen to Mike Duncan’s amazing Revolutions podcast for many more details — the specific event I’m describing is I think episode 3.12, The Great Fear. Mike Duncan was my main inspiration to start podcasting, so he’s responsible for you listening to this right now, and what he’s accomplished over the years is nothing short of fantastic.
Anyhow, on the night of August 4th 1789, the National Assembly in Paris essentially proposed successively more and more radical measures of reform, gradually stripping away at the institutions of absolute monarchy and feudalism which governed France at the time, until eventually they had taken away most of the former privileges of the nobles and announced that “The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely.” They may not have started the night with such radical intentions, but, by the end of it, they certainly had done.
So, in short, Citizens’ Assemblies as a body with supreme authority over making laws is obviously fraught with issues — although, I would point out, many of these issues are similar issues to those that crop up in a Representative Democracy. I personally think that ultimately, Citizens’ Assemblies, as a relatively new concept, will certainly lack the legitimacy to actually make decisions. But, as a deliberative body that produces strong recommendations, I think it’s a really interesting idea that could correct a great many of the flaws that do exist in representative democracy, particularly when it comes to solving thorny issues, and particularly when the issues require a lot of deliberation and contemplation. If nothing else, it’s fascinating for me to see how ordinary people react when presented with some of the debates that are incredibly familiar to me and other people who are very interested in climate change policy, and to get a snapshot of where public opinion is and what comes up in the debate.
Having introduced the concept of Citizens’ Assemblies, then, in the next episode we’ll talk about the UK Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change, and the actual conclusions and recommendations that the UK Citizens’ Assembly on climate change came to.
As usual, I would absolutely love to hear your opinions on what you’ve heard today. Please, head over to the physicspodcast.com website, where you’ll find a Contact form under Contact — all that goes straight to my email and I try to respond to as many emails as I get. We can have our own Citizens’ Assembly on the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies, and, if you like, I’m happy to do a little discussion of your recommendations as well.
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Citizens Assembly Episode II
Hello all, and welcome to Physical Attraction.
In the last episode, we talked about the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies — the idea of allowing decisions to be made by a random group of citizens who are informed and allowed to debate the issue in detail, including some of the pros and cons of the idea. In this episode, we’ll go into much more depth into the Citizens’ Assembly that the UK has just held on climate change — the Climate Assembly UK — how it was constituted, what they debated, and what conclusions they came to.
You can find its full report with all of this information at ClimateAssembly.uk/report. The report is 556 pages — it goes into as much detail about this process, which is of course designed to be open and transparent, as you could possibly want to know, and includes quotes from the participants, which is also really fascinating. You may want me to summarise it for you a little — there is also an executive summary. Obviously, because it’s me, and because it’s climate change, we’re going to go pretty in-depth — so strap in.
First, some background for non-UK listeners. The UK has long had binding targets on CO2 emissions — since the Climate Change Act of 2008. That initial goal was to reduce our CO2 emissions to 80% of their levels in 1990. Since June 2019, the UK has now set a target to get our greenhouse gas emissions down to “Net Zero” by 2050 — so if there are any remaining greenhouse gas emissions, they will be cancelled out by removals. Credit where it’s due to the Conservative government: this was announced by former Prime Minister Theresa May, and passed unanimously in Parliament.
But, of course, simply setting the target is only where the fun really begins, because we have to decide how to actually get to that target. Because let’s face it; this is incredibly ambitious. Virtually no industrial economy has ever got its greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero. The world we live in has been powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels for generations. The UK has cut its emissions substantially since 1990, but we still emit nearly a million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every single day. It’s a big job!
You could try to achieve Net Zero by simply banning any activity that results in greenhouse gas emissions, for example. That would be a disaster, though. You could equally try to achieve it by trying to build huge negative emissions facilities that just cancel out all of our greenhouse gas emissions for today, requiring very little change in anyone’s behaviour or any sectors of the economy. But most experts point out that this would be an extremely expensive way to solve the problem compared to replacing fossil fuels with cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient alternatives.
As we’ve discussed, reducing emissions and tackling climate change entails decisions and trade-offs in plenty of aspects of our lives — from transport, electricity and energy generation, our buildings, our agriculture, and so on and so on. Inevitably there are different options for decarbonising each of these sectors, which all have a great many pros and cons to them — part of what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming Climate 201 series, because obviously I have a lot to say about that… For me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff: getting into the details of how to achieve something complicated but vital.
But what did the Climate Assembly think?
Let’s talk about who these people are, first.
There are 108 people who had never met before, chosen to be representative of the UK population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, educational level, where in the UK they live, urban or rural, and their level of concern about climate change. Letters were sent to random postcodes; the people who responded were filtered down to this final list of 108 to ensure that they were representative across these points of view. So, for example, about a quarter are between 16–29, a quarter 30–44, a quarter 45–60, and a quarter 60+ in line with the demographics of the UK. People were selected proportionally from all over the country — Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the regions of England, etc.
One stratification that is interesting is concern on climate change. In the Ipsos Mori poll of 2019, 52% of the UK said they were “very concerned”, 33% “fairly concerned”, 9% “not very concerned”, and 5% “not at all concerned” about climate change. Meanwhile, the assembly members were 49%, 32%, 15%, and 3%. In other words, there’s a slight bias towards less extreme opinions, and towards less concern around climate than the general population — “very concerned” is under-represented, “not very concerned” is overrepresented.
Pew Research does its own polls across the world which you can find if you Google “How People Worldwide View Climate Change.” For example, it has 59% in the US describing it as a major threat, 23% as a minor concern, and 16% as “not a threat” — which is not actually that dissimilar from the UK, despite our quite different levels of climate policy.
In terms of the structure, these meetings took place over six weekends. I well remember that the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to lockdown right in the middle of this Assembly — and it’s a testament to the truly heroic organisational forces behind it that they managed to get the second half of the thing done online.
The first weekend was about an introduction to the science of climate change, what the net zero target meant, and major ethical, practical and strategic questions on the road to net zero.
The second and third weekends was about transportation, heat and energy use in the home, food, agriculture, and “what we buy”. The assembly was split into three groups that handled each of these topics and then they reviewed each other’s work.
The fourth weekend was about electricity production, and the fifth was about removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On the sixth weekend, the assembly looked over the draft report, and gave their recommendations, alongside talking about the impacts of COVID-19 on Net Zero. They also wrapped up with any additional recommendations.
When it comes to giving opinions, there were a couple of ways this was done. Firstly, sometimes the assembly members drafted their own opinions, entirely from the bottom-up, in a collaborative process. Sometimes they were allowed to vote on pre-determined options — those were the votes I helped tally — or “Strongly agree, strongly disagree” Likert scale for different statements. They were also allowed to influence which options they were voting on, and ask for other options to be considered. This was essentially so that the assembly — which is trying to work out How to get to Net Zero — would vote on a set of different realistic options.
Then there are a whole range of different advisors — they have people from academia, as you’d expect, but also from businesses, from think-tanks on the left and right wing, charities and even religious organisations. You can find a full list of everyone involved on pages 48–52 of the report.
On page 54 there’s another interesting tidbit — what the assembly members themselves thought of the experience. Overwhelmingly they enjoyed it, felt they understood the discussion, felt they’d learned a great deal, felt that the information was unbiased, and wanted these to be used even more in decision-making. There’s basically just 3% who disliked it, which is pretty amazing polling for anything.
So we’ve talked about how getting the UK to Net Zero is really quite a complex task. The interesting thing that the Climate Assembly did at the start was vote for a set of principles that would guide the effort towards Net Zero — principles to keep in mind when making any decision. They drafted the principles themselves and then ranked them in order of priority. Here’s what they felt was most important:
1) Education — Educating and informing everyone about what Net Zero meant, why we were doing it, and what would be required to achieve it would be key. [Hopefully I’m helping that a bit.]
2) Fairness within the UK, including for the most vulnerable, in terms of jobs, incentives, rewards, and regional differences
3) Leadership by the Government that was clear, proactive, accountable, and consistent
4) Protecting and restoring the natural world.
5) Ensuring solutions are future-proofed and sustainable in the long-term
6) A joined-up approach with working, collaborating, and sharing across all levels of society
7) Long-term planning and a phased transition
9) Support for sustainable growth and new technologies
10) Local community engagement
11) Being a global leader
12) A mix of natural and technological solutions
13) Transparency and honesty
14) Underpinned by scientific evidence…
and so on, and so on.
These principles were all voted on. And I think it’s really fascinating to see what was prioritised here. For example, protecting and restoring the natural world got 59 votes, compared to just 18 who prioritised protecting the UK economy, including from global competition. Some people want to see a transition where those who bear the most responsibility should act — but this got just 13 votes: the Assembly clearly sees climate change as everyone’s problem and something everyone should do to solve, although they also want to see a lot of leadership from the Government on this issue. Enabling individual choice and not restricting freedom got 23 votes. Protecting the most vulnerable globally got 24 votes, and so on.
So it’s very interesting to reflect on what the priorities are. The overwhelming majority for education is one fascinating point. I think it shows that people are genuinely hungry for a more nuanced and detailed debate on these issues, and that’s a really good thing, but also that they know that you have to take everyone with you if you have any hope of succeeding, and that requires informing people.
The principle of fairness — the idea of a just transition — comes through prominently. And a transition that protects and restores the natural world is also something that people really prioritised.
So let’s get onto the specific recommendations — what people want to see. For many of these cases, it only gets listed as an official recommendation if over two-thirds of the assembly were in favour, so an overwhelming majority. Even all of these policy areas that I’m summarising here actually has a whole chapter in the report dedicated to it, so if you want to know more about the deliberations or the specific recommendations, you can find out there. In the report, each recommendation includes its own list of pros and cons, alongside priorities that were identified, and lots of quotes from individual members of the assembly expressing why they backed or disliked a given option.
First, we’ll talk about transport. For travel on land, the Assembly favoured solutions that didn’t restrict people’s individual freedom to own cars, or reduced car ownership, but instead focused on shifting to electric cars and funding public transport more effectively. They recommended a ban on the sale of new fossil fuel cars by 2030–2035 (allowing all cars to be electric by the mid-2040s, which is likely necessary for there to be no fossil cars on the road by 2050.) The most popular idea was simply to just quickly stop selling the most polluting cars to mandate a transition to electric vehicles. UK government policy was 2040. They want improved public transportation to reduce the amount we use cars by around 2–5% per decade. Most popular: investment in low carbon buses and trains, new bus routes with more frequent services, making public transport cheaper, bringing it back under government control (75% supported that!) and investing to make buses faster and more reliable. 86% of the assembly felt that we should quickly stop the sales of the most polluting cars; 74% favoured grants that would help people to buy lower-carbon cars; 70% wanted investment in cycling, and 72% wanted “localisation”, i.e. ensuring that people don’t have to travel as far for facilities like post offices, schools etc.
The key things that the Assembly wanted to emphasise here is that they didn’t think restrictions on personal liberty in terms of how much we drive would work; one member said that “technological change is easier than social change”. They want people to be very free to travel. Instead, the focus should be on stopping polluting transport very rapidly. For example, one member said: “The quicker the better… there will be hiccups so we need time to mend problems.” Another said “Rapid movement to electrified transport” is needed. There was a focus also on needing to develop the charging infrastructure for electric cars. Some were in favour of new road-building while others agreed it should be stopped until transport had been electrified. Improving public transport was also extremely popular, as was support to buy electric cars if they continued to be more expensive — several members actually wanted more support than was suggested. People were a lot less keen on things like charging to use roads, increasing fuel duty, encouraging car-sharing, pedestrianisation, and reducing parking spaces to discourage car use. Some of these got narrow majorities, but they were much less popular than the electric transition, and bringing public transport under government control, making it cheaper.
Air travel is a very difficult issue for climate change, because it’s highly polluting and not a great many different solutions exist for it. The Assembly was very clear that they want a solution that allows people to continue to fly, but within limits. So they are happy for passenger numbers to increase, and for the aviation sector to continue to emit CO2, which then needs to be removed by negative emissions technologies — so, this of course means that they are in favour of using negative emissions to offset some of the emissions from different sectors of society. They were very strongly in favour of investments in hybrid and electric aeroplanes or planes using synthetic fuels — 87% of people wanted to see this, although some were concerned that it wouldn’t be ready in time. But, 80% of them also recommended taxes that would disproportionately hit people who flew more — rather than a flat carbon tax on all flights. The flat tax on all flights was seen as unfair, in case it priced out people on lower incomes from flying. Participants generally wanted to see these taxes being ringfenced so that they would be spent on developing technological alternatives to flying. They were also keen to see investments that would level out the cost of air travel compared to other alternatives. This is particularly a problem in the UK where it’s frequently cheaper to fly from, say, London to Manchester — a pathetic 163 miles — than it is to get a train.
One thing that’s notable here is that the UK government projects that passenger numbers could double by 2050 if demand is unconstrained and if new airports and runways are constructed. But the Climate Assembly wanted that capped at 25–50% more flights in 2050 — slower than the growth in demand for air travel in recent years.
The airline industry doesn’t get off scot free. 75% of the Assembly wanted to see them invest in greenhouse gas removals, and that this should be carefully monitored to ensure they actually do it, and that the accountancy they use for offsetting their emissions is fair, in accordance with the polluter paying. People were much less in favour of the government investing in greenhouse gas removals for the airline industry, since this would mean “subsidising an industry that is behaving badly”, and that it would be unfair on those who don’t fly. And they rejected a scenario where air travel is allowed to grow completely unchecked and totally offset by greenhouse gas removals.
When it comes to homes — particularly when we’re talking about heating the home — the Assembly’s views were also quite clear. We know that heating buildings is a huge emitter of carbon at present, thanks to gas boilers. Solutions proposed include hydrogen — which could be created through electrolysis of water, with electricity supplied by renewables, and then burned as a fuel. Also heat pumps — electric heat pumps which heat the home through pumping heat in from the surrounding area. Heat networks take heat from a central source and distribute it to a lot of different buildings, so it’s a solution that avoids everyone having their own individual gas boiler.
They liked heat pumps as being available now, being efficient, and working everywhere, but were concerned about the disruption in installing them, the expense, and the requirement for homes to be well-insulated at first.
Hydrogen got pros for being able to work with existing infrastructure, but many felt that the technology was not ready yet or that it wasn’t being produced in a clean way — the vast majority of hydrogen in use today is produced from natural gas, in a process called methane steam reforming, that emits CO2. Others were concerned about safety, while others still were concerned the process of producing it was inefficient.
Heat networks got points for being cheap, and the efficiency of being able to use waste heat e.g. from industry and power plants was appreciated… but others noted it was not suitable for use everywhere, being predominantly an urban solution, and would require everyone to buy in to joining the network.
The Assembly members were in favour of all three of these solutions being invested in and made available to different people depending on their needs. They favoured a big programme of retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient, but were divided between whether this should be done as one large initiative, or gradually. They suggested one way to do this might be to have people invest in green bonds which would pay off later, to do it with a big drive for philanthrophy and charity money, or to loan people the money upfront to make energy efficiency improvements which would then gradually be paid off through bills. 65% favoured higher taxes to achieve this, although many wanted the money to be ring-fenced to be used on this. 54% backed higher energy bills to achieve this goal. When it came to heating, some suggested a “deadline” approach could be useful, similar to how we switched from analogue to digital TV sets. They also felt that a combination of individual responsibility, market innovation and competition for supplying low-carbon heat, government investment and locally-oriented solutions would be the best — each of those got 80% approval from the Assembly.
In terms of specific recommendations, they wanted to see:
→ Support for smaller organisations to offer energy services so there was more consumer choice
→ Simpler consumer protection measures
→ Changes to product standards that would make them more energy efficient and longer-lasting
→ Local plans drawn up for producing zero carbon homes
→ A ban on the sale of new gas boilers by 2030–35
→ Changes to energy market rules that would allow smaller companies to compete
→ Tax cuts on energy efficiency and zero carbon heating products
→ Information and support funded by the government to help this transition take place.
Let’s get onto another thorny topic — agriculture and what we eat. Naturally the debate about whether people should go vegan, or reduce their consumption of meat and dairy, to address the climate has been raging for a while now. The point being obviously that cows emit methane and farming them often contributes to the destruction of tropical forests.
Much like in the case of air travel, the Assembly settled on a moderate approach. They wanted to see meat and dairy consumption reduced by 20–40% — but for this to happen on a voluntary basis, helped along by education, information, and making lower-carbon alternatives more affordable. Major focuses were around emphasising local food production and local produce, as well as “managed diversity” of land use in the UK, including restoring woodlands, peatlands, and gorselands across the country. They also felt that support should be given for farmers towards this transition, and that policymakers should ensure that changes didn’t disproportionately fall on the poorest in society.
So some specific policy recommendations here:
→ Labelling food and drink to see how much emissions come from different foods
→ Information and skills training for people who manage the land on how to encourage low carbon farming practices
→ Low carbon farming regulations — so subsidies for agriculture would depend on low carbon practices, as well as taking other actions that help to preserve biodiversity and wildlife
→ Paying farmers and other landowners to use their land to absorb and store carbon, by planting trees or restoring peatland, for example
→ Awarding government contracts that give preference to low-carbon growers and forestry
→ Changing planning rules to allow food to be produced in a wider range of areas
→ Taxes and incentives that would reduce food waste, for example penalising food waste by businesses and individuals, encouraging smaller portion sizes when food is routinely wasted, and so on
The next area we’ll talk about is in the things that we buy. Naturally stuff that we buy is linked to climate change because much of it requires energy to produce and transport, and some of that comes from fossil fuels.
They identified five key areas to reduce carbon emissions from this area. First: businesses should make products using less energy intensive materials, and with a lower carbon footprint. They wanted to see targets and standards for resource efficiency, i.e. making sure things are manufactured in a way that uses as little fossil fuel as possible. Taxes on producers, products and services who make things with a high carbon footprint were popular, as was enhanced consumer responsibility through education and information. They strongly felt that products should be labelled with information about the carbon emissions that went into producing them, to allow consumers to compare and make a greener choice — I totally agree on this, given how difficult it is to find out the embodied emissions of the stuff you’re buying, which makes the idea that consumers can choose to reward greener businesses a mockery. 74% felt that high-carbon products should have advertising restrictions that include mentioning their impact on the environment, like we have for smoking and gambling.
The government was also encouraged to prioritise low-carbon producers of goods when awarding contracts.
They liked the idea of more repairing and sharing of products between individuals, and less purchasing of new products, and wanted to see policies that would support this happening. And a much bigger emphasis on recycling, including schemes where you can get a deposit returned by recycling something (like waste electronics), doorstep recycling, and grants for businesses that developed new methods for recycling and made goods from recycled materials.
However, they were strongly against ideas like — changing the working hours of a week or income tax to change how people consume, implementing personal CO2 allowances that would limit everyone’s carbon footprint to a certain amount — that was seen as draconian as well as hard to monitor and implement — as well as requiring people to recycle certain amounts. They felt that the behaviour changes involved would be too difficult, and disliked reducing the incentives for people to work with a carbon allowance, reduced hours, or taxes on the rich designed to limit their consumption. Interestingly, they were also against any schemes that producers were involved in being voluntary — they wanted to see regulations and standards set that would ensure efficient use of resources.
So you can see that in this particularly, there’s not exactly a wholesale rejection of consumerism. They want people to have much more freedom and information about how to choose the products they buy in a way that’s good for the climate, as well as a wider range of options. Restrictions on individual liberty to consume were unpopular — instead, the hope is that by making recycling and efficient options like sharing or renting possessions easier, it will help reduce the environmental footprint of the goods we all consume. People were broadly in favour of more efficient goods and more recycling, rather than the scenario with “less stuff, more equality”, which got just 15% of the vote. However, several participants flagged their concerns that this strategy focused too much on businesses and not enough on individual responsibility to fix the problem.
Others noted that while efficiency had improved in the past, consumption had increased even more, so it hadn’t really solved the problem by itself: a valid objection!
But, when it comes to people who produce the goods, the Assembly wanted way more transparency, and regulations to be put in place to reduce the CO2 footprint of making those goods in the first place: they didn’t feel like voluntary schemes would work. Many were also concerned that, without regulation, a lot of industries would not be keen to make products that last longer — they would lose money from not being able to sell a new phone or TV or washing machine every few years.
Runaway winner in the UK is wind power, which is a good job, since it’s both the cheapest and fastest-growing sector of our electricity. 95% liked offshore wind, and 78% liked onshore wind, along with 81% being in favour of solar power.
They were keen to ensure that care was taken, though, around the locations of these renewables, where they were manufactured, and progress on energy storage to provide a stable baseload for the electricity grid. They also wanted to see more incentives for these types of power to be used.
Much less popular, though, were bioenergy, nuclear, and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage — this latter one being the idea that you can still burn fossil fuels, but capture the CO2 that’s released in the process and bury it underground.
They felt that CCS had issues surrounding safety (if the CO2 leaked), that it allowed for fossil fuels to continue to be used, which they didn’t like. They also felt that it was an expensive stop-gap solution that was only short-term when better incentives were available. Plenty said that this “reeked of short-termism”, that it wouldn’t solve the problems in the long term. One said: “fossil fuels; their time is up”, and that money invested in CCS for power generation would just avoid spending money that we’d need to in the future anyway. Several felt that this was too much like business as usual, and that the fossil fuel lobby was pushing for it. All of this meant that just 22% agreed it should be used, with 22% unsure, and the rest against.
When it comes to nuclear, the main concerns were cost, safety, and issues with decommissioning the plants and storing the waste. Many did like the fact that it was a stable and scaleable source of energy, but others felt that it took too long to build new plants and was too expensive. This meant only 34% were in favour, with 16% unsure, and 46% opposed. However, I will note one little tidbit from this part of the report that I liked:
For some assembly members, their view on bioenergy would depend on how bioenergy is produced, including what is being burnt, how production is regulated, and therefore what its environmental and CO2 impacts are. Assembly members’ concerns about bioenergy included burning trees and crops, land use, environmental effects, and a feeling that better alternatives exist that don’t “recycle” carbon dioxide. They were concerned at the land use implications, and also whether biofuels are really carbon neutral given the costs of transporting them. They were however slightly keener on bioenergy than nuclear and CCS. Bioenergy got 40% in favour, 36% unsure / depends, and 24% opposed.
Even though they weren’t asked specifically to vote on this, there were quite a few members who suggested that tidal and wave power would be a good solution for the UK. Given that I was writing about marine renewables at the time this assembly was going on, it’s heartening to see that they haven’t been entirely forgotten… Several actively preferred tidal to nuclear power for baseload. I think it’s also interesting that one of them objected to how many renewables are produced abroad, and wanted to see a more domestic industry that would benefit from the renewable transition.
Finally, we’ll get onto greenhouse gas removals. According to the Climate Assembly’s recommendations, we might have as much as 55 million tonnes of CO2 that need to be removed every year, which can be done by a variety of different methods.
The ones they liked the most:
Restoring forests, peatlands, and wetlands
Using wood in construction — all well over 80% of the vote.
Storing more carbon in the soil was supported by a majority of 62%.
So, broadly speaking, they were keenest on the methods that were most natural and had the most co-benefits for society — including preserving nature, preventing flooding and erosion. They wanted to see that these things were done in a sustainable way, that supported farmers, that were well-planned and managed (i.e. planting the right trees in the right places), and that land use in the UK ended up being balanced.
Less popular, and more controversial, were bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture — sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere with machines, basically. Only 42% backed these methods being used, while 38% disagreed, so a narrow minority with a lot of unsure people — although there was a bigger majority that were in favour of research and development of these technologies, in case they could be used as a resort in the future to mop up any remaining CO2.
The main concerns with these methods were leaks from carbon storage sites, and also a feeling that they failed to address the problem, including a risk that they are “treated as [a] magic solution” that “takes the focus off the amount that we are emitting in the first place.” Generally, they also considered them to be more costly, unproven technologies that were less natural.
So when it comes to the energy and greenhouse gas removal sections of the recommendations, I am not surprised that renewables are more popular than nuclear, and that natural solutions to removing greenhouse gases are more popular than technological ones. This isn’t a surprise, really: I think that it’s also true amongst academics and in previous opinion polling. What I would say, though, is that it seems very likely to be that the cheapest path to net zero will involve some nuclear, and probably some bioenergy with CCS as well. I think it will be very difficult to cancel out 55 million tonnes of CO2 a year, the remaining UK emissions under this plan, using natural solutions alone, due to our small landmass. For example, if we plant trees over 19% of the UK’s land area — an ambitious scenario drawn up by the Committee on Climate Change — it only sequesters 22 million tonnes of CO2 a year. But that will clearly leave us with quite a bit to do. Similarly, while renewables and batteries can provide an awful lot of our energy needs, despite the high cost of nuclear, I think a grid with some nuclear in is still likely to be cheaper and easier to construct than a grid with none at all. This is the kind of additional factor policymakers need to consider. But, what I think the recommendations do clearly show is preferences and priorities. I have no doubt they would argue we should get as much of our greenhouse gas removals as we can from afforestation and other natural solutions before resorting to direct air capture or Bioenergy with CCS for the rest.
Now, as I mentioned, halfway through the Citizens’ Assembly, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which required them to hold the rest of it online. Parliament and the assembly members decided to also add a session on how the COVID-19 recovery should take place. This resulted in two votes. Nearly 80% agreed that the economic recovery should be a green one, designed to help the country reach Net Zero. And an overwhelming 93% agreed that “As lockdown eases, government, employers and/or others should take steps to encourage lifestyles to change to be more compatible with reaching net-zero.”
I’ve obviously been banging on about the green recovery for a few episodes now, but this really does demonstrate how people feel on this issue. We know that vast majorities of the country don’t just want to go back to “business as usual” but want this disruption to help cause positive change — for things to be built back in a better and more sustainable way. For example, there are some specific quotes, I will read out some of the comments.
In the discussions prior to the vote, one member said: “Any money spent bailing out dying fossil fuel industries (the aviation industry, north sea oil) is money wasted on industries that won’t survive anyway.”
Another said: “Feels [like] the government should bail out companies with green plans and, in turn, their taxes will fund the government.”
Many others felt that any bailouts of high-carbon industries should come with strings attached, like establishing a plan to get to net zero. I think that shows you maybe people remember — and dislike — the fact that banks were bailed out in the 2008 financial crisis and they’ve essentially just been able to continue doing the same speculation as ever.
thers did emphasise the need for retraining and supporting people in high-carbon industries, especially aviation, and one commented that “all industries have the right to succeed and all people the right to work.”
Several members said the pandemic provided an “opportunity for change”, given the massive changes that were already taking place. For example, several people said that an ideal way to stimulate the economy after COVID-19 would be to kickstart the transition to net zero and to create jobs to replace the ones that were lost. “It’s a win/win situation.” There were far more comments about how important a green transition was than the 4–5 people who suggested that it was the wrong time to focus on climate change that might distract from the economic recovery.
I mean, listen to this:
And many felt that they viewed getting to net zero as more important now — perhaps in light of the fact that we’ve seen how events beyond our control can genuinely upset the apple-cart here — with one member saying that it’s “much more important” to deal with this now, with the pandemic being easier to solve than climate change. Several pointed out that COVID-19 had demonstrated that we can afford expenditure if it’s a real priority, while others suggested that it shows that we can also adapt to lifestyle changes, and that more widespread working from home would be a good way to reduce transportation emissions.
So it’s very clear that, even in light of changing circumstances, the Assembly if anything thinks it’s even more crucial and important to address climate change, and that the COVID-19 crisis emphasises our responsibility to avert future disasters. I think the fact that 80% of people thought it was important to really ensure that we have a green recovery from this crisis is pretty amazing. Obviously you all know how I feel about that!
Finally, there is a last set of recommendations that were made in the report. These ones were drafted by the assembly members themselves on the last weekend, and then voted on by the whole assembly. They voted in favour of 39 in total; here are the top ten:
1 The transition to net zero should be a crosspolitical party issue, and not a partisan one (96% support);
2 More transparency in the relationship between big energy companies and government (94% support);
3 Get to net zero without pushing our emissions to elsewhere in the world (92% support);
4 Incentives to accelerate progress to net zero and conditions attached for organisations seeking government financial support (91% support);
5 A robust media strategy on the outcomes of the Assembly (90% support);
6 An independent neutral body that that monitors and ensures progress to net zero, including citizens assemblies and independent experts (89% support);
7 Move away from fossil fuels and transition to new energy sources (89% support);
8 Products and services labelled to include their carbon footprint (89% support);
9 A follow up on the outcomes of the Assembly covering what has been taken into account, what hasn’t and why (88% support);
10 Harness the response to Covid-19 and COP26 to drive international coordinated action on climate change (87% support).
People were also keen for finances to be directed into green initiatives, to ensure financial services divested from oil companies and invested in cleaner alternatives, for companies to pay for their climate impact according to their pollution, and for a government department for Net Zero to be set up. Even a carbon tax (providing it was fair across income groups) got 52% support with only 22% opposed.
There were two motions that didn’t pass — about shifting the net zero target closer to the present day. Campaign groups like Extinction Rebellion have argued we should aim for Net Zero by 2025. This is because the world needs to be at net zero by 2050 to satisfy the Paris Agreement, and, as a leading nation, we should arguably be ahead of the world. Also, of course, based on issues of international justice — as the UK has historically emitted a lot of CO2, we should be more ambitious than other countries, who need more slack to grow their economies and alleviate poverty first.
Now I could talk about Extinction Rebellion until the cows came home, weighing up whether I approve of them . I think it’s quite likely that the “2025” ask is simply about trying to shift the Overton Window. If the status quo is 2050, and you ask for 2025, you might get 2035 or 2040, which might just be achievable. Getting the UK to Net Zero in just the next five years is, I would say, not possible in a democracy.
On the other hand… a thinktank tried to actually calculate the cost of getting to net zero by 2025. They said £200bn a year for the next 5 years, a total cost of £1trn. It’s much, much cheaper to do if you give yourself more time, I should add. Indeed, if we’d tackled climate change robustly decades ago, it would have cost us much less to do so than it will do now. A bit like early lockdowns and COVID. Almost as if listening to the warnings of scientists and engaging in long-term prevention of problems is a good idea. Quelle surprise.
Frankly I think it’s so difficult that any estimate is basically junk, so I didn’t dive into the details there, but that’s what they came up with. If you take that seriously, though — the cost of COVID-19 to the UK economy was around £200bn. Bloomberg Economics estimated that the total cost of Brexit to the UK so far has been about £200bn, as well. So, COVID + Brexit would give you two years of Net Zero to 2025. That gives you an idea of the scale of the 2025 demand.
For the Citizens’ Assembly, they narrowly voted against the idea of setting a more ambitious date. 40% opposed it compared to 35% in favour, with the balance held by “Don’t Knows.” One thing that’s quite interesting to note is that a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change was one of the three main demands that Extinction Rebellion initially made, and they have actually come out narrowly in favour of sticking with the 2050 deadline… eyebrow-raising, to say the least.
So, all in all, how can we summarise this exercise? I think it’s really a fascinating one, and I’m glad that it’s been held. I wouldn’t say that any of the results are particularly surprising, either, as someone who’s been in this space for a while and thought a lot about these issues. When people get informed about climate change, they are very keen for ambitious actions that will help solve the problem, which stop short of being radical — although you might say that aiming for every new car to be electric by 2035, and phasing out gas boilers by 2035, is pretty ambitious. These are, however, what they voted for. There’s not a great deal of support for the fossil-fuel industry or for deregulation. Preserving a competitive economy is not particularly high on the list. People love renewables and energy efficiency — but they’re not particularly keen to abandon their freedoms like flying, eating meat, and consuming “stuff” to solve the problem. Instead, on balance, they want those issues to be determined by regulations — for example, insuring that businesses have to make products that are more energy-efficient and use less resources, nudging people towards better behaviours through education and information availability, investment in research and development to make them less polluting, and so on.
I think there are some environmentalists, particularly those who are much keener on degrowth (shrinking the economy), and changing our lifestyles quite substantially, who might view this approach as a sort of “have your cake and eat it” attitude. That may be a fair criticism, but it’s also where the public is at — and they’re still supporting pretty rapid decarbonisation and a lot more government leadership to achieve it in the next few decades.
People are keen on protecting the environment, restoring “nature”, and solutions that are seen as more natural and based more locally, as opposed to top-down impositions and technological solutions. And the key value of educating people about the problem — and its solutions — in detail is gratifying.
There’s overwhelming support for a green recovery from COVID-19, for the goal of Net Zero, and for a lot of specific policy measures and changes — including expenditures, taxes, and support for new initiatives — to take place to get there. So any policymaker who argues that this isn’t a priority for people has to reckon with what happens when the people get to spend some time out seriously thinking about what we should do, and how we should do it.
Clearly there are some limitations, of course. You can argue that the Assembly’s plan doesn’t add up to Net Zero — or that tax increases or government borrowing to “pay for” the plan might be unpopular in practice. You could question the underlying question that was asked: *how* to get to Net Zero by 2050, instead of whether to do so at all. Of course, the Citizens’ Assembly doesn’t tell the government how to prioritise action on climate change relative to everything else they have to deal with. Although, on that point, I’d say that in the UK at least, opinion polling consistently shows 80–85% are concerned, and it’s often listed amongst people’s top issues. You can criticise the options that were presented to people to vote on, particularly when they were bundled together into groups — the setting of the “Overton Window” for debate, if you like. Perhaps your favourite solution got left out, although I think it was a pretty comprehensive discussion in a lot of ways. and the evidence given by “experts”; for example, I bet there’s at least one person listening in the pro-nuke camp who wishes they had an opportunity to talk to the assembly and persuade them not to come down so harshly on nuclear power.
Naturally, even in this in-depth summary, I’ve not gone into full depth about the full report and what was a fascinating democratic exercise. You can get ahold of all of it online, so please do so, if you want to read more, and there’s even a documentary that will be released at some point. I’m really glad that they managed to complete it in light of all the chaos surrounding COVID, and I think it’s valuable not only for policy-makers to see what’s popular, but also for those of us in the climate community to reflect — both on what people value, and also the very strong emphasis on informing people about the solutions and the real details of the problem.
Another thing that’s inspiring here is that everyone felt like they could take an active part in the debate, and that they wanted to do so. These are random people — these aren’t academics, these aren’t necessarily highly-educated people who know a lot about climate change, transport, energy generation and so on. I saw an interview with one lady on the assembly who’s worked as a fishmonger for most of her life. And the stuff they came up with was usually really on point, valid, nuanced, and well-argued — they totally got this complicated debate. To my mind, that shows that if you give people time, space, and resources to understand complicated issues… guess what? The general public are not stupid. Ordinary people can debate and discuss and think about complicated things if you give them a chance. I feel like way too many of the people who govern us imbibe the kind of elitism that gets instilled into you in top universities, in high-flying careers, and so on.
Personally, it’s also really bloody heartening to me to see how many people think that the COVID crisis is the moment to address Net Zero — that we need to rebuild a better world than the one before the crisis, and that it is an opportunity to make some much-needed changes in society. The report mentions that some people had been severely personally affected by the pandemic — to see that they still had so much optimism and enthusiasm for viewing this as an opportunity to build a better world is really kind of inspiring. Some even felt more optimistic or determined to make this happen — saying that COVID illustrated the problems with delay, the unsustainable way that we have been living, or demonstrated that rapid change can happen when we prioritise it. And as for a green recovery, when people get to really think and deliberate around it, they see it as a no-brainer.
I also think, more broadly, it’s nice to know that most participants got a lot out of this experience, and that they managed to come to agreement on so many issues. Interestingly, a lot of them wanted to see a permanent Citizens’ Assembly established which would regularly meet with new groups of people involved in making the decisions — and which could continue to hold governments to account even as the political winds shifted and changed. One of the older members of the assembly suggested it should predominantly be made up of younger people, since this issue affects them most, which kinda makes me want to hug whoever’s gran said that.
All in all, I really, sincerely hope that the government actually listens to, takes seriously, and pays attention to the recommendations and opinions that people have expressed in this assembly. I think there are a lot of good ideas raised, a lot of valid concerns have been pointed out, and we have as much data as we would need to know what people think about issues when they’ve been presented with the case for each of them.
We have a perception that we live in an extremely divided society where political gridlock prevents an awful lot of things from taking place. We know that in the last few years, a lot of people’s faith in democracy as an institution is in decline. Worldwide, 58% of citizens are dissatisfied in how democracy is working — up from 39% in 2005. The figures are just as bad in the UK and the US. It’s particularly bad amongst young people. Only around 25% of people born in the 1980s say that it’s essential to live in a democracy, compared to 75% born in the 1930s.
And, of course, this dissatisfaction with how the world is run amongst a lot of citizens has manifested itself in democratic phenomena like Trump and Brexit, both of which, whatever else you would say about them, promised to shake up the status quo.
This is pretty horrifying to reflect on. Some people might argue that people in democracies have simply forgotten just how brutal and horrible it can be to live under an alternative form of government — like a dictatorship.
But at the same time, we have to reflect on why this is. You cannot simply expect people to continue to be satisfied with a system when they see it failing to represent their interests or improve their lives. This dissatisfaction with democracy started to set in around the time of the Global Financial Crisis in the US and Europe.
I think about what’s happened since I started paying attention to politics. Never-ending wars in the Middle East. The global financial crisis, caused largely by financial speculation. Bail-outs for the banks and bankers, who continued to make incredible amounts of money, and austerity for everyone else. When I went to University, I was in the first group to owe tripled tuition fees: my parents didn’t have to pay any and actually got grants to study. In 1985, houses cost twice the average wage; now, that’s eight times. Every election or referendum I’ve voted in has gone against the vast majority of people in my generation, and the result have been policy changes that will either harm us or help others more, as politics becomes increasingly polarised by age across the world. We’ve seen employment become more insecure and focused on the gig economy. We’ve seen many years of political gridlock on a whole range of different issues. We’ve seen narratives about how democracy is being undermined — by special interest groups, corruption, money in politics, election rigging, media manipulation, whatever it may be. All of this, of course, is feeding into and being fuelled by a rise in conspiracy theories, the divisiveness of social media and algorithms, and heightening political polarisation — which, in a democracy, means a victory by the hated “other side” becomes an intolerable risk. At the same time, we’ve seen governments apparently powerless to deal with growing inequality, stagnant wages and living conditions, social problems, and, of course, the growing menace that is climate change. And now, of course, you are likely to have very strong opinions about how your own democratically elected government is dealing with COVID-19. Add your own grievances here, people! This loss of faith in democracy, whether you think it’s fair or unfair, is not coming out of a vacuum — just as the loss of faith in democracy in Weimar Germany in the 1930s did not come out of a vacuum either.
Addressing the problem won’t be easy, either, if you agree with me that democracy is still the best system of government out there. But it’s going to require democracy to demonstrate that it can get serious — that it can function, that it can address people’s real concerns, that it can solve the major issues of our time. Every political and economic system in history has discovered eventually that, if you cannot address people’s problems, they are not going to view you favourably.
Citizens’ Assemblies are not a silver bullet for the problems facing democracy — just as this list of recommendations is far from a silver bullet, or even a comprehensive plan, for dealing with climate change. But, with the focus on nuanced, informed, calm, non-partisan, fact-based, solution-focused and deliberative discussion… rather than what all-too-often passes for debate these days… it could well be a step in the right direction. A government that listens to its citizens. Imagine that!
As ever, although the content of this show is NOT democratically decided (that often), I would love to hear what you all think. Maybe you disagree with the uncharacteristic enthusiasm on display in this episode, or the idea of Citizens Assemblies, or whatever it may be. Please get in touch via the contact form on our website at physicspodcast.com, where you can come in with any questions, comments, or concerns that you may have… etc.