Stephen Elstub

Time is running out to address the climate crisis and yet politicians continue to fail to introduce policies to address the emergency sufficiently. The importance of public input into formulating a strategy to deal with climate change is increasingly acknowledged. As part of this we are seeing more and more citizens’ assemblies organised on climate change related issues across Europe, but also the globe. To what extent can Climate Assemblies make a valuable contribution to helping society address the climate emergency? Stephen Elstub suggests key lessons can be learnt from the Evaluation of Climate Assembly UK.


Climate Assemblies

Citizens’ assemblies are a type of mini-public, which recruit a group of the public to consider a topical issue and produce recommendations on how to deal with it. The participants are diverse with respect to demographics, but also sometimes regarding views on the issue, due to the random and stratified sampling approach to recruitment. They are provided with a range of information on the issue from each other, experts, and advocates. Their discussions are facilitated to promote deliberative norms such as inclusion, justification, and respect, of views. A climate assembly is a citizens’ assembly that addresses an aspect of the climate crisis.

It is thought that they could be useful for considering issues like climate change because, unlike elected politicians, assembly members do not need to win votes, respond to present day public and media opinion, and they are less likely to be the target of lobbyists. The assembly members can then approach the issue in a less partisan manner, are perhaps more likely to have an open mind than elected representatives, and can take a long-term view.


Climate Assembly UK

One notable recent example is Climate Assembly UK which was commissioned by six select committees from the House of Commons to provide recommendations on how the UK can achieve Net-Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It engaged 108 participants in learning, deliberation, and decision-making on this topic over three in-person weekends in a hotel in Birmingham and (due to the coronavirus pandemic) three online weekends, between 24 January and 17 May 2020.

The evaluation of CAUK included surveys of the participants, observation of the process, content analysis of the discussions, interviews with assembly members, MPs, parliamentary staff and civil servants, analysis of the media coverage, and a three wave survey of the public. It provides some valuable lessons about the role of climate assemblies and climate change.

Our evidence suggests that the citizens’ assembly format is a useful way for enabling people with a variety of views to engage with complex issues like climate change and decarbonisation. Firstly, there was quality deliberation between the assembly members throughout the process, even when the assembly moved online due to COVID-19 related restrictions. In particular, the discussions were inclusive and respectful, which is impressive given that climate change believers and sceptics were involved. Secondly, we found that the assembly members learnt more about climate change and decarbonisation through the process, from the expert and advocate witnesses, but also from each other. This is important given the complexity of the issue. Thirdly, there is evidence that this learning contributed to many participants changing their minds. For example, many assembly members thought that achieving net zero carbon gas emissions by 2050 was more achievable at the end of the assembly, than at the start. Such views can be important for the climate response.

However, our evidence further highlights the extreme challenges the climate assemblies face in having an impact on broader climate change debate and policy. To date, the impact of Climate Assembly UK has been limited. The Climate Change Committee, the government’s independent adviser, drew on the assembly recommendations to inform its Covid-19 recovery report and its Sixth Carbon Budget. The assembly has been debated in the House of Commons, and it has influenced a number of select committee inquiries. However, there’s been little impact on the UK government and public awareness of the process was rather low too. These two factors are inter-linked. Our interviews with government civil servants indicated that Ministers would have been more inclined to adopt the Climate Assembly UK recommendations in policy if public awareness had been high.

A further related challenge for climate assemblies is the scope of the climate change issue. A lot of time needs to be made available to do the scale and complexity of the issue justice. This was not the case in Climate Assembly UK, consequently the assembly members were split into three topic groups (how we travel; in the home; and what we buy and land use, food and farming) to create a division of labour, but this meant that not all of the recommendations were endorsed by the whole assembly. Our interviews with government civil servants suggested this diluted the impact of Climate Assembly UK on Government as the assembly members were not speaking with one voice.

These limitations are not inevitable though. With a broader public engagement strategy beyond the hundred participants more members of the public could be aware of, and engage with, future climate assemblies. More time could be given to future climate assemblies given the breadth of the climate change issue. If sufficient funding is not available to do this, then the Assembly members could be empowered themselves to narrow the remit the Assembly will address, and thereby avoiding splitting the Assembly. If both measures are followed, then the Government may find it more difficult to ignore the recommendations of future climate assemblies.

For a fuller version of our study, please see our Report: Evaluation of Climate Assembly UK

And open access paper: The Scope of Climate Assemblies: Lessons from the Climate Assembly UK

Stephen Elstub is a Reader in British Politics at Newcastle University with interests in deliberative and participatory democracy. He is co-editor of the Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (Edward Elgar).