The Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is starting with one hand tied behind its back

Extinction Rebellion: The government are likely to ignore the findings, but is the process a step in the right direction?

Climate Assembly UK is a citizen’s assembly commissioned by six parliamentary committees to consider how the UK should meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The assembly is set to take place in Birmingham, starting this Friday. It will run over four long weekends up to the 22nd March, with 110 participants – chosen to be representative of the UK population in terms of age, gender, education, ethnicity, region, whether they live in an urban or rural area, and their attitudes to climate change.

The results of the assembly will be published at the end of April 2020, and the organisers hope that the Select Committees will launch inquiries based on the results.

Extinction Rebellion welcomes the decision by these six parliamentary committees to further explore forms of deliberative democracy. But the Climate Assembly is flawed in a number of key ways.

The government’s inadequate 2050 target

It is the Select Committees’ job to scrutinise the work of the government. As they are commissioning the assembly, this means that by default the assembly will look at decarbonising by 2050, because that is current government policy.

However, this timeframe does not align with the scientific evidence that only a rapid decarbonisation of our economy will mitigate ecological and societal collapse. 2050 gives us a 50/50 chance of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees. We are only just beginning to experience what one degree feels like. The human race deserves better odds than this.

No government buy-in

Climate Assembly UK was not commissioned by the government but by backbenchers from the previous Parliament, so the government can completely ignore its outcomes.

Indeed, the government is yet to acknowledge Climate Assembly UK. As the composition of the Select Committees has changed following the recent general election.

There is also no guarantee that they will take the recommendations of Climate Assembly UK forward in the form of an inquiry, although we hope they will.

Too domestic

There are no plans to discuss biodiversity, global justice or the extinction of species. The net-zero target Climate Assembly UK will work towards does not account for emissions from aviation or trade. There is no consideration for the UK’s international emissions, so we can continue to outsource a significant proportion of our emissions to other countries.

The overall focus of the assembly is on changes on the individual level and will not adequately address top-level policies, such as regulations for industry, infrastructure and international supply chains.

The organisers have said that participants will consider how these translate into societal change. But we’re concerned that focusing on individual behaviour change can distract us from the system changes so urgently needed. 

But…a step in the right direction

Despite its shortcomings, Extinction Rebellion supports the deliberative process of the citizens’ assembly itself and will not interfere in its smooth running.

While it does not meet our Third Demand, this assembly is an opportunity to showcase deliberative democracy to the UK public and pave the way for a more ambitious Citizens’ Assembly commissioned by Government. It is therefore important that the wider population sees citizens’ assemblies as legitimate.

From information currently available, Climate Assembly UK appears to a robust process. It has been organised independently of all interest groups. Participants have been selected randomly across a range of criteria. The assembly will be livestreamed and all materials made available online.

In addition, assembly members are reimbursed for their time, travel and childcare expenses. The advisory and academic panels overseeing the assembly’s design and process contain a broad range of stakeholders from across the political spectrum. The expert speakers presenting have yet to be announced. 

As supporters of deliberative democracy, Extinction Rebellion understands how important it is that these events are free from outside influence. Participants have the right to remain anonymous and their well-being is paramount.

We look forward to seeing the developments around Climate Assembly UK, and hope the government will take note and commission its own assembly – one that truly empowers participants to decide on the action needed to address the climate and ecological emergency.

Marijn van de Geer is a spokesperson for the Citizens’ Assembly Working Group.

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