Act: Inspiration

Democracy Versus the Climate?

July 10, 2019

If we are to scale this challenge, we need the legitimacy conferred by a responsive democracy. More democracy, not less. Enter the citizens assembly.

In the last 6 months there has been a flurry of activity in the UK relating to climate action and deliberative democracy. Bursting onto the scene earlier this year, Extinction Rebellion have demanded a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice to provide dithering politicians with nuanced guidance and a mandate to act.

Subsequently, the UK parliament and over sixty local authorities have declared a climate emergency. OxfordCamden and several other councils have announced that they will be holding citizens’ assemblies on climate action.

But the most significant announcement came a couple of weeks ago, when six select committees of the UK parliament announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on “combating climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions”, which the government has committed to achieving by 2050. Though the exact remit remains unclear this development is promising, both for our democracy and our climate. It is now vitally important that the process is done properly.

Democracy in the balance?

In general terms, democracy seems like an ideal system for tackling complex issues like climate change. Democracy, we tell ourselves, enables cooperation. A free press supports political learning and democracies encourage the critical assessment of policy, meaning major challenges can be overcome through experimentation and adaptation.

The problem is, this process requires time – a luxury we lack, given the urgency of the situation. An emerging argument, popular in some environmentalist circles, asks whether there are systemic flaws in our democracies which prevent us from acting fast enough to prevent irreversible climate change.

Political leaders in democracies, the argument goes, are short-sighted. Electoral cycles create biases in favour of the short-term which discourages the adoption of far-sighted policies to capture distant benefits. In a democracy, the will of the people generally trumps technical expertise, so decisions reflect the short-termism, naivete and prejudices of voters regardless of what climate scientists say. Misinformation is stoked by lobbyists and industries with an economic stake in the status quo (not least fossil fuel industries themselves) and money distorts the incentives of politicians seeking re-election.

These dynamics may be more extreme in the US, but they exist in many established democracies: climate policies don’t attract votes or political donations and so action often remains elusive. Add to this the characteristics of the issue (climate change mitigation is complex, has long-term effects and requires major lifestyle changes) and we start to understand the scale of the problem.

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For some, tackling climate change requires the suspension of democracy itself. In recent years, several environmentalists have concluded that democracy is not up to the task of climate change. The election of Donald Trump in America and his subsequent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement give credence to this view. Perhaps some kind of enlightened, environmental authoritarianism would fare better.

What these democracy sceptics don’t consider is the politics of the issue. Environmental evidence – as compelling as it is – doesn’t automatically translate itself into policy, even if pushed by a benevolent dictator. Effective climate action requires social and political action which in turn requires public buy-in. There will be major social, political and economic obstacles, many of which are not yet apparent, and the public needs to be on board with this journey. If we are to scale this challenge, we need the legitimacy conferred by a responsive democracy. In short, we need more democracy, not less.

More democracy

A citizens’ assembly on climate action took place in 2017 in Ireland and showed that, given the time and the evidence, diverse citizens can agree on courageous proposals, including the national roll-out of low-carbon public vehicles and state support for community energy generation. Remarkably, 80% of the members said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities.

Deliberative democracy, involving careful and lengthy reflection by regular citizens, could offer the deepening of democratic norms and the improvement of public debate that we need. Deliberation helps citizens to confront the complexities of an issue like climate change and arrive at coherent and nuanced responses. Insulated from the pressures of party and money, regular people can prioritise the long-term common good rather than what is politically exigent or personally advantageous. When deliberative processes are properly publicised, they can improve the quality of discussion and information in the wider public sphere.

Citizens’ assemblies enable effective and legitimate action against climate change. They could provide a democratic route out of our current malaise, but need to be influential, high-quality and systemic in their focus. The emerging plans for citizens’ assemblies are important and constructive. Now we need to make sure we do them properly. The stakes are high.

Riley Thorold

Riley Thorold is a researcher at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce, which is currently running a Campaign for Deliberative Democracy.

Tags: building resilient societies, citizen assemblies, direct democracy