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The citizens mapping Germany's future in climate protection

June 7, 2021

A diverse group of 160 German citizens have until the end of June to present their recommendations for climate protection to the government. DW spoke to two participants.

Christiane Dienel moderates the first virtual meeting of the citizen's council
The first virtual meeting of the citizens' council took place on May 24 and was moderated by Christiane DienelImage: Bürgerrat Klima

"I am a climate sinner, I have to admit that," says Adnan Arslan with a smile. The 32-year-old production supervisor from the western town of Velbert near Düsseldorf regularly drives to the supermarket and to work, though it is just 3.5 kilometers away. But that could soon change.

Arslan is part of the "Bürgerrat Klima" or Citizens' Assembly, an experiment in participatory democracy. The assembly is currently hashing out recommendations for the federal government on how Germany could achieve its own climate goals and still be climate-neutral by 2050.

Since the campaign kicked off in April, Arslan — a self-confessed car enthusiast — says his attitude towards climate change has undergone a "180 degree turn."

"I also talked to my wife," he told DW. "Now I'm thinking, 'ok, could you use a bike, maybe an e-bike?' You start to think [about things like that]. It's different."

Climate democracy or "subscription trap"?

Adnan Arslan is one of 160 members of the citizens' assembly. They were all selected via a lottery system based on demographic data such as age, education level and their federal state or migration background. The idea was to represent a cross-section of Germany.

From postal workers to pensioners, meat-eaters to vegetarians, train enthusiasts to BMW drivers, Arslan says the discussion groups include people from "across society."

Council member Adnan Arslan
Council member Adnan Arslan never thought he would one day be dealing with climate policiesImage: Adnan Arslan

Political beliefs played no role in the selection process, and Arslan himself wasn't interested in climate issues before getting involved. Initially, he thought the call inviting him to participate was a scam.

"Honestly, at first I thought it was a subscription trap or something," he said. "I was among the 160 they randomly chose from 80 million people? I didn't believe it."

But he quickly realized there was more to it and that politics were involved. "I thought that was cool and then I really wanted to take part."

"What do I have to contribute?"

Ulrike Böhm, a 46-year-old product photographer from Bavaria, was also skeptical when she received her invitation to the council.

"Somehow I found the idea of 160 people discussing a recommendations catalogue for the government really terrible," she told DW. "Because, I thought, what do I have to contribute?"

During her school days, Böhm helped to organize a leaflet campaign and a sit-in for vegetarian food in the school canteen. Today she describes herself as someone who "swarms with the masses", although she tries not to be "a complete pig" when it comes to consumption.

"I see citizen participation as a very big issue," she said. "Because our society often works along the lines of 'those in power do what they want anyway'. This is definitely a great opportunity to get people more involved." Both Böhm and Ardan Arslan are now deeply involved in the citizens' council discussions.

Council member Ulrike Böhm
Ulrike Böhm says she would take part in the citizen assembly again, no matter the final outcomeImage: Ulrike Böhm

Juggling many different interests

By the end of June, the participants will have come together for 12 video calls to discuss energy, transport, climate and construction issues, as well as the production and consumption of food. The perspectives within the assembly on the core question of how climate protection can be managed in a socially, ecologically and economically compatible way are just as diverse as the topics themselves.

"One person takes the train to work and says train tickets are getting more expensive, even though politicians want him to use public transport," said Arslan. "And another says they like driving their 200hp BMW and don't want to do without it. I'm surprised how people really think about all this."

The citizens' assembly is supported by experts who give lectures, provide relevant information and are available to answer questions. "There is so much input," Böhm said. "My background knowledge has multiplied in the last few weeks."

Exactly what the group's recommendations to the government will look like remains completely open. But they may include implementing a higher carbon tax, increasing subsidies for e-cars or solar energy, or incentivizing less meat consumption and more sustainable agriculture practices. 

For Böhm, it's already clear that there are many different interests among the participants. "Of course they all have their justifications to a certain extent," she said. Now, the most exciting — and difficult — challenge for them will be to find a solution that everyone can live with.

Participants gather at the central studio for the citizen's council
All discussions and lectures for the assembly are moderated from a central studioImage: Bürgerrat Klima

"This is unique in our family"

Arslan has also begun talking to some members of the assembly about more personal matters. To be thrown into a group of strangers during the coronavirus pandemic and exchange ideas is exciting for him. The son of Turkish parents, he is proud to be a part of the nationwide experiment.

"We lived in a tower block," he said. "All my neighbors were of Arab or Turkish descent. We didn't have many German friends because there weren't many around. I never have thought I'd get to participate in something like this. We weren't allowed to vote. So to be part of this now is really unique in my family."

The recommendations of the citzens' assembly will be finalized at the end of June and handed over to the government in September before the general election. The participants have high expectations.

"I'm not expecting my recommendations to be adopted one-to-one," Böhme said. "But I think a democratic society should work on the basis that voices or wishes of society are heard and incorporated accordingly."

Regardless of any major political decisions made down the line, the many lectures from climate experts and discussions within the group have had an impact on Arslan's views when it comes to climate protection.

"What has impressed me most is how much you can contribute if you immerse yourself in the topic," he said. "Even just by drawing attention to certain things among your friends — even really small things — you can actually make things happen."

This article was adapted from German.