Climate Assembly UK tells British politicians to act faster on climate change. France and Ireland echo its message.
LONDON, 28 September, 2020 − A random group of United Kingdom citizens, Climate Assembly UK: The path to net zero, has delivered an uncompromising verdict on the British approach to the climate crisis: do more, and don’t delay.
The UK is not alone in demanding urgent action. Presented with detailed evidence about the effects of climate change, citizens’ assemblies in two other European countries have come to identical conclusions; we have to make immediate progress, and we must change the way we live.
The most striking common feature about the views of the assemblies convened in Ireland, France and the United Kingdom is that the measures their governments are currently taking are grossly inadequate to tackle climate change.
Policies that politicians have shrunk from imposing on their voters for fear of a backlash have suddenly been urged on them by their own citizens. In Ireland and France this gave both governments the courage to promise to implement most of the assemblies’ recommendations. The UK report released on 10 September has yet to receive a full response, but the signs are encouraging.
The assemblies in each country were composed of a random selection of people to represent all ages, sexes and social groups, first to hear evidence and then to recommend action, including giving clear guidance on priorities.
A similar set of proposals came from the citizens in each of the three countries.
“The Earth can live without us, but we can’t live without her… It is a question of life or death”
On energy they wanted more renewable technologies, wind and solar, to replace fossil fuels.
All three assemblies favoured a reduction in air traffic, taxes on frequent flyers, the phasing out of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, encouragement for all things electric, the insulation of homes, and energy efficiency.
Changes in what we eat – particularly less meat – were also common features. More local production both of food and other goods was important.
There were detailed recommendations, with for example the French suggesting statutory rules on turning central heating thermostats down to 19°C, and not using air conditioning until temperatures reached 30°C. They also advocated lowering the speed limit for cars, to reduce their emissions.
All the reports also wanted more green spaces, places for wildlife and improved habitats.
The reaction of participants, some of whom knew very little about climate change before being selected, is perhaps best summed up by a quote from the French report: “We have lived together, during nine months, an unprecedented and intense human experience, that led us to become conscious of the imperious necessity to profoundly change the organisation of our society and our ways of life…
“The Earth can live without us, but we can’t live without her… It is a question of life or death.”
Vested interests object
One of the characteristics of this new form of democracy – the citizens’ jury – is the lengths the organisers have to go to in order to select a cross-section of the community. This ensures that all political views are taken into account as well as age, class and race. But as the French experience shows, taking in vast quantities of information about climate change and sharing this experience with others has a profound effect.
In theory the recommendations these juries make should be accepted by all, since the groups have been selected to represent everyone in the country, but it is clear that vested interests are not prepared to do that.
For example, the UK’s right-wing Spectator magazine said of the results of the French assembly: “The problem with citizens’ assemblies is that their members don’t, unlike elected politicians, actually have to deal with the consequences of their breezy and idealistic proposals.
“In the first place, they are rarely representative of the entire population: in France, 25,000 people were approached to see if they wanted to take part; most refused, and 150 were chosen.
“Most of those are people with an agenda, who are prepared to give up entire weekends in return for a stipend of £74 (€86) a day plus expenses: in other words, political activists and people with time on their hands.”
Similarly, within days of the British assembly members having heard a great deal of expert evidence making it abundantly clear they wanted more renewables, onshore and offshore wind and solar power, rather than more nuclear energy, the nuclear industry poured cold water on their judgement and preferences.
In a long article offered to the Climate News Network extolling the virtues of nuclear power in fighting climate change, Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association, said he was pleased that the assembly wanted to see low carbon ways of producing electricity.
He added: “It is, however, disappointing to see that what this model of engagement was touted as delivering – an understanding of the complexity of decisions that need to be made – is all but absent when it comes to the future power mix.
“There are two lessons in this – firstly, for experts, industry and decision makers to have to communicate much more effectively on the reality of the challenges and the choices they open up. Secondly, that simplistic statements of the impossible made either through wishful thinking or wilful ignorance will not aid decarbonisation – but only increase reliance on burning fossil fuels and the emissions that come from them.”
So it seems that however hard organisers try to select a cross-section of citizens and provide them with clear evidence, there will be an immediate political backlash.
Whether it is climate scientists or citizens’ juries fearing for the future of civilisation, vested interests are always prepared to rubbish what they say. Perhaps though, now that voters (in the form of citizens’ assemblies) have added their voices to those of scientists, politicians will finally have the courage to act on their recommendations. − Climate News Network