What can we learn from the UK Climate Assembly?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 11th September 2020

The UK’s first nationwide citizens’ assembly on climate change came to a close this week, with the launch of its final report setting out 50 recommendations on how the UK should reach net zero by 2050, looking at areas such as travel, energy and the recovery from COVID-19.

Commissioned by six parliamentary committees in 2019, the Assembly comprised 108 members, ordinary citizens from across the UK chosen through a civic lottery, representative of the wider population in terms of demographics, geography, and level of concern about climate change. Assembly members met over six weekends in Spring 2020 (three in person meetings held in Birmingham, and three online meetings following the nationwide lockdown in March), contributed over 60 hours to the process, listened to presentations by 47 speakers and addressed 10 topic areas.

In addition to the important recommendations it made on climate change, the Climate Assembly represents a significant democratic project for the UK.

Backed by parliament

The UK Climate Assembly remains one of the few citizens’ assemblies to have been commissioned directly by parliament – with the first having been the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, commissioned by two House of Commons select committees in 2018. Unlike previous ‘unofficial’ citizens’ assemblies conducted in the UK, the Climate Assembly, although run independently of parliament, benefited from this institutional grounding, having access to funding and to the legitimacy and credibility that came with it.

The parliamentary infrastructure which underpinned the Assembly allowed them to recruit participants through a ‘civic lottery’ process – the gold standard for recruiting citizens’ assembly members. Letters were sent out to addresses randomly selected from Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File, inviting permanent UK residents aged 16 or over to take part, with the final group chosen through a process known as stratified random sampling, to ensure it was representative of the wider UK population.

The recruitment process meant that every permanent UK resident had an almost equal chance of being contacted, which is likely to have contributed to the Assembly being perceived as credible and independent by participants and the wider public – vital for any citizens’ assembly.

Being established by parliamentary committees also meant that the Climate Assembly could secure the direct involvement and participation of government and parliament, which is not always the case with ‘unofficial’ assemblies. In addition to being launched at a live parliamentary event, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, attended the launch event and welcomed both the Assembly’s recommendations, which he said the government will consider, and the process itself. Sharma stated that the Assembly represented the ‘very best of civil society, it’s people from across the country who have come together, giving up their time, to shape the future on climate action’. He added that: ‘The Climate Assembly has shown us the benefits of working with a dedicated group, one that’s been given time and information to consider the complex issues in full, and we agree with the spirit of your recommendations on greater citizenship involvement around climate change and net zero’ and stating the Assemblies report would help shape the government’s work over the next 14 months. The other MPs attending were also positive about the Assembly process, with, for example, Lilian Greenwood relaying her first-hand positive experience of seeing for herself the ‘energy’ in the room, and Mel Stride praising the selection process and how the sessions were run.

A step in the right direction

Long-term, it remains to be seen how the UK Climate Assembly’s recommendations will be addressed by government, and what kind of further engagement will take place. It is imperative that the Assembly’s work feeds directly into parliament, complementing – not replacing – the work of MPs and government.

But this experience is an important step in the right direction, demonstrating how direct engagement of government, parliament and citizens can take place on long-term issues affecting our country, and how citizens themselves can become more engaged in our democratic processes through deliberative democratic events. Indeed, since participating in the assembly, one of the members has become a parish councillor – demonstrating that, once people are brought closer to politics, they can become much more active and engaged.

The official and unofficial citizens’ assemblies held to date show that this democratic model can work effectively. We have seen how a representative sample of the public can be brought together to learn about and deliberate on significant, complex issues, and make informed decisions.

While the future of our planet is of utmost, critical importance, so too is that of our democracy – we need the vigour and commitment that have been demonstrated in the Climate Assembly to be extended to all our democratic processes. The ERS has long called for the use of citizens’ assemblies and a UK-wide constitutional convention to consider the long-term democratic issues affecting us all – what’s needed is the political buy-in to establish these, so that they might benefit from the legitimacy and credibility that the official assemblies have enjoyed.

It’s now time to adapt this highly successful model to the future of our democracy.

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