The Climate Emergency As A Governance Emergency: A Bold Case For Democratic Reform

The Climate Emergency As A Governance Emergency: A Bold Case For Democratic Reform

On the 20th of September, millions of protestors marched across 85 countries demanding climate action. The image of hundreds of thousands of young demonstrators taking to the streets send a message that time is running out, that an urgent response is needed from world leaders.

Raising alarm, however, is only the first step. Equally important is forging a global consensus on radical action to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change. To make progress, things cannot remain the same. If there is one lesson that the past few turbulent years have taught us, it is that traditional institutions of representative democracy are ill-equipped to respond to the demands of the next generation for climate justice. 

Failures of representative democracy

There are many reasons why representative democracies have produced poor responses to the climate emergency. First, electoral cycles, coupled with a fast-paced digital media environment do not provide politicians any incentive to think long term. It is no surprise that politics has become a game of cheap political point scoring. If the aim of a politician is to make it to the next news cycle, then going for soundbites rather than carefully constructed statements is the way to go. Fearmongering combined with fake news have become a normal part of today’s political conversation. Not even Greta Thunberg has been spared from malicious attacks. To respond to the climate crisis, our representative democracy needs to change the way we talk about politics. 

Second, representative democracies have also suffered from declining trust. Australia, in particular, is suffering from a ‘trust crisis’.  Politics, for many, has become the space for elites to defend their self-interest, not a space to generate new ideas that can work for all. How can institutions of representative democracy promote radical action if they are also a subject of suspicion? 

Thankfully, there are many good ideas out there to get out of this impasse. And one of these ideas is deliberative democracy. 

Fixing the mess together

Deliberative democracy is a vision of politics that places reasoned discussion at the centre of political life. Its key proponents—the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance—are based in our nation’s capital, who, for more than ten years, have gathered evidence about how public deliberation promotes a more respectful, inclusive and intelligent conversation about divisive issues.  

Simply put, deliberative democracy encourages us to fix the mess together by discussing our differences, identifying our common ground, and generating recommendations on how we can do better. 

John Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer, the Centre’s co-founders, have produced over fifteen books and numerous scholarly articles published in prestigious academic journals explaining how the environmental crisis can be best addressed by creating institutions and political practices that promote a culture of deliberation. So how exactly does deliberative democracy work in practice? 

The time for citizens assemblies

Citizens’ Assembly is one example of deliberative democracy in practice. This concept has taken off in many parts of Europe. In the UK, one of the key demands from the Extinction Rebellion protest movement is to convene a citizens’ assembly on climate change. In response,  six select committees of the House of Commons announced that they will convene a citizens’ assembly to address the climate emergency. In France, President Emmanuel Macron responded to the gilets jaunes protests by creating a citizens’ convention on climate change. Meanwhile, German-speaking region in Belgium has recently institutionalised a permanent citizens’ assembly to set the agenda for the parliament.

How exactly does a citizens’ assembly work? There are many models of a citizens’ assembly but there are common features.  First, a citizens’ assembly – or ‘deliberative mini-publics’ more broadly—gathers a stratified random sample of the population to represent the diversity of a constituency. A citizens’ assembly, for example, can have 150 people, that reflect the demographic profile of the country in terms of age, educational attainment, gender, and geographic location. When the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance convened the world’s first Australian Citizens’ Parliament, they used the electoral roll as basis for recruiting participants. 

Why is stratified random selection important? Because it brings together the voices of different citizens in one room. From wealthy conservatives to social justice warriors, from young climate activists to elder climate change deniers, bringing them in one room challenges hyper-partisan echo chambers that we have become so used to by giving everyone the opportunity to have a civil, inclusive and fact-driven conversation, as to ultimately produce policy recommendations based on these conversations. 

The concept of sortition or drawing participants by lot is not new. Quite the contrary, this procedure draws inspiration from Athenian democracy, where public officials were randomly selected from a pool of candidates that would hold actual power during limited periods of time. This isn’t a foreign or distant occurrence either, as modern public juries which are tasked with non-trivial decisions are also appointed by lot.

For sceptics of the power of this process, one could draw inspiration from “America in One Room.” In this project, academics from Stanford University brought together over 500 delegates from 47 states in one room to deliberate on critical issues in the 2020 US elections over four days. “The arguments were heated but not insulting. The questions are probing with a purpose” was how the process was described by observers. 

But it’s not just the diversity of people in the room that makes a citizens’ assembly work. This process gives participants the tools and proper conditions to conduct a well-informed and civil discussion. Deliberation takes time, and so citizens assemblies typically take place over the course of five to eight weekends or over four consecutive days. In this period, participants have access to expert information, as well as opinions of civil society actors, activists, and advocates. The idea is not to sanitise deliberations from contentious views. The idea is to allow participants in small group deliberations and plenary sessions to consider a range of contesting views and work together to weigh the evidence and evaluate each other’s perspectives. 

The final outcome of a citizens’ assembly is a recommendation written by participants themselves to be turned over to relevant institutions empowered to make decisions. Participants don’t necessarily have to reach consensus. It is possible that enclosed in the report are dissenting opinions – just like Supreme Court decisions – and a narration of how participants deliberated contentious issues. 

The exemplary case of the Irish Citizens Assembly

Last March, David M. Farrell, a Professor of Political Science from the University College Dublin and the research leader of the Irish Citizens Assembly visited the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance to talk about the Irish experience on deliberative democracy. 

“Irish politicians were desperate because of the crisis, and so gave deliberation a chance,” Farrell said in our interview. “For a process like this to be successful it needs to have a by-in on behalf of the political elite”, he added. 

Ireland has become the posterchild for citizens’ assemblies. These assemblies are often credited as one critical factor for constitutional changes in the legalisation of same sex marriage and abortion. These social issues, for a long time, were considered no-go topics. “Just before the Irish Citizen Assembly some argued that these weren’t the best topics, that the whole thing would implode. But it worked” Farrell said. 

Over twelve weekends between October 2016 and April 2018, a representative random sample of 100 individuals from across the political spectrum took part in a series of deliberations that produced recommendations, which, in turn, shaped the course of the Irish referendum that changed the constitution.   

This is the make or break factor for Citizen Assemblies. If it is utilised by politicians merely as another token form of consultation with no real political outcomes, then these assemblies are futile. For deliberative democracy to become effective, it must have real impact.  

The impressive aspect of the Irish model is that citizens’ assemblies are not one-off performances of political participation. Moving on from deeply divisive issues, a Citizens Assembly was also convened for climate action, resulting in a series of ambitious recommendations with 100% of participants agreeing that Ireland should set an example to the world through their actions by putting the fight against the climate crisis at the forefront of every relevant ministerial office and phasing fossil fuel extraction subsidies for large companies while investing those financial resources into the future of any affected workers instead.

Despite Ireland not being on track to meet its emission targets at the moment, the government’s recent actions and the follow up on promises based on these guidelines will allow the country to change its course and meet its 2030 emission targets and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The outcomes from the Irish case have become an example for the effectivity of spaces where citizens with strong opposite views are able to have a healthy conversation above the political cycle and hyper-partisan white noise, providing with results that go beyond mainstream politics short-term and self-interest outlooks.

Can it work in Australia?  

The wave of citizens assemblies that has taken off in Europe may not have reached Australia yet but this is not to say that the country has not conducted innovations in democratic reform. A quick look at the website Participedia – an online tool that catalogues democratic innovations around the world – demonstrates that Australia has a compelling story to tell about how government and civil society work together to think of new ways of deepening democratic participation. 

But now, more than ever, Australia needs to go beyond a piecemeal approach to public deliberation. It is a crucial time to convene a citizens’ assembly, especially in relation to climate change.

One compelling reason to do so is a citizens’ assembly provides the space to clarify what exactly ordinary citizens think the government should do to address the climate crisis. So far, the country is giving mixed signals, making it impossible to take meaningful action.

Just take a look at these two seemingly conflicting realities. On one hand, Australia voted in a government that makes no apologies for supporting fossil fuels. Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood proud beside US President Trump, as he heaped praises for Australia’s leading ‘clean coal industry.’ In the same visit to the US, the Prime Minister had the audacity to bring coal baron Gina Rinehart as an official Australian representative to the White House. How can the Prime Minister act this way? Because he can. Because his electoral victory is considered mandate to promote coal. 

But this is just one way of looking at reality. In the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll, Australians ranked climate change as the top threat to Australia’s vital interests from among twelve options while “64% of Australian adults agree climate change is a critical threat”. 

Moreover, 61% of interviewees agreed that “global warming is a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if it involves significant costs” while an additional 28% said the problem should be dealt with, but gradually and at a low expense. This totals an 89% of those who want to see some form of action against the climate crisis. 

What does it take for Australians to translate their individual concerns about climate change to collective action backed by public policy? To consider elections as the only way to get the people’s pulse about major policy issues is a problem, considering the complexity of public opinion.

This is why citizens’ assemblies are helpful. They go beyond the simplification of opinions to a single ballot. It provides opportunities to investigate nuances, map different levels of support and discomfort to a particular position, and give citizens the chance to create recommendations beyond the binaries of pro/anti coal, climate denier/advocate, progressive/conservative. Its goal is not to phase out of the parliamentary system but to enrich how decision-makers understand what the people want. And these ‘wants’ are not whims, but a product of careful deliberations.  

Deliberative democracy beyond citizens assemblies 

To say that citizens’ assemblies are important, however, is not to say that other experiments in democratic reform are not important. Many are also beginning to advocate experiments in direct democracy, where citizens, using technology, can directly vote on bills debated in Parliament. Italy’s Five Star Movement is one example of a party that uses this model, where its members have a direct say on key decisions, such as whether to build a coalition with the Democratic Party.

These experiments are worth investigating, but one thing remains for sure: politics cannot be driven by impulsive decision-making, even more when we are deciding on what to do with a climate emergency. Routinely taking part in political decision-making is taxing for citizens, and even more taxing if they are made to do so without processing key information and opinions surrounding the issue. 

And this is why deliberative democracy presents a promising approach to politics today. Aside from convening structured forums like citizens’ assemblies, deliberative democracy also advocates a broader public conversation across different stakeholders – from civil society organisations to protest movements to political parties. Many institutions are crucial to democratising Australia in a deliberative direction. Our media must be hospitable for thoughtful debates. Our online culture must change from celebrating clickbaits and trolls to finding online spaces where we can listen across difference. Our schools could teach the value of learning to hear the other side rather than focusing on winning the argument. Many can be done to promote deliberative democracy beyond the forum. 

We live in an age of political mistrust, confronted by a young generation who are fighting for their right to exist. It is indeed time for radical action. And this can start by reforming the way we conduct our national political conversation. 

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank renowned sociologist Nicole Curato as editor for this piece and intern supervisor, as an appreciation for her tremendous support, kindness and valuable lessons.

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