If Citizens Assemblies are the way forward, why is XR no longer endorsing the Scottish Governments Climate Citizens Assembly?

November 5, 2020

Citizens Assemblies can be a wonderful solution to our flawed political system, yet on Friday, Kate Dyer and I resigned from the Stewarding Group for Scotland’s Climate Citizens’ Assembly, where we had been representing Extinction Rebellion (XR) Scotland.

The Climate Citizens’ Assembly was set up as a result of the Climate Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament in Sept 2019.

We, together with other XR Scotland activists, had campaigned hard for the creation of this Assembly. We occupied the Scottish Parliament on Burns Day in January 2019, camped outside Parliament for five days during Holyrood Rebel Camp in June 2019, lobbied MSPs, linked with Commonweal, FoE and Global Justice Now. Some of us locked ourselves to Parliament and sent the keys to the five main parties. All because XR Scotland believe that empowering ordinary people through citizens’ assemblies is the way to tackle this unprecedented emergency.

The Assembly starts this coming Saturday, and will bring together 108 randomly chosen citizens, weighted to ensure they are representative of Scotland in terms of age, ethnicity, income, geography, attitude to climate change, etc. It will meet online for eight hours a weekend for 6 or 7 weekends from November to March.

As the XR reps we have put a huge amount of work into helping shape the Assembly, including by proposing and helping organise a deliberative workshop that ensured the assembly is going to be tackling a meaningful question: “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in a fair and effective way?”

So why are we now walking away? Because we believe that – consciously or unconsciously – the civil servants are watering down the process so much that it is in danger of only being able to arrive at business-as-usual answers that Government is comfortable with.

  1. Why did XR Scotland push for a Climate Citizen’s Assembly?

XR Scotland 3 demands, as read out outside Holyrood in November 2018, are:

  1. Tell the Truth

That the Scottish Government tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, acknowledge and reverse any policies that help drive the climate crisis, and commit to enabling a rapid and just transition to a sustainable and fair society.

  1. Net Zero 2025

That the Scottish Government enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, including by replacing a system based on accelerating consumption with one based on ensuring the wellbeing of all.

  1. Climate Citizens’ Assembly

The creation of a Scottish Climate Citizens’ Assembly to decide the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose and a society that cares for all.

Our demands go a lot further than XR UK’s. Our first two demands highlight the fact Government says one thing and does another (and so must “acknowledge and reverse any policies that help drive the climate crisis”), and they are clear about the kind of society we need in order to tackle the crisis (“commit to enabling a rapid and just transition to a sustainable and fair society”, “including by replacing a system based on accelerating consumption with one based on ensuring the wellbeing of all.”)

Our 3rd Demand wasn’t specifically directed at the Scottish Government, though we then successfully campaigned with others (FoE, Global Justice Now, Commonweal) for Parliament to create a Citizens Assembly. It was mandated by the 2019 Climate Act following an amendment by Mark Ruskell MSP of the Scottish Green Party. When we launched the demands we thought this demand was unlikely to be met by the Government, or at least not in an adequate enough way. This was back in November 2018, well before our occupation of Holyrood, our peaceful disruption of the Oil club dinner, our April 2019 North Bridge blockade, and well before the huge April 2019 rebellion in London and our June 2019 Holyrood Rebel Camp.

Our third demand is clear that citizens assemblies are a crucial part of “creating a democracy fit for purpose and a society that cares for all.”

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The climate crisis is only one symptom of a system that is wrecking the world, and the resolution of the climate crisis cannot happen without transforming the system driving the multiplying crises people face. For this we need to be able to return power to the people in contexts where citizens can be well-informed and well-supported to truly assess the fundamental issues, and do what governments seem incapable of doing because they are so much part of the system that needs to change.

  1.     The Climate Emergency and the Core Dilemma:

In response to the Climate emergency we, as a society, have to navigate between the need to be:

–        ‘political realists’ – aware of how radical action on the climate could severely disrupt everyday life and business as usual; and

–        ‘physics realists’ – aware of the need to transform the system if we are not to unleash catastrophic ecological unravelling, symptoms of which we are already seeing

The Assembly could be a space, not for one side to argue against the other, but for Assembly members to consider a path forward that is in line with the science (which recognises the deep level of transformation required) and in line with peoples lived realities (and so looks at how people can get their real needs met, while abandoning those – currently central – parts of the system which are driving our unsustainable emissions).

On this basis, it is critical that Assembly members

1)     can consider the state of our emergency in its stark and potentially devastating terms,

2)     can critically evaluate the adequacy or otherwise of current responses to the emergency, including understanding how climate delay is as effective as denial in blocking climate action, and

3)     can consider alternative pathways forward in order to be able to evaluate and decide the best pathway ahead.  For example, they need to be able to consider how the economy drives the crisis and how it can become a solution. For this they need to be able to consider as wide a range of options as possible. For example, market-led economic-growth focused (Grantham Institute), wellbeing (Katherine Trebeck), state-led (Commonweal) and de-growth transformational (Jason Hickel or Julia Steinberger) approaches.

As far as we can see, all these aspects have been steadily watered down as the design process has gone on.

  1.    So why is XR leaving the Stewarding Group of Scotland’s Climate Citizens Assembly?

With great reluctance, and after putting a huge amount of constructive work into trying to improve the Assembly, we have decided to leave its Stewarding Group. As it stands, we can no longer endorse this Assembly as a good enough response to the climate emergency.

XR has had two reps on the 25 strong Stewarding group shaping the Assembly, a group drawn from political parties, business, civil society, etc. It has met monthly since March 2020, but power has remained very much with its Secretariat that is supposedly independent of government but is in fact staffed by civil servants.

XR joined the Stewarding Group in good faith, and contributed to making the Assembly a stronger process than it might otherwise have been. For example, the civil servants had wanted it to consider the question: “How should Scotland respond to climate change?”. The XR reps proposed to the Stewarding Group that we hold a deliberative workshop to decide the question, and we helped organise that in July. This led to the far stronger question: “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?”

However, over the months since that July workshop our confidence in the process has been increasingly eroded as we have seen the civil servants inability to grasp the scale of the challenge and the range of perspectives needed to consider how to respond to it.

XR had been willing to join the Stewarding group only after being reassured by the civil servants that the Assembly would decide the level of crisis we are in and the response needed, rather than being tied to the Government’s net zero by 2045 target and policies, or to XR’s 2025 target. As time has passed it has become clear that the secretariat are seeing the Assembly as needing to operate within the constraints of the 2045 target and policies. It is in danger of becoming little more than a glorified focus group that has to think within the constraints of government policy rather than being the Assembly we were all promised.

Another example is that the two XR reps proposed that Prof Julia Steinberger would be an excellent evidence lead on the economy (alongside far more business as usual voices). She is an IPCC lead author, an eminent academic, public intellectual and an excellent communicator. She was rejected by the secretariat explicitly because she has voiced her support for XR.

To reject such a quality perspective, essentially because her analysis is so at variance with business as usual, is utterly at odds with the purpose of a Citizens Assembly, which is for members to consider the evidence. As Dr. Jason Hickel – an expert voice on the economics of de-growth also rejected by the secretariat – commented:

“Professor Julia Steinberger is a highly respected scholar in the field of climate economics, and a lead author for the IPCC.  There is no one more qualified for this role than she is, and it’s a shame, quite frankly, that civil servants have chosen to exclude her.”

In summary, a very promising process has become increasingly controlled in a way that means it is no longer demonstrating an ability to trust the people to consider and assess the dilemma we are in.

  1.     Trust the People: the Power of Assemblies

Citizens Assemblies can be powerfully effective at breaking logjams where there needs to be a complete reappraisal of how society is approaching an issue. The Citizens Assembly in Ireland on abortion is a very good example of this. However, here and elsewhere the key to success has been the interaction between assemblies and popular movements for change, as we have seen recently in the successful push for a new constitution in Chile. There is a lesson here in the contrast between the UK Citizens Assembly on the climate (UKCA) held in Birmingham in 2019-20, that was mandated by 6 committees of the UK Parliament and was only really allowed to consider issues within the constraints of existing UK government policy, and the French Citizens Assembly on the Climate (CCC) that was held in the same period but that came up with more radical proposals to the extent that it was shaped not simply by Government but by negotiations between Government and civil society.

In all Assemblies, Assembly members need to be empowered to understand that it is their expertise that has been the crucial missing ingredient in our politics.

With Scotland’s Climate Assembly, we are asking them to wrestle with an issue that the current political and economic system has been unable to address adequately for many reasons, including the fact that initiating the transformations required seems impossible for politicians tied to a 4 to 5 year election cycle, corporations tied to short term profit, and a UK media that is largely controlled by 5 billionaires who have a strong track record in climate denial.

The strength of having ordinary people in assemblies is that they are aware of their own lack of information and are willing and open to change their minds. In writing about the impact of choosing a random representative sample for citizens assemblies, Brett Henning (of the Sortition Foundation, which did the member selection for this Assembly) says:

“it’s the fact that it’s random that means you break the link with vested interests.  . . If you choose people that aren’t the usual suspects, who aren’t typically politically engaged, what we find is that people are aware of their own lack of information and take their role very seriously. They’re really willing and open to change their minds and change their opinions.”

But this can only happen if Assembly members are enabled to deliberate on the full spectrum of perspectives, a spectrum which – in our view – the secretariat has actively resisted, excluding for example highly regarded academic public intellectuals from being evidence leads.  We have never argued that one end of the spectrum should present evidence and not the other, our point is that only having half the spectrum of evidence means the assembly is being blinkered in what it is allowed to see.

Overall, when we look at the design of the Assembly as currently proposed, we feel our continued presence on the inside of this process makes it look as if XR is comfortable that what is being developed is an adequate response to the challenges Scotland faces.  We fear it is not, and hence we feel we have to withdraw at this point.  Our last hope is that in leaving the stewarding group we are showing how serious our concerns are, and that they therefore may be acted upon.

  1. Climate changes the world.

Climate changes the world. Citizens Assemblies can enable that change to be for the better rather than only for the worse. Citizens, fully appraised of the scope and scale of the challenges we face, can lead the way forward.

If the civil servants cannot trust the people, can the assembly members of Scotland’s Climate Assembly themselves insist on hearing from the full spectrum of perspectives when they meet? Can they insist on looking at how we change the system that is driving the crisis, rather than only how we make changes in line with the constraints of that system?

If the Government cannot create a genuine Assembly process, do we need to find the resources for civil society to do so? Should this involve inviting the Government to become one stakeholder in a process that is designed to challenge us all to make a path ahead that can be an example for other countries to follow?  A path that does not lead us ever deeper into climate, ecological and social breakdown, but pursues a multisolving approach that delves deeper than trade off thinking. By tackling problems at source can we discover how untangling one problem can be a way to begin untangling them all?

Teaser photo credit: By Julia Hawkins – https://www.flickr.com/photos/8716204@N06/45009830075/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74617063

Justin Kenrick

Justin is an anthropologist and activist from Edinburgh. He is a member of Extinction Rebellion Scotland. Since 2009, has worked with the Forest Peoples Programme, supporting communities to secure their community lands and determine their own futures.

Tags: Citizens' Assemblies, climate change responses, Extinction Rebellion