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Citizens' Assemblies: Democracy fit for a crisis?

Ruby Russell
October 7, 2019

Extinction Rebellion is demanding politicians step aside and let the people decide on climate action. Could citizens' assemblies be a democratic tool fit for the scale of the crisis?

Green color on hands during climate protest
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A. Pitton

Over the next two weeks, protesters will be taking to the streets in 52 countries to demand urgent, radical action on the climate crisis.

Extinction Rebellion emerged in the United Kingdom last year, blocking London's major traffic routes, stripping off in the House of Commons and deliberately seeking arrest in defense of the future of the planet.

At the center of their message are warnings of "mass extinction" and an "unprecedented global emergency," and three seemingly simple demands.

They want a "climate emergency" declared, something the British government did earlier this year. Then there's carbon neutrality by 2025 instead of the commonly touted 2050

Their third demand is for the public to drive climate policy through a citizens' assembly. Because parliamentary democracy — under pressure from lobbyists and fearful of big trade-offs — has proven unfit for such challenges, said Linda Doyle of Extinction Rebellion.

Read moreExtinction Rebellion: The activists risking prison to save the planet 

"It's inherently not able to solve them because it's just based on short-term election cycles and that encourages short-term policymaking," she told DW. "We believe that the British public should have the power to sit down and learn and deliberate with their peers and decide how we're going to respond to this crisis."

Summer Uprising Protest
Some argue citizens assemblies can help bridge the gap between people and parliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Haria

Model of the moment

The Canadian province of British Columbia pioneered the concept in 2004, when it entrusted 161 of its citizens with proposing a new electoral system.

Since then, it's been used on a local level in Poland, and in South Australia to decide on the fate of nuclear waste. Madrid and the German-speaking region of Belgium are making citizens' assemblies a permanent feature of their democratic systems, and in France they've become part of the national debate in response to the yellow vest protests.

Most famously, it was a citizens' assembly that broke decades of political deadlock in Ireland to usher in legal abortions and same-sex marriage.

Extinction Rebellion is convinced that, if properly informed and given time to deliberate, randomly selected citizens "will understand the sense of urgency that everybody in Extinction Rebellion feels," said Doyle. "Then it will be just a matter of trying to figure out the best way to deal with this situation."

That's a big "just."

Read more: German Extinction Rebellion activists chain themselves to chancellery

As complex and emotional as the debate over abortion was in Ireland, the issue could be boiled down to a yes/no question. Policy-wise at least, decarbonizing the economy is a challenge on another scale.

Radical in scale

The Irish assembly did also address climate change, and agreed on 13 proposals to cut emissions — including tax hikes — by a majority of at least 80%.

Having met and deliberated over two weekends, it put recommendations to a parliamentary committee that turned some of them into a climate action plan published in summer 2019.

Extinction Rebellion protests in London against climate change
Environmental campaigners at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London glued themselves togetherImage: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

But Extinction Rebellion has bigger ambitions than the "surface-level" proposals made by the Irish assembly, said Doyle.

The activists want an assembly that dives deep into climate science and questions of environmental and social justice, before focusing in on areas such as transport, agriculture and housing. And they want any decision reached with a two-thirds majority to be binding on governments. 

Not everyone agrees on this last stipulation. 

Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University, said citizens' assemblies need to work with existing democratic institutions, not bypass them.

"There is a role for parliament to then take in the results of the assembly and scrutinize them, as they will scrutinize any other piece of legislation," Escobar told DW. "Those checks and balances are crucial."

Radical in scope

The selection process is also delicate. To be truly representative it has to take in a great number of demographic variables — age, gender, income, education, geography and so on.

Escobar said viewpoints also need to span the range found in society, including participants with no strong existing views, and even a proportionate number of climate deniers.

Read more: Psychology behind climate inaction: How to beat the 'doom barrier' 

"They need to be witness to the whole process, and they need to be then spokespeople who will speak to their own community of views about what transpired in the assembly," said Escobar. 

Extinction Rebellion, of course, wants to ensure debates extend to the other end of the ideological spectrum, too, and to give time to far more drastic proposals than are currently on the political agenda — like its 2025 net-zero demand.

The British government is launching a national Climate Change Citizens Assembly this fall "to inform political debate" on how to reach net zero by 2050 — "a death sentence for many people around the world," said Doyle. 

Activists from Extinction Rebellion New York City (XR-NYC) engaged in nonviolent direct action to confront climate change outside City Hall
Making citizens assemblies truly representative will mean also including those not engaged with the issueImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

Doyle is also concerned the British assembly won't address the biggest steps the country could take.

"Plastic straws and plastic bags and flying are good things to think about," she said. "But really, we need government level action," such as banning fracking, ending fossil fuel subsidies and punitive action against the biggest emitters.

Bridging streets and parliaments

Ending the use of taxpayer money to dig up and burn fossil fuels might seem like a no-brainer to those marching with the global climate strike last month, yet so far, no European government is taking serious action to do so.

Proponents say citizens assemblies could bridge the gap between people and parliament.

"It's not enough to have a powerful movement on the streets to be able to get something done," said Escobar. "You also need some kind of mechanism that connects the streets to the institutions."

A performance group stage a silent demonstration outside Downing Street
Extinction Rebellion wants assemblies to debate how to reach net-zero emissions by 2025Image: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

This summer, Camilla Wilkinson, who teaches architecture at Westminster University, participated in an assembly that put local climate protection proposals to London's Camden Council.

Wilkinson told DW that participants were energized over the idea of a cleaner, greener Camden, but that the process sharpened their sense of the political pitfalls of policies.

Read more: In New York, global climate protesters plead for action 

"It's such a difficult thing to get your head round, that you have to pay huge amounts of money to maintain the status quo." 

Mandate for tough trade-offs

However that's perhaps one of the model's strengths — giving elected officials a powerful mandate to make tough decisions.

"Abortion in particular, but also climate change, were topics that politicians didn't really want to touch," says Diarmuid Torney, who was on the Expert Advisory Group for the Irish climate assembly, "and so they handed it over to a citizens assembly that came up with a set of recommendations that then allowed politicians to go forward with policymaking."

Torney says the Irish assembly resulted in climate being given a central place in parliamentary decision-making — in a country that had been a laggard on its protection.

Although he admits the scope was limited, much has changed in the two years since the assembly first convened, too. The sense of urgency — among scientists, the public and political experts like himself — is far greater now.

"We've had the IPCC 1.5 degree report came out last autumn, Extinction Rebellion didn't exist two years ago," Torney says, "If we were doing it today I think we might think differently."