We need a system change

This is an emergency. The economic and political structures ordering our biosphere are in crisis. The climate crisis and ecological impoverishment are big, wide-ranging and complex problems. Hence a holistic system change is needed urgently. Over the last 40 years, the electoral system has proved incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency. Politicians simply can’t seize issues that don’t bear political fruits within an election term.

A Citizen’s Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice offers a way out of a political dead-lock. It will empower citizens to participate in decision making more directly and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash.

Citizens’ Assemblies are representative of society with particular attention paid to hearing from those who  have no representation or voice in our current political systems. They can address structural inequality, and consider how to mitigate the impacts of the changes on the most vulnerable people.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

Citizens’ Assemblies are innovative processes that can empower people, communities and entire countries to make important decisions in a way that is fair and deeply democratic.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will bring together ordinary people to investigate, discuss and make recommendations on how to respond to the climate emergency. Similar to jury service in British and American justice systems, members will be randomly selected from across the country. The process will be designed to ensure that the Assembly reflects the whole country in terms of characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. Assembly members will hear balanced information from experts and those most affected by the emergency. Members will speak openly and honestly in small groups with the aid of professional facilitators. Together they will work through their differences and draft and vote on recommendations.

A Citizen’s Assembly can be organized independently by non-governmental organizations or in collaboration with the state. It will empower citizens to actually work together and take responsibility for our climate and ecological emergency. This is the fairest and most powerful way to cut through party politics.

This isn’t pie in the sky – it’s proven practice. Citizens’ Assemblies around the world have shown that ordinary people can understand complex information, weigh the options, and make informed choices. Examples include IrelandCanadaAustraliaBelgium and Poland.

Citizens’ Assemblies are used to address important issues that electoral politics can’t fix on its own. In recent years, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly broke the deadlock on two controversial issues: same-sex marriage and abortion. The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly informed public debate and provided politicians cover to make the necessary changes. A subsequent Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change produced a series of recommendations that were incorporated into the Irish government’s action plan.

In Finland deliberative democracy has aided decision making on a smaller scale in the form of citizen’s juries and panels. The city of Turku offers the most recent example of a series of citizen’s panels organized to inform the decision makers on developing the transportation system of the inner city. 172 randomly chosen residents deliberated in 21 citizen’s panels via internet calls during spring 2020. The researchers from Åbo Akademi and University of Tampere studying the citizen’s panel found out that the deliberation had a significant effect on residents’ opinions turning more favourable of public transport and car-free traffic.

How do citizens’ assemblies differ from people’s assemblies?

Both Citizens’ Assemblies and People’s Assemblies give ordinary people the opportunity to discuss and reflect on important issues. Professional facilitators provide structure to the discussion and ensure no one dominates. However the purpose and structure of Citizens’ and People’s Assemblies is very different.

Citizens’ Assemblies are made up of ordinary people who are randomly selected from the population, similar to jury service. The selection is done in a way that ensures that Assembly members accurately reflect the whole population in terms of key characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, education level and geography. This means they will better reflect and represent the interests of the entire population. They also have a structured learning phase in which members hear from experts and different groups affected by the issue. Citizens’ Assemblies are usually focused on informing policy and are particularly useful on issues that are too controversial or long-term for politicians to deal with by themselves. It is a formal process that takes months to plan, and a Citizens’ Assembly can last from a few months to over a year.

In contrast, People’s Assemblies are organised discussion forums open to anyone who would like to attend (i.e. self-selected). A People’s Assembly is a way to structure meetings with a large number of people and can be used to generate ideas, discuss issues and make decisions. People’s Assemblies can last between one and four hours and can take place anywhere — such as in occupied spaces such as roads and city squares. They have often been used in revolutionary movements, for example, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the Gilets Jaunes.

Introduction to People’s Assemblies and the Three Pillars

People’s assemblies create a space in which each participant is respected and listened to without judgement. The three pillars are a way to provide a safe space and support empathetic interaction allowing all to share and to be listened to.

1. Radical Inclusivity

Creating a safe space where everyone can be heard, participate safely and openly without fear of judgement or ridicule and be valued equally also means being aware of potential barriers to engagement.  We try to consider potential barriers to engagement (e.g. disabled access, sign language, interpretation and, crèches).

2. Active Listening

Active listening is focusing on hearing people before developing a response in your mind whilst someone is still talking. Active listening is vital as it enhances our capacity to empathise; when we fully listen to others, we gain more of an understanding of people, their views and their concerns.

3. Trust

Once the process for a people’s assembly has been agreed, it is essential that participants trust the process and trust the facilitators. The facilitators enable this trust by sticking to the agreed process and ensuring that everyone follows too.