Scott McLean – 11th November 2021
The Impact of Extraordinary Citizens’ Voices on Climate Policy
After her speech at a climate justice rally in Glasgow’s George Square last Friday, Ayisha Siddiqa, a climate and racial justice activist from northern Pakistan and co-founder of Polluters Out, tweeted that she hadn’t been prepared for the tears she saw in the crowd in response to ‘the pain of the earth’.
The platforming of marginalised voices in the context of climate policy brings impactful new perspectives into the arena. Frankly, it matters whose voices are being heard in a climate policy arena – if it didn’t, fossil fuel corporations wouldn’t have scrambled to secure Cop26 passes for over 500 sympathetic lobbyists.
Voices that have been systematically excluded from climate policy processes are often the extraordinary, difference-making voices we need to hear from. They impact both people’s experience of the climate crisis itself, and their perceptions of fairness in a climate context.
The value of including a diversity of voices in climate policymaking formed the basis of a Cop26 event in the Multilevel Action Pavilion on Friday, as Scotland’s Climate Assembly (SCA), France’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (French Climate Assembly, or FCA), the Global Assembly, and the Glasgow Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Emergency teamed up to talk up the many merits of participatory democracy on climate solutions.
“We hear the viewpoints of fellow assembly members, ordinary Scots from across the country, so we understand each other in a way that governments just can’t. That understanding, and the listening to new voices comes through in our recommendations.”
Speaking after Friday’s event, SCA member and Glasgow resident Nadine captures a point also made by Global Assembly members from Syria and Ecuador: involving of marginalised voices in climate policy deliberations is not a luxury, it is fundamental to fairness.
The citizens’ assembly model of participatory democracy is effective in empowering extraordinary voices, and, because of this, has a unique impact on climate policymaking.
A New Policy Frontier
In opening their process to new voices that have front-line experience of key climate policy issues, citizens’ assemblies’ commissioning authorities create a viable route to the ‘just’ part of the transition we all hear about.
Without the input of assemblies that are adept at connecting these new voices to policy outcomes, it’s difficult to imagine how top-down legislatures could ever truly create ‘just’ policy. Imposing solutions upon the people most affected by the climate crisis is not the road to justice.
Expanding the range of perspectives and voices in the process broadens the horizon of policy solutions. Where national governments tend to be skewed towards being more representative of society’s privileged and elite, citizens’ assemblies’ members are chosen by sortition processes designed to create bodies that are as broadly representative of their places as possible; the Global Assembly even used a NASA database on human population densities to pick 100 geographical points on the planet to guide the selection of locations from where it enlisted members.
As a result of a similarly rigorous process, the FCA is a more idyllic representation of France’s population than the Assemblée Nationale, the country’s lower chamber of government. Disappointingly, out of 577 representatives elected to the chamber in 2017, zero were from the socio-professional background labelled workers, whereas the FCA was designed to include ten members from a working background.
This stat is hardly shocking – in many conventional career paths, workers are not empowered become politicians, with a exception being many trade unionists will forage paths into wider politics. All the same, a political chamber that is void of the lived experiences of an entire socio-professional class, also lacks the capacity to have a firm handle on what fairness looks like to that class. By harnessing lived experiences atypical to policy-making processes, citizens’ assemblies increase a system’s capacity to innovate new solutions, and in doing so create a new frontier for climate policy.
In response to a question asking what it was like to deliberate fairness in climate policy with such a diverse group of members, former FCA member Amandine illustrated how their assembly enshrined fairness in its work:
“We really set out to articulate this respect for fairness and social justice, and there was a proposal that was really important for the FCA which was the design of a new national food solidarity to enable low-income households to have access to sustainable food.
“It’s really important that sustainable food is globalised. It’s in the path to the fair and resilient world of tomorrow, but not everyone can afford it so we decided to include this supplementary tool to help people afford it.”
The supplementary tool Amandine refers to is a sort of food stamp system that equips lower income people to make more sustainable food choices.
Through an informed understanding of the need to create more sustainable food systems, and a compassionate grasp of the needs of people who simply cannot afford a more sustainable diet, the FCA created a proposal ambitious enough to have a climate impact that also includes a mechanism to avoid compounding existing inequalities.
Similarly, in addition to recommendations to retrofit all existing homes by 2030 and to adopt a national standard to which homes should be retrofitted, Scotland’s Climate Assembly has a recommendation stating that grants be made available to facilitate homeowners with the process. Further still, the latter recommendation states that grants should prioritise houses living in fuel poverty.
While climate assembly recommendations cannot always be guaranteed to reflect wider public sentiment on potential solutions, it is known that being subjected to impassioned insights from fellow members during deliberations does shape an assembly’s final policy outputs.
When an assembly member takes the opportunity to tell their peers that the measure they are proposing will marginalise them, they listen. Opportunities to discover new angles of fairness are designed into the assembly process rather than having it left to chance that a less diverse body will succeed at imagining all potential negative impacts on those without a seat at the table.
All four assemblies involved in Friday’s event were commissioned to answer a question relating to either fairness or justice, meaning members are mindful of those principles as they deliberate climate policy. Fairness and justice become the focal point of their mission, which is not the case with most top-down climate policymaking.
Imagination and Justice
The idea of a policymaking body with 50% female representation, equal north-south, or rural-urban representation, and a fair representation of social classes is a distant dream for many elected chambers, and the present reality of citizens’ assemblies.
The growing urgency in the movement for just solutions to the climate crisis needs the imagination of a broadly representative body, and the consent of the wider public right now. Imagination and a palatable standard of fairness are commodities in policymaking with which citizens’ assemblies can subsidise governments that are struggling to deliver on climate pledges at the required scale.
So far, these four assemblies have deliberated climate solutions for nine, six, one, and three months. Three out of the four have delivered a suite of proposals more ambitious than anything that had previously been on the table, and the Global Assembly will publish its final report on the 2021 Assembly in March 2022.
At a speedy rate in policy terms, citizens assemblies feed proposals that can often include vital new trade-off options back into often deadlocked, partisan political processes, proposals that already pass muster with high standards of fairness and expectations of climate justice.
Even in cases where political impasse threatens to stifle climate assemblies’ progress, their impact is tangible. With the FCA, the most advanced of these four assemblies, participatory democracy sceptics are quick to point out that recommendations did not make it ‘without filter’ to the point of a national referendum as Emanuel Macron promised they would.
However, even against a political head wind, the Assembly has impacted climate policy in France. Lise Deshautel, former advisor to the government committee of the FCA, and founding member of the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies states:
“Regarding policy outcomes, some of the 149 have been translated into a law for climate and resilience adopted by the French Parliament this year. Some proposals have been discarded or weakened in their impact, but there is no denying that the Convention has mothered policy measures including restrictions on air travel, a ban on renting out poorly insulated properties from 2028, and measures to improve sustainability in France’s food system – and that’s not an exhaustive list.”
The FCA’s impact has proven itself to be dynamic and continues beyond its initial remit and proposals. More than half of former members remain active in the movement in capacities that include TV appearances to continue their advocacy for recommendations, trips to climate conferences to advocate for assemblies at large, and standing in – and winning – local and regional level elections. This is an alluring precedent for the other three assemblies and climate assemblies the world over.
From its outset, the Global Assembly plans to scale-up to 1,000 people in their second year of activity, and to eventually become a permanent fixture in global decision-making. Rightfully so -there is value in including marginalised voices in climate policymaking, and that principle isn’t finite.
Article written by Scott McLean, Project Officer for the Secretariat of Scotland’s Climate Assembly
Photos by Shannon McLean taken at the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march in Glasgow on 6/11/21: for more information, email Shannon.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cop26 Multi-Level Action Pavilion Event – “We Have Agreed, Will You? – Citizens’ Recommendations for Fair and Effective Action on Climate Change.”
- Scotland’s Climate Assembly
- La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat
- Glasgow Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Emergency
- Global Assembly
- Scotland’s Climate Assembly explainer video
- A group of international experts on sortition visit La Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat
- An introduction to the Global Assembly