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Can citizen deliberation address the climate crisis? Not if it is disconnected from politics and policymaking

A large number of national climate assemblies have been set up across Europe to enable citizens to make climate policy recommendations. But do these bodies have any impact? Drawing on new research, John Boswell, Rikki Dean and Graham Smith argue that greater attention should be paid to how these assemblies can be integrated into the world of politics.

The headlines from COP27 were not exactly a source of optimism for the cause of addressing the climate crisis. We heard on a daily basis how national leaders – democratically elected or otherwise – continue to prioritise economic imperatives and balk at committing to meaningful action. Could directly engaging citizens shake leaders out of their torpor on the climate?

Hope has been crystalising around the potential of citizens’ assemblies to provide a new impetus on climate policy. One such initiative, the Global Citizens’ Assembly, was launched by civil society groups to coincide with the previous COP meeting in Glasgow. They are promoted by organisations as diverse as Extinction Rebellion and the OECD. And the last six years have seen a ‘wave’ of experimentation, with high-profile national climate assemblies conducted across major European countries.

Citizens’ assemblies are an established tool for bringing together randomly selected members of the public to evaluate evidence, engage in structured deliberation, and reach considered recommendations for policy action. The hope is that gathering everyday citizens together and getting their informed views on climate policy could cut through the structural inertia and noisy public sphere that surround this issue. So, how have these experiments fared in practice? Do they offer a way out of the climate bind?

Climate assemblies

Modelled on the deliberative democratic ideal, much of the attention on climate assemblies focuses on their internal features. The emphasis is on their novelty in providing respite from the partisan bickering of politics-as-usual, instead creating space for the respectful free and fair exchange of reasons.

On these grounds, the Global Citizens’ Assembly in 2021 and experimental ‘wave’ of climate assemblies across European countries are promising. Participating citizens have demonstrated they can grapple with complex information, deliberate respectfully, and come to a well thought-through set of recommendations that are – every time – more progressive than current climate policies.

But, before we get carried away with this enthusiasm, it is important to focus on a fundamental point usually glossed over. Assemblies are too often talked about in magical terms, as if by their moral weight alone citizen recommendations will win the day through the forceless force of their arguments. But this expectation is naive.

Designing for impact requires much more attention to the nitty-gritty of how policy actually gets made. That means taking seriously the technical uncertainties and complexities associated with policy interventions, and confronting the political challenges and trade-offs required in balancing priorities in the shadow of powerful interests.

In a recent study, we have examined the first six national climate assemblies – in Ireland, France, the UK, Scotland, Germany and Denmark – to see how they tried to achieve impact. Our novel approach is to take the focus away from their (very similar) ‘internal design characteristics’ – such as random selection – and instead put it on their ‘integrative design characteristics’.

Who do climate assemblies need to influence to have an impact?

A common assumption in the theory and practice of citizens’ assemblies is that they should target their influence at one empowered actor – usually their commissioning body. But policy is almost always made by constellations of actors across a variety of institutions. Even in the French example, where the assembly was commissioned directly by President Macron, it was not in his gift to simply enact the recommendations without the intervening influence of other important institutions that had been side-lined during the process.

The lesson is that rather than focusing on a tight connection with one empowered actor, we need to ask how climate assemblies can be integrated into the complex constellation of institutions and stakeholders that make up the climate governance system. Identifying the range of actors an assembly must interface with would make them less reliant on the influence of any one institutional champion.

How do climate assemblies relate to political actors and institutions?

Assemblies are imbued with two political hopes – that they foster better policy by taking the partisan ‘heat’ and bitter stakeholder rivalry out of contentious issues, while also galvanising a wider transformation of public opinion for radical action. But what if these goals are incompatible?

We find our cases tended to prioritise one or the other. Most concentrated on providing depoliticised recommendations to policymakers, accommodating the political status quo through mechanisms like stakeholder oversight and advisory panels. The French case, in contrast, prioritised political transformation. It had a bigger impact on public debate, but at the expense of adding further ‘heat’ to the issue.

Whispering in the ear of policymakers is a different kind of activity to transforming public debates about climate. The two require operating with different levels of politicisation, and this trade-off has to be factored into assemblies’ attempts to connect with civil society and influence the public sphere.

Through what means can climate assemblies maintain influence?

Assemblies are typically imagined and designed as one-off events to be injected at a critical juncture into the policymaking process. But the policymaking process is not a stable or predictable cycle. It is almost always long, drawn out, iterative and frustrating. In this context, who can speak on the assembly’s behalf once the event has been and gone?

Again, we found evidence of different approaches to the challenge of sustaining influence. Some, such as the UK case, relied informally on elite champions to reiterate and amplify the recommendations of the assembly in the low profile and ongoing sites of climate policy discussion. Others sought to mobilise participants. Most dramatically, in France, the assembly sparked the emergence of a social movement – Les 150 – comprised of participants committed to scrutinising developments and pursuing climate action long after the formal deliberations had finished.

But these developments trouble the standard understanding that the legitimacy of citizen assemblies and their recommendations is based on the participants’ representativeness of the population. Are Les 150 still ‘representative’ if not all participants are still equally involved? And how much flexibility do elite champions have to adapt assemblies’ recommendations to the changing policy context? Assemblies’ adaptation to the pragmatic challenges of policymaking is running significantly ahead of the normative theories that justify their use.

Overall, the variety of approaches to the integrative design of climate assemblies raises important complexities and questions for the assembly model. At the very least, these findings warn us against viewing citizen assemblies as uniform, off-the-shelf governance solutions, whose impacts can be predicted solely from their internal characteristics.

Climate assemblies are no magical substitute for politics-as-usual. More attention must be paid to the difficult decisions and trade-offs that characterise their integrative design challenges. Who they connect to, how, and through what means they maintain influence will play a large part in determining if they are an impactful intervention into climate governance or not.

For more information, see the accompanying paper in Public Administration

First published @ the LSE European Public Policy Blog,

7 December 2022

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