As societies and governments around the world more urgently prioritize addressing climate change, the relationship between this cause and democratic politics has become the focus of much debate. Some iconic environmental figures argue that democracy needs to be put on hold to address the climate crisis. Others make the inverse argument that more and better democracy is needed to address climate change and related environmental issues.
Qualitatively different forms of democratic engagement are required to advance democracy and climate action at the same time. Climate assemblies have drawn much attention as a vehicle for democratic participation on energy transition issues. While these assemblies offer valuable deliberative spaces, so far they have had a limited political impact and insufficient connections with actual policymaking processes. It is therefore important to explore other innovative and complementary forms of public engagement on the climate agenda. In particular, alternative territorial governance arrangements can provide useful lessons on long-term citizen engagement and more seamless connections between citizens and government officials, thereby complementing other forms of public deliberation such as climate assemblies.
One such experiment is under way in the French metropolitan area of Orléans, where civic organizations and local policymakers have pushed for the development of a new climate-focused “social contract.” Several organizations in Orléans have worked together to create a novel French-made forum for better integrating public and private views on the climate transition. Lessons from this experience could be useful for other cities and regions as they, too, seek to advance the cause of climate action.
The Orléans-Style Democratic Approach to Climate Action
The traditional approach to environmental governance in France is largely technical, sectoral, and expert-driven. The management of environmental issues largely has been within the purview of specialist public agencies, government experts, and niche firms and consultancies. But this technocratic approach is limited as it fails to garner public involvement in and consent for difficult environmental policy choices. Such an approach risks reaching decisions that are not understood or supported by the public and that, therefore, do not have the political drive needed to spur more radical change.
This traditional approach to the environment has begun to give ground to new approaches. Amid recent public calls for innovation on deliberative and participatory governance and a wave of consultations that have taken root across France on issues of sustainable energy and the environment, there now seems to be greater room for integrating citizens’ views and specialists’ expertise on climate action. The launch of the EU Climate Pact in mid-December 2020 was a further sign of the changing times, as an increasingly diverse range of grassroots groups and citizens strive to make their voices heard.
Many climate assemblies have sprung up across Europe in the last several years, allowing randomly selected citizens to suggest how climate goals should be met. The French Citizen Convention on Climate is the highest-profile example of this most common forum for citizen deliberation. The French government has introduced legislation incorporating suggestions from this assembly, albeit only around half of its proposals. Although the convention has pushed “officials to tackle issues they’d sometimes prefer to avoid,” the experience has left many climate activists and the assembly’s participants disappointed.
A new climate action movement driven by public participation is sweeping across France. The Orléans Métropole is part of this wave, together with many other metropolitan areas such as the Angers Loire Métropole and the Lille Métropole as well as higher levels of local government including departments like Haute-Vienne.
The Orléans Métropole consists of twenty-two local councils and municipalities. Orléans adopted a Sustainable Energy Climate Action Plan in 2018 to “become an energy positive territory by 2050.” To ensure a bold and resilient climate transition, the Orléans Métropole is developing a new, innovative approach intended to mobilize long-term participation from Orléans citizens.
Several organizations have cooperated to give such channels for public participation a particularly novel form. One key output was a report commissioned by the EU’s European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which included contributions from several groups including Bankers Without Boundaries, Dark Matter Labs, Material Economics, and Democracy Society (where the authors have past and current affiliations).
These efforts took shape as Assises de la transition écologique, or forums for ecological transition. The Assises model draws on a peculiarly French homegrown type of forum where citizens, experts, and elected officials within local authorities and other public agencies aim to design policy solutions together. (By contrast, standard citizen assemblies do not usually directly involve elected officials, though legislatures may incorporate some of their recommendations into law.) Officially launched on January 12, 2021, this participatory model has taken up key areas of the Orléans Métropole’s Sustainable Energy Climate Action Plan. Many people expressed an interest in being part of the process.
Through the Assises model, a host of actors have been meeting in thematic working groups with participants from the métropole’s twenty-two municipalities. Each of the nine thematic working groups is led by a mixed group composed of one elected representative from the metropolitan area, one civil servant with technical expertise on the topic, and one representative from civil society. The themes under discussion include food and sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, biodiversity, sustainable cities, waste reduction and the circular economy, water resources and ecosystems, energy innovation, mobility, and flooding risks.
These topics were chosen by local councils and civil servants, together with a steering committee formed by the mayor of Orléans. Groups of citizens, experts, and others then meet together in the working groups, which span multiple metropolitan areas, to discuss action-based climate plans. The groups tend to have less general deliberation than standard citizen assemblies and focus more on having participants advance practical action together. The steering committee reviews the groups’ proposals to ensure that they add up to a coherent shared vision. These proposals on practical action will eventually become part of the Orléans Métropole’s investment plan, the instrument for allocating government resources and coordinating government interventions on the ground. Alongside these official working groups led by the Orléans Métropole, civil society actors are organizing various forms of interactive and deliberative events to mobilize local residents around climate-related issues. The whole process is set to conclude in June 2021.
An official Assises website has been created to galvanize citizens’ interest and participation.
Citizens and groups can choose of their own accord to join the Assises and pick their preferred topical areas or events. A diverse spectrum of activities—including experts talks, co-design workshops, and trainings—have been organized to ensure that a wide range of people and groups engage. Diverse representation from local councils across the Orléans Métropole’s twenty-two municipalities was considered a key need; that said, the need to move the whole process online due to the coronavirus pandemic has made diversity more difficult to achieve, given some communities’ lower access to digital tools.
The main ambition of the Assises model is to accelerate the ecological transition to foster a durable, dynamic, and resilient metropolitan area. Its democratic method revolves around mobilizing a diverse range of actors and generating ideas for practical solutions that can spur an ecological transition. The Assises in this sense are meant to provide a space for the co-creation and co-production of ideas that can inspire policymakers in the Orléans Métropole.
The structure of the Assises initiative is based on several core democratic tenets. First, there is a need for a bespoke approach to democratic design tailored to each local political context. Second, the Assises model champions the notion of devolving power to local policymakers in a spirit of “civic environmentalism.” Third, it advocates inclusive collaboration between citizens and authorities aimed at achieving shared outcomes. Fourth, the forum is designed to involve social movements alongside individual citizens.
The Assises process in the Orléans Métropole is meant to shape the metropolitan government’s priorities on climate action for the next five years. Designed by the mayor of Orléans (by virtue of his role as the Orléans Métropole’s vice president) and supported by the chairperson of the Orléans Métropole, it offers a metropolitan-wide ecosystem of stakeholder engagement by rallying a diverse cast of local actors (including experts, economic actors, and civil society more broadly) to ensure that all parties are represented at the metropolitan level.
The Assises initiative has set ambitious goals for itself and already has planned several further steps. The administration will create and support a metropolitan network of city champions dedicated to the promotion of a sound ecological transition and citizen participation. It will launch a network of elected officials and civil servants focused on climate transition issues. Local officials also aim to set up a transition school to train civil servants working in the Orléans Métropole on systemic change, climate and transition issues, public cooperation, and citizen mobilization.
Key Lessons for Effective Climate Action
While it is too early to discuss the outcomes of the Assises, the forums seem to be a promising way to make citizen participation on the climate transition more mainstream. It will likely help build capacity and engagement among elected officials and scale up existing initiatives to amplify their long-term effects.
The Assises and the ways they relate to key local governing bodies were pragmatically designed to boost public participation in light of citizens’ concerns over reshaping cities to address climate change. This model was premised on the idea of learning by doing, given that constant adjustments and recurring learning are needed to support effective long-term climate action. The democratic design is meant to start small and only promise what can be delivered so as to incrementally increase citizens’ participation over time.
The Orléans Métropole’s experience foregrounds a vitally important innovation that goes beyond the standard climate assembly model, namely the way that elected officials and civil servants have been offered training on the climate transition and democratic participation, given the push for direct and ongoing contact with citizens. This shows there are ways of bridging the often-observed gap between participation and representative democracy. As elected officials develop skills and knowledge on citizen engagement, co-design, and co-creation methodologies, they are sharpening their capacities and building infrastructure for the long haul. Such signs of progress reinforce the idea that engaging with movements, civil society actors, and citizens on these matters is worthwhile, making a participatory approach more the norm rather than an outlier.
The Assises model of democratic engagement was rooted in factors specific to the Orléans Métropole. Shifts in electoral political realignments presented opportunistic openings. Local elections in June 2020 (followed by indirect metropolitan elections the following month) brought into office government officials who share an ambition to make policy conversations on the green transition more participatory. This momentum crystallized in the creation of a steering group that is representative in terms of party affiliation and includes civil servants from different local councils.
The Assises process built on other opportunities and resources that were available in this locality. These included a fully functional digital platform from the city of Orléans for enhancing active public participation (Participons), a platform that had already been successfully used for the city’s participatory budgeting and various other public consultations. The Assises process also drew on a growing proliferation of climate-focused social movements and civil society organizations in Orléans specifically. The climate-focused French NGO Alternatiba Orléans and its local chapters, for example, published a visual explainer assessing each electoral candidate’s climate-related pledges and grading each parties’ program accordingly.
The lesson here is how important it is to capitalize on political openings or tipping points decisively as they arise. In the case of the Orléans Métropole, such an opening arose in what was previously considered an unexpected place for bold climate action. In July 2020, the newly elected Metropolitan Council produced an unexpected broad-based coalition, which brought together city representatives with various center-right, center-left, and left-leaning political affiliations. This coalition demonstrated that climate action can sometimes muster sufficient consensus and transcend political differences, even in cities not run by conventionally ecofriendly majorities.
Even with the positive advances the Orléans Métropole has made, this experience has also revealed challenges that still need to be overcome. One issue is that—while formal processes can be put in place—constructive, participation-driven forums require a deeper shift in working cultures at many different levels of government and more active attitudes toward political responsibility. These shifts take time to materialize.
Another challenge for climate-related governance concerns is how to coordinate citizen involvement at different levels. Typically, citizens are concerned about the living conditions in their immediate neighborhoods. As many responsibilities that used to fall within the remit of local councils have been taken over by metropolitan agencies, citizens often do not know who does what or who is responsible for what.
While municipal governance creates opportunities for a strategic approach to the climate transition, questions of legitimacy have also been raised, since members of metropolitan councils in France are not directly elected by citizens. This shortcoming has been highlighted in a recently published Manifesto article by a French institute of professionals focused on citizen participation. Metropolitan areas are one step removed from citizen engagement, and most of the relevant processes in the Orléans Métropole have been driven by municipal political elites and civil servants so far. That same French institute has noted a gap in local democratic politics between participative debate within the local councils and decisionmaking at the metropolitan level. This is because competencies for climate action rest with the metropolitan authorities, while those for citizen participation rest with individual municipalities. This situation shows the importance of embedding democratic engagement at the levels where key climate-related policymaking actually happens. More synced-up approaches are needed to ensure that climate-related policymaking has a democratic bent from the start.
Compared to standard climate assemblies, the Orléans Métropole model offers political elites a more active role at all stages of the process. Its unique blended composition involves citizens, civic activists, academics, and economic actors alongside strongly committed civil servants and elected officials. It is a more solution-oriented approach, so the working groups are spaces for action more so than discussion, a forum where citizens and other actors can help implement agreed-on solutions. Assises are usually built around a topic where conflict and a diversity of opinions are evident. The process starts by seeking to build a shared understanding of the problem at hand, acknowledge the diversity of opinions, and identify shared benefits and common ground for action.
In terms of long-term impact, the Assises seem—at least on paper—to be more promising. This is because of officials’ direct political engagement and because the processes for making decisions and adopting solutions has already been established from the outset. Although the process does not involve legally binding obligations, the political involvement of elected representatives should help build momentum to implement the resulting recommendations and ensure the exercise has a permanent impact.
Conversely, there are elements missing from the Assises that are present in the climate assembly model. One of the biggest advantages of the climate assembly model is that it builds civic skills and greater trust in democracy. How much the Assises will have these kinds of benefits is open to question. The way in which consent is built into the dialogue model of the assemblies is also something missing in the current design. In the working groups, co-design and co-creation methodologies predominate, and consent is pursued through doing more so than discussing, with negotiations between different interest groups revolving around practical action.
Some combination of the two models would be a significant advance in the future. The Assises model and the climate assembly model have different aims and designs. However, a mix of the assemblies’ deliberative component and the Assises model’s political strengths would help take democratic participation around climate action into a promising new phase.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Open Society Foundations for their support for this work.
Ian Babelon is a researcher at Northumbria University investigating digital tools for collaborative urban planning and sustainability in the built environment. His PhD thesis assesses the contribution of digital participatory platforms in urban planning. Working as a local officer for Democratic Society in the Orléans Métropole, Ian participated in the collaborative design of the Assises for the ecological transition.
Nadja Nickel is the program director for climate at Democratic Society. Her work focuses on addressing the climate challenge by addressing the democratic challenge, ensuring a healthy, clean future that benefits everyone. Previously, Nadja was the managing director of WithoutViolence, a nonprofit advocacy agency for the social sector. Nadja holds a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies from Uppsala University in Sweden.
Paola Pierri is a researcher on democratic theory and is currently head of design and research at Democratic Society. She has a background in political theory and holds a doctorate in design anthropology. Previously, she taught and researched various topics, including social movement theory and design for policymaking.