A group of 110 British citizens have been tasked with creating new recommendations for tackling the climate crisis in the UK. It remains to be seen if the suggestions will be taken onboard. By Alex Lee, first published in Wired 28.01.20 as Will the UK’s Climate Assembly actually make any difference?
Over the weekend of 25th and 26th January, 110 randomly-selected people travelled to a secret location in Birmingham to listen and learn. They were given a simple remit: to deliberate how the UK should deal with the climate crisis, the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. And they’ve got four weekends to come up with some answers.
The participants were picked and brought together after six House of Commons select committees resolved that the climate – and more specifically, the UK’s path to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – should be discussed by a citizens’ assembly. The method consists in mustering a representative group of citizens to discuss contentious issues, with the aim of resolving them by the end of the assembly.
This past weekend, the assembly members listened to expert presentations breaking down the complexities of climate change. Over the next three weekend sessions, the assembly will engage in a series of in-depth discussions and, eventually, will issue a set of recommendations for the select committees to review.
“It’s been really tiring, really full-on,” Amanda Short, a project manager from Kent tells me after the assembly’s first sitting. “Every minute was taken up by work, and decisions, and discussions in our groups.”
This exercise is intended to bring ordinary people into the decision-making process; in other countries, citizens’ assemblies have sometimes helped break the deadlock over complex topics on which politicians have failed to come to an agreed solution. The method has already been used in France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Poland and Ireland to move climate policy forward.
Hailing from all four corners of the country, from all walks of life and differing backgrounds, the representatives sitting in the UK climate assembly were chosen to reflect the wider population. The idea is that a small randomly selected sample meeting a number of demographic criteria would be representative of the country as a whole.
The selection process was conducted by the non-profit organisation Sortition Foundation, which was founded in 2015 with exactly this task in mind. But how do you randomly – and fairly – select an assembly to tackle such a crucial issue? For the UK’s climate assembly, the organisation used its own software to randomly select 30,000 UK addresses from the Royal Mail’s database. Twenty per cent of those 30,000 were picked from the most deprived postcodes in the country.
“It was to skew our typical registration, which usually goes against more deprived areas,” explains Sortition Foundation co-founder Brett Hennig. “We see a higher registration from the richest areas, so it was just to correct some of our typical initial skewing.”
In early November 2019 – five months after the committees commissioned the creation of the assembly – 30,000 invitation packages landed on the doorsteps of the chosen individuals, inviting them to take part in the initiative.
“I had no idea that it was happening, and when it came through, I was quite excited about it because it seems like something that is quite important and could make a big impact,” recalls 17-year-old Max from Hertfordshire, one of the youngest attendees, who is currently studying for his A-Levels.
Out of that 30,000, about 1,800 people replied, which Hennig says is “a good turnout”. The invitees had to fill in an online form, declaring their age, gender, level of education, ethnicity, where they live and their attitudes to climate change. What the software does is comb through the responses.
It starts by filling the most difficult to fill demographic category with the people that match those details. The individual is, again, randomly chosen from those who are flagged up in that specific category. This process is repeated, says Hennig, until the software has everyone from the necessary demographics in the various combinations of their geography, age, attitude to climate change and so on. And, to be clear, means that the assembly includes a fair share of climate change sceptics.
Sarah Allan, head of engagement with Involve, which is running the assembly together with the Sortition Foundation and the charity mySociety, says that including sceptics is necessary for the exercise to be truly representative. “Just because they’re sceptical of climate change, they shouldn’t have their voice denied,” she says. “They’re going to be affected by the steps the government takes to get to net zero by 2050 too.”
Assembly member Amanda Short says that, while she disagrees with the people who think climate change is a myth, “everyone was really civil to each other”.
Diversity aside, the question remains of whether this sample of the populace can indeed find a solution to climate change within four weekends. Phillip Williamson, honorary reader at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, is suspicious. “What the panel is being asked to do is extremely ambitious and challenging. It is unreasonable to expect non-experts to develop novel and workable solutions over a few weekends,” he says.
Williamson adds that the path to net zero by 2050 is an extremely technical question, with many socio-economic and environmental implications. “The panel will need to be exposed to and understand a lot of complex information very rapidly, taking account of many uncertainties,” he says.
“But it seems a wasted opportunity not to also ask the panel both at the start and at the end of the exercise whether they think it could be done more rapidly and find out whether their opinions had changed as a result of their discussions,” Williamson says.
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Addressing participants, David Attenborough spoke of how the UK’s fixed-term parliaments could see politicians failing to prioritise climate change.He told the first citizens’ assembly on climate that having a five-year government leads to a lack of long-term planning. He said one of the problems with Parliament having a fixed length of five years is that the effects of climate change may only be felt much later.
“It is very difficult to persuade politicians that they should give money and time and attention and worry about an issue which is not going to come to a climax – and people won’t know if it is successful or not successful – for 10 years hence, 15 years hence,” he said.