A lot of stock is being put in climate citizens’ assemblies (CAs) to help solve tough political issues. In recent months, two high-profile climate assemblies—in France and the UK—proposed hundreds of measures and recommendations; and more climate assemblies are planned in Germany, Scotland, Spain, and beyond.
A big reason for the surge of interest in climate CAs—and other deliberative mini-public fora—is the lack of confidence in, and poor track record of, conventional policymaking in tackling climate change. In fact, CAs and mini-publics are now being pushed as a fix to pretty much every knotty policy issue, whether it’s COVID-19 or democratic failure.
But do they work? Will CAs really help address the climate crisis? In short, they could, but assemblies need to help citizens understand the scale and urgency of the challenge, use robust rules and procedures, and create genuine public debates that touch all parts of society. By comparing the respective strengths and weaknesses of the French and UK assemblies, it’s clear that some improvements would increase the chances of achieving results.
French and UK Assemblies Compared
The French and UK events happened simultaneously, but while they shared some similarities, they were different in many ways—not least the proposals generated.
|Key Aspects of the French and UK Assemblies|
|Climate Assembly UK (CAUK)||Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (CCC)|
|Framing question||How can the UK reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050?||How can France reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent (from the 1990s level) by 2030, in the spirit of social justice?|
|Participants and selection||108 (sortition and stratified sampling selection according to seven criteria)||150 (sortition and stratified sampling selection according to six criteria)|
|Budget||520,000 British pounds ($672,139)||5.4 million euros ($6.34 million)|
|Duration||Four months (January 25–May 17, 2020)||Nine months (October 3, 2019–June 21, 2020)|
|Process||Three in-person weekend sessions and three short online weekend sessions due to the coronavirus pandemic||Seven in-person weekend sessions and one online weekend session due to COVID-19|
|Political sponsor||Six parliamentary select committees1||President Emmanuel Macron|
|Public awareness||No poll available yet to assess the extent to which the British population has heard of CAUK||In June 2020, a Réseau Action Climat France poll showed that seven out of ten French people had heard about the convention’s proposals|
|Lead delivery organization||Involve||Missions Publiques, Res-Publica, and Eurogroup consulting|
|Number of final recommendations||More than fifty recommendations, covered in a 556-page report||149 measures, covered in a 460-page report|
Three Major Similarities
Each assembly was initiated in the wake of protests. The CCC was a response to the yellow vests protests, which were fueled by a proposed carbon tax increase and eventually came to define the divide between citizens and Parisian elites. The CAUK was initiated following the UK Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in May 2019, which came on the heels of protests initiated by the movement Extinction Rebellion in April 2019. The movement’s third demand for a citizens’ assembly on the climate and ecological emergency generated momentum for climate CAs across the UK.
Each CA followed a broadly standard format, which includes time for learning, deliberating, and voting. The CAUK and the CCC involved a similar number of people (108 and 150, respectively), who were selected by sortition and stratified sampling to ensure that they reflected their country’s population. Both assemblies were split into groups that explored different topics. Three groups of thirty-six people covered four themes for the CAUK: how people travel; in the home; what people buy; and food, farming, and land use. And five groups of thirty people covered five themes for the CCC: housing, traveling, eating, consuming, and working and manufacturing.
In both cases, citizens have generated far more ambitious policies than politicians have ever come up with. Of course, it’s too early to say whether the CAs will have a significant impact on climate policy, but there is good evidence that the assemblies have had a significant and immediate effect on the climate policy environment in London and Paris. Down the road, the events could be seen as key moments of a step change in climate policy for both countries, but only time will tell.
Eight Major Differences
France’s budget was nearly ten times that of the UK’s. Obviously, the amount of funding has a huge impact on what can be done, and comparisons of assemblies therefore must be seen through this prism.
The CCC was cast as a political chamber, whereas the CAUK existed to inform a political chamber. From its inception, the CCC was highly political. When Macron announced the convention on April 26, 2019, he said there would be “no filter,” implying that he expected the convention to generate policies that would be enacted either through a national referendum, parliamentary vote, or directly through executive orders. From that moment on, the convention was infused with political power that shaped everything—from employing public law experts to ensure that the proposals were legally robust to supporting citizens’ role as spokespeople for the convention. And, of course, the national press started to take note.
The UK process in contrast was cast as an apolitical, independent, rigorous, and deliberative research process to inform policymaking. CAUK was sponsored and partially funded by six parliamentary committees, which ensured it was hard-wired into parliament. There were, however, no individual members of the governing party imbuing the process with political power. Even funding of the assembly had to be gathered mostly from foundations (77 percent of the total budget), making the arrangement good value for money for parliament but raising questions about the government’s commitment to the endeavor.
The CCC’s civil society representatives had a formal, active role in shaping the agenda, whereas CAUK’s civil society members did not. For instance, Gilets Citoyens (Citizen Vests), the civil society representatives on the governance committee in France, had an active role in determining the convention’s framing question. By contrast, it was the UK’s parliamentary committees that set the CAUK’s framing question, without input from the citizens’ advisory panel (which included representatives of Greenpeace and youth organizations). Climate activists raised concerns almost immediately that the CAUK was not ambitious enough, and when considering each assembly’s final recommendations, it’s hard to dispute that the French approach was more ambitious.
CAUK participants were supported to be independent and as representative of “ordinary” people as possible, whereas CCC participants were encouraged to engage with politics. The CAUK aimed to keep the participants as independent as possible—to maintain their representativeness as so-called ordinary citizens. To that end, they were not encouraged to speak to the media, to do additional research on the topic of climate change in between sessions, or even to speak to their own families about the issues at the time of voting.
In France, it was the opposite. the CCC’s citizen participants were given a greater role and agency in seeking outside input. Participants were encouraged to speak to the media and engage with their communities and members of parliament. Working together to generate collective intelligence, they created their own WhatsApp groups to freely communicate between themselves without any third-party interference, they had access to an online platform (J’enparle) to increase engagement, and they attended webinars to support the learning process and maintain momentum between sessions. Many CCC participants started acting as defacto representatives—in some cases, speaking on behalf of the whole convention (or sometimes their region) to the media and gathering input from those they believed they were representing.
The CCC’s citizens were able to shape the process in a way that the CAUK’s citizens were not. With input from experts, the 150 French citizens participating created 149 measures, including recommendations not originally in the convention’s remit, such as on ecocide or on specific trade agreements (one proposal, for example, asks for a moratorium on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). Also, upon the citizens’ request, a seventh session was added and experts of their choosing were invited. This illustrates a fundamental difference between the two CAs. The CCC was a political chamber where citizens built collective intelligence to influence policymaking; by contrast, the CAUK was a deliberative exercise to inform political chambers (parliament). The UK citizens were consulted on predetermined policy options developed upstream by experts, which generated high-quality robust data, but the citizens were not supported to shape the agenda or process or to come up with their own measures. On the other hand, the French citizens co-created policy measures with input from experts.
The CAUK was structured and facilitated, contrasting with France’s more collective self-organizing approach. For many who specialize in developing participatory processes, one of the most surprising aspects about the CCC was the absence of table facilitators.2 The French table discussions were more likely to be dominated by certain people, and it is typically trained facilitators who (in theory) ensure that all voices are heard and discussions stay focused and productive.3 As a whole, the French process was far less technically rigorous than the UK process. The UK process had clear, agreed-upon ground rules for participation, which were reiterated at each session; the French process had none, trusting citizens to self-organize and self-regulate.
The CAUK was designed to support a social appraisal of predetermined policies, whereas the CCC was a policy development forum. The CAUK’s objectives were to allow citizens to express their personal views—informed by relevant “balanced, comprehensive and accurate” information—and to deliberate as a group on predetermined policy proposals. Each workshop followed a format of presentation, deliberation, and voting so as to generate a high-quality social appraisal of the policy proposals. However, although all 108 citizens voted on larger issues (such as electricity generation, the underpinning principles of the UK’s path to net-zero emissions, and greenhouse gas removal from the atmosphere), some proposals were only voted on by the issue-specific subgroups of thirty-six citizens. This approach raises questions as to the legitimacy of the proposals not voted on by all participants, which will have to be a key consideration for any future CA design. As a result of the format, the support of each proposal varied.
By contrast, the CCC aimed to generate and finalize policy proposals through collective intelligence and consensus, respectively. All the proposals were refined over the six sessions before all 150 participants cast their votes in the final session on June 20–21. The 149 proposals were grouped into forty-three blocks of one to thirteen measures. The proposal refinement process and single voting session are likely what generated high levels of support.4 Many of the recommendations received over 95 percent support, which is striking.5
The CCC generated a national debate, while in comparison, the CAUK received far less attention from the public. According to polling a week after the CCC vote, 70 percent of French citizens had heard of the CCC. The process generated a genuine national debate at breakfast tables, cafés, and restaurants across France. According to a poll by Odoxa, the French population supports most of the 149 proposals, an insight that subsequent research has confirmed. This public endorsement has generated a very powerful mandate for change.
Despite some national press coverage of the UK assembly, the CAUK was never designed to create a genuine national debate, and it didn’t. Public awareness of the assembly will likely remain many times lower in the UK than in France.
Improving Climate Assemblies
Many agree that both CAs raised the climate policy bar significantly, but is it enough to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 or to address the climate emergency more widely? To answer this question, two interrelated questions must be asked first: Are the proposals sufficient? And will they get implemented?
No one can say with certainty that the proposals are sufficient to get France and the UK to net-zero emissions by 2050. In France, experts involved in the convention struggled to assess whether all the measures together would lead to the interim target of a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.6 And civil society and citizens are skeptical that politicians will even implement the recommendations.7 Macron has already been criticized for cherry-picking his favorite proposals, and the UK government has not yet committed to picking any.
Furthermore, it’s clear that a successful approach to climate change requires action far beyond what climate assemblies have proposed so far. Well-respected climate scientists believe that “climate progressive” nations such as the UK and Sweden will still fall far short of Paris Agreement targets and that the earth’s rise in temperature is unlikely to stay under a safe threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is increasing evidence from economists and scientists that system change measures—such as removing government subsidies for oil and gas or forcing pension funds to divest from fossil fuels—must be considered to feel confident that the policy mix will lead to net-zero emissions by 2050. Such measures were not on the table at either CA; one way to get them included in future CAs is to assess proposals precisely in terms of the scale of emissions reductions they are capable of delivering—whether transformative or incremental.
Climate modeling is getting ever more accurate and worrying. Much of last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was focused on the possible consequences of climate change (for example, looking at the cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding—such as Mumbai in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Miami in the United States, and several cities in Western France and northern parts of the Netherlands—and asking which parts can be saved). This kind of data was not shared at either CA, and although it’s inherently uncertain, it does reflect scientists’ best estimates of the effects of climate change. Had the data been shared, it could have helped citizens understand both the scale of the challenge and the scale of the necessary response.
So, even if the French and UK exercises demonstrated that citizens are better placed than politicians to provide the ambitious leadership necessary on climate, the next generation of CAs needs to go a lot further in addressing the underlying systemic drivers of the climate emergency. This involves being explicit about the need for ambitious systemic change, sharing with citizens the best available forecasts of climate impacts and possible responses, and supporting citizens to emotionally engage with the issue. Emotional engagement is often overlooked but critical for a systemic response, as many people respond to the bleak consequences of climate change with either fight (anger) or flight (denial). People need support to emotionally assimilate to the reality of the situation.
Against this backdrop, ten design principles could help make the next generation of climate assemblies even more impactful:
- Make transformative or incremental change a conscious choice. Citizens need to be supported to understand the difference between transformative and incremental change and develop recommendations through that lens.
- Be future-focused by sharing all possible scenarios. Citizens need access to data that provide the best possible guesses regarding the effects of climate change, but the data should be presented in a tangible way to illustrate the real consequences for people’s lives locally, nationally, and globally. The scenarios should not be sugarcoated but rather include both the bleak and optimistic forecasts and the likelihood of each occurring.
- Look at mitigation and adaptation as two sides of the same coin. Neither CA focused on climate change adaptation, but even if the Paris Agreement target is met, people’s lives will still be impacted by issues stemming from climate change—such as sea-level rises and food and water security—matters that citizens will have important views on. Citizens should at least be given the choice to discuss adaptation.
- Design a highly robust independent process. Mainstream climate politics are characterized by passion and polarization. Therefore, it is vital that the CA process and its governance are beyond reproach. Key decisions—such as on the agenda, the selection of experts, and who votes on what—need to have a robust and publicly defensible basis.
- Maximize representation when possible. CAs gain credibility when they can claim that the whole population is represented. And, of course, the greater number of people involved, the more representative the process will be—to give an analogy, the more pixels you have, the truer the picture will be. Size matters, especially when working on politically charged topics, because politics is a numbers game. Processes involving more people are more resilient to political scrutiny.
- Create a national debate. Perhaps the most impressive statistics coming out of the CCC were that 70 percent of all French people surveyed had heard about the convention and that 62 percent were supportive of most measures, which—other than the more contentious motorway speed limit reduction from 130 to 110 kilometers per hour—were considered realistic and effective. This not only generated a powerful mandate for change but also a movement of people who engaged with the convention via the media, discussed it with their friends and families, and are now putting pressure on their politicians to implement the recommendations. All future CAs should aim to generate a similar national public debate.
- Create, and build awareness about, the CA with the involvement of civil society, citizens, government, businesses, and the media. Having all the involved actors set the framing question, agenda, and voting method is essential to ensure buy-in. Allowing citizens to influence the agenda fosters ownership and creativity, and involving the media is necessary to create a national debate. Also, given the key role of businesses, it’s important for them to be seen as partners in the process.
- Foster emotionally intelligent participation. As already mentioned, many people find it hard to emotionally digest the possible traumatic impacts of climate change, leading them to either downplay their scale and urgency (known as flight) or become part of a highly polarized debate (known as fight). Most climate CAs today do not provide emotional support and stick to what might be called type 1 communication (a simple exchange of opinions) or type 2 communication (a discussion of beliefs and values). Instead, CAs should engage people in type 3 communication (a fostering of governing sentiment that addresses people’s hopes and fears). This is not group therapy but rather, as described by Professor Otto Scharmer, a precondition to developing transformative responses with the critical benefit of dissolving group polarization.
- Explore how change happens. Probably the biggest block to the impact of any CA is “politics as usual.” Even if an assembly has the support of decisionmakers (for example, members of the executive, such as Macron) as well as their commitment to not filter the recommendations, politics can get in the way, as already seen in France. AmericaSpeaks—which pioneered citizen summits and twenty-first-century town hall meetings (in many ways the predecessor to CAs)—supports participants to understand the wider political environment of how change happens. Sometimes this approach results in citizens’ acting as advocates for their processes, and sometimes it involves developing specific recommendations in light of the environment. Either way, it means that the processes are wise to the demands of realpolitik.
- Generate hope by design. Although the vast majority of people now believe that climate change is an urgent challenge, there is still little hope that much can be done about it. Many people think that this lack of a positive narrative on tackling the crisis is perhaps the biggest barrier to creating political momentum for change. Anecdotal evidence suggests that both CAs generated significant hope and agency in their participants. Therefore, CAs, especially those that seek to spark national public debates, could become important creators of new hopeful narratives.
Climate Assemblies and Democracy
Climate CAs were primarily created with the hope that they could help break the logjam in climate action. And the resulting proposals tend to be judged by their contribution to tackling climate change. But an equally important question is how such assemblies contribute to democracy—and whether a positive impact on climate action and on democracy necessarily go together.
To answer this question, it’s helpful to go back to democracy’s fundamental principles and ask: what is the point of democracy? In his seminal 1859 essay, “On Liberty,” John Stewart Mill argued that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The foundation of any system of government must be to keep people safe. So, in theory, if CAs help better protect people from climate change, then they are contributing to democracy’s core function and are a source of legitimacy.
Yet assemblies do not always have such a clear benefit for democratic governments. They do not necessarily help win elections. For example, the last Irish government successfully won support for a suite of reforms by referendum that were in line with its CA’s recommendations. Yet Fine Gael, the party that initiated the CA, lost the election in February 2020 as a range of other factors undercut its popularity.
This gets to the heart of the tension between CAs and democracy. Citizens expect politicians to fix their problems and reward those who best look after their interests. But, increasingly, national politicians struggle to solve problems like climate change that require international cooperation and don’t have easily implementable policy fixes. Citizens then end up seeking strong leaders who are “willing to break the rules” of democracy. For CAs to sit comfortably within conventional democracy, it is vital to instill political leadership that can admit and explain uncertainty to the public and get rewarded for it. The public needs to view the leadership’s initiation of CAs as the intelligent and brave thing to do. The world is not there yet.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Open Society Foundations for their support for this work.
Claire Mellier is a researcher and facilitator. She was part of the facilitation team at Climate Assembly UK and one of the accredited researchers who observed France’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. She is currently working with the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST) at Cardiff University on a comparative analysis of the two climate citizens’ assemblies. The research findings are due to be published at the beginning of 2021.
Rich Wilson is the director of OSCA and a democracy renewal specialist. In 2004, he founded Involve and has since set up numerous democracy initiatives; advised governmental bodies such as the UNDP, OECD, and WHO; and led hundreds of deliberative processes.
1 This list included the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee; Environmental Audit Committee; Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee; Science and Technology Committee; Transport Committee; and Treasury Committee.
2 Each of the CCC’s five thematic groups comprised thirty citizens. Each group was moderated by one lead facilitator and supported by a facilitator/notetaker, but there were no facilitators during the breakout sessions of smaller groups. For the CAUK, each of the three thematic groups comprised thirty-six citizens, who were then divided into smaller groups of seven people, with one facilitator per group.
3 Qualitative data collected by the researchers observing the table conversations, as well as quantitative data from the research questionnaires, provide evidence on the impact of the absence of table facilitators.
4 In the CCC, the citizens participating challenged the voting methodology. The method had not been discussed in advance with the citizens, which raised questions about the integrity of the process.
5 As reported by the author, Claire Mellier, who observed the assembly meetings as an accredited researcher.
6 The potential of the CCC measures to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 has not been comprehensively assessed. Only rough estimates of the impact (low, medium, and high) of each measure were provided to citizens, with no assessment of their combined impact. The experts group put these estimates together and sent them to the citizens only days before the vote was held during the final session.
7 Seventy-three percent of French people believe that the country’s executive branch will only implement a small proportion of the measures.