Climate assemblies are increasingly being used across the world to help decide how we tackle the climate crisis. As they have become more common, so has interest in their impact. However very few studies have looked at the long-term impact of taking part on assembly members themselves.
As one of the leads for Climate Assembly UK, my attention was therefore caught when assembly members began to talk about changes they had made in their own lives. These ranged from buying an electric car, to running for office for the first time, to setting-up a climate-friendly business. But were these the exception, or had lots of assembly members made similar changes.
We teamed up with Stephen Elstub and Jayne Carrick from Newcastle University to find out, sending assembly members two additional research surveys – one in April 2021 roughly a year after the end of the assembly events, and the second in September 2022 two years after the launch of the assembly’s final report.
What we found
The survey results suggest that taking part in Climate Assembly UK had a big impact on both the climate views and actions of assembly members, and possibly their political attitudes and actions. They also suggest that this impact took place for assembly members regardless of their backgrounds or previous perspectives on climate change.
Five of the results that I personally found most striking were:
- Assembly members’ concern about climate change continued to increase, even after the assembly had finished. We already knew that more assembly members were ‘very concerned’ about climate change at the end of the assembly events than at its start (56% compared to 46%). However what surprised me was the extent to which this figure continued to rise after the assembly finished (by April 2021 it was 72%, by September 2022 it was 74%). In comparison, the percentage of the UK population who said they were ‘very concerned’ about climate change remained roughly consistent: Ipsos Mori polling suggests 52% of the population were ‘very concerned’ in July 2019 and 54% were ‘very concerned’ in July 2022.
- Many assembly members made changes in their own lives following the assembly. Climate Assembly UK was focussed on how the UK should meet its climate target of net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Assembly members were not asked to make changes to their own lives, nor were they given information or support aimed at helping them to do so. It therefore surprised me to find that at least 79 assembly members had made 1 or more climate-friendly changes to their lives since taking part (91% of the post assembly survey respondents); and that at least 39 assembly members (49%) had made 10 or more changes. These ranged from paying more attention to climate change in the news (68%), and discussing climate change more with people around them (63%), to reducing the amount of meat and dairy in their diets (56%), reducing electricity use in the home (59%), and becoming involved in tackling climate change at work (22%). Other changes included how people travelled and insulated their homes. Assembly members attributed all but 23 of these 693 changes to ‘environmental reasons’ and/or said they were ‘contributed to’ by taking part in the assembly.
- Assembly members with very different backgrounds, experiences and opinions have made similar numbers of changes. The researchers at Newcastle University found no significant relationship between the number of changes assembly members had made to their lives since the assembly (as just outlined) and differences in their age, gender, ethnicity, level of education and attitudes, including their level of concern about climate change at the start of the assembly and how assembly members view their politics on a left-right ideological scale.
- Assembly members’ are still enthusiastic about citizens’ assemblies. Since the assembly, assembly members have become less convinced that their recommendations will influence government policy or the work of Parliament. At the end of the assembly, 42% of respondents thought Climate Assembly UK would influence Government policy ‘a lot’ or ‘quite a lot’. This then fell to 26% by April 2021 and 14% by September 2022. The equivalent figures for Parliament are 46%, 39% and 31%. Despite this, 89% to 94% of respondents to the post assembly surveys ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that citizens’ assemblies should be used more often. That represents no change at all since the end of the assembly; assembly members are still just as enthusiastic about the use of citizens’ assemblies.
- Tentative findings about changes to assembly members’ political attitudes and actions. Without comparable figures for the UK population as a whole, we cannot draw many conclusions from this area of our findings. However they tentatively suggest that assembly members’ participated more across a range of measures (e.g. signing a petition, attending a protest) after the assembly than they did before it. They also show that both the extent to which assembly members felt they had a say in what the UK Parliament does, and their belief that the UK political system works fairly well, increased during the assembly, but then fell away again after it finished. There is a statistically significant relationship between this negative change since the assembly, and assembly members’ decreasing belief that their recommendations would have an influence.
So why does any of this matter?
First, it shows that taking part in a climate assembly has a lasting impact for many of those involved. In an era where there is concern about misinformation and lack of political engagement, this matters. Processes like climate assemblies provide one way to build a democracy where more people have a stake in the decisions we all take about our future.
Second, it reinforces arguments that climate assemblies and similar processes can play an important role in tackling the climate crisis. Given the lasting shift in participants’ perspectives, proliferation of these processes could see a clearer consensus on a robust, practical way forward emerge. An interesting, connected question is ‘how small can you go’ whilst still providing a powerful experience for participants? For example, could a mini-deliberative process that people could do with their friends and family at home have a significant impact on people’s climate attitudes and actions, as well as giving people an experience of what deliberation feels like and why it would be a good idea to use it more? There is a research project here, that could also have implications for issues beyond climate change.
Next, these results should inform a growing body of work on best practice for climate assemblies. More evaluations of assemblies need to look at whether there are impacts on assembly members beyond the end of assembly processes and, if yes, what they are. If the findings for Climate Assembly UK members are replicated elsewhere then that raises questions about the desirability and feasibility of growing and deepening that impact, through how assemblies are designed, followed-up or both.
And finally, for this post at least, the information, support and opportunities offered to assembly members during and after assemblies are important. Involve’s to-do list for this year includes scoping plans and reaching out to potential partners about the possibility of creating a network for former participants in the UK. There are also smaller scale questions about what it is desirable and feasible to offer assembly members around individual climate assembly processes.
My colleagues and I are very interested to hear what others are looking at and working on in these spaces. Do get in touch if you would like to talk.
In the meantime, you might also be interested in the work of:
 73% of assembly members responded to one or both of the surveys and gave permission for the Newcastle University team to use their results. Analysis shows that the small number of differences between these assembly members’ backgrounds and attitudes, and those of the assembly members who filled out our research surveys during the assembly, do not explain the findings reported in this post and the report it covers.
Teaser photo credit: By Matt Hrkac from Geelong / Melbourne, Australia – Extinction Rebellion: Solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106974432