Two views on Climate Assembly UK

A citizens assembly discussing climate issues is meeting for the first time this weekend.

Ordinary people from across the UK – potentially including climate deniers – will take part in the first ever citizens’ climate assembly this weekend.

Mirroring the model adopted in France by Emmanuel Macron, 110 people from all walks of life will begin deliberations on Saturday to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by computer.

They come from all age brackets and their selection reflects a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll of how concerned the general population is by climate change, where responses ranged from not at all to very concerned. Of the assembly members, three people are not at all concerned, 16 not very concerned, 36 fairly concerned, 54 very concerned, and one did not know, organisers said.

The selection process meant those chosen could include climate deniers or sceptics, according to Sarah Allan, the head of engagement at Involve, which is running the assembly along with the Sortition Foundation and the e-democracy project mySociety.

“It is really important that it is representative of the UK population,” said Allen. “Those people, just because they’re sceptical of climate change, they’re going to be affected by the steps the government takes to get to net zero by 2050 too and they shouldn’t have their voice denied in that.”

Alex Bradbury, a member of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) organization, says the assembly is a good start but does not meet the requirements of the demand made by XR for such a body:

Crucially, this wasn’t commissioned by Government but by backbenchers from the last Parliament (the composition of the Select Committees has changed following the recent general election). So there’s no guarantee that the newly formed committees will take the recommendations of Climate Assembly UK forward. It could end up having no impact on policy at all.

Most concerningly, assembly participants are working to the UK’s current 2050 net zero emissions target, with no scope to adjust it. That timeframe gives us a 50/50 chance of keeping global heating under 1.5 degrees. Beyond that we’re looking at climate catastrophe – unliveable cities, widespread droughts and annual heatwaves. It’s an insane gamble to take on our children’s futures.

Sortition adovcate Richard Askwith is not wholly pleased either, for similar reasons:

The assembly now opening in Birmingham brings together a newly emboldened British public with the most pressing issue of our time. As a result, it’s the most high-profile Citizens’ Assembly the UK has seen.

I ought to be delighted. These are two causes close to my heart. I’ve been orchestrating coverage of the dangers of climate change for decades, in a succession of senior editorial roles at the Observer and the Independent. Over a similar period, I’ve repeatedly argued that we need a permanent Citizens’ Assembly in parliament, to replace — or at least to supplement — the House of Lords; in 2018 I devoted a whole book, People Power, to that proposition.

Yet instead of rejoicing, I feel a strange foreboding. The exercise is obviously worthwhile, and the organisers’ credentials are impeccable. If it all works well, it will capture public imagination, change attitudes and help safeguard our futures. But what if it doesn’t?

I can barely put my finger on the reasons for my pessimism. I think I feel that, somehow, issue and format sit uncomfortably together. Citizens’ Assemblies work best with questions about what’s right and what’s wrong; questions to which there are relatively few answers. Abortion: yes or no? Brexit: hard, soft, revoke or second referendum? These are big, limited, clearly differentiated choices, which cannot be satisfactorily resolved by representative politicians because of the strength of public feeling and the stridency of demagogues and interest groups.

Delegate such choices — fully and publicly — to a Citizens’ Assembly, and the shouting stops. Self-styled champions of the people lose their mandate. The power of the people is vested in the Assembly. And — since the Assembly’s proceedings are deliberative and well-informed, it’s easy to believe that the people mean what they say (in contrast to the off-the-cuff answers usually given when public opinion is consulted).

Could this Assembly give democratic legitimacy to painful, necessary policies that would otherwise be controversial? I hope so, but there’s a good chance that it won’t. The mandate delegated to it is minimal. The public may lose interest. Parliament may well ignore its recommendations. If so, it will have been little more than a focus group.

With a bigger, simpler question (e.g. “Is this an emergency or not?”; and “How big a danger do we face?”), perhaps there might have been a greater chance of a big, simple, resounding answer to resolve a national argument. In this case, however, the big question has already been decided: zero emissions is our goal and 2050 is our deadline. The Assembly’s job is to choose tactics, not strategy; to deliberate about how we get there, not where we’re going.

This feels the wrong way round. Usually, electorates express broad preferences, then leave it to their chosen representatives, helped by highly-trained civil servants and specialists, to make them happen.

I hope that it is a spectacular success: partly because I admire those who have made it happen, but mainly because, if it isn’t, we’ll probably just carry on as before. Climate change will be marginalised, as lacking political valency; MPs will use the assembly to defend themselves against charges of inaction; the drive to give Citizens’ Assemblies a bigger role in politics will fizzle out; and all those ordinary people who bought into the idea that we all had a role to play in policy-making will conclude — rather like participants in Emmanuel Macron’s “Grand Débat” exercise this time last year — that they were really just playing at helping to determine their country’s future, while the real decisions continued to be made elsewhere.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks Yoram, particularly for Ashcroft’s comment which is spot on. Further, this exercise design, its stratification by subject matter is entirely wrong, because randomness is required.

    Topical stratification exposes the sample’s debate to the awareness bias from media machinations, priorities of the plutocracy and of agitating politicians, parties and loud groupings like Extinction Rebellion. Such stratification distorts the process to the superficial opinion prescribed by the Ipsos Mori survey. A questionnaire is demonstrably a problematic tool when it comes to questions about future beliefs and claimed intent:

    There are cases where topical stratification is absolutely necessary, but even then it should never be by mere claims of a subjective attitude but by objective criteria demarcating conflicting subgroup interests, e.g. landlords & tenants, employers & employees, etc.


  2. Interesting

    I too have foreboding. But here’s the thing. Sortition has to find a way to emerge as a viable force in the rough and tumble of politics as it’s practised. That’s a hard ask.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. One of the most likely distortions of a random selection (without mandatory service) on such a topic is that people who view climate change as a monumental problem would be far more likely to agree to serve than people who believe it is a hoax. A stratification process with a survey that matches the ratio of participants to how people in general respond to a survey is an essential tool. The only other alternatives would be mandatory service, or random selection with prospective participants not knowing what topic was under consideration (which is impossible if there is media coverage).


  4. Valid point, Terry, let’s discuss this theory.

    Which should we treat as methodically correct: An informational cross-check for possible participation willingness bias from the screening responses of the random sample invited for this citizen jury, or (2) a prescriptive sample stratification versus some prior year questionnaire study of the government’s choice? (Over and above a topic framed at the government’s choice.)

    In this, we must take into consideration that traditional questionnaire repsonses (claimed attitudes) vary enormously (1) depending on the framing of the questions and (2) over time.

    This study finds a doubling of believer/sceptic proportions.

    I consider these distortion estimates as conservative in the context of the actual questions asked by IPSOS about a very complex subject matter:

    Click to access topline_120819.pdf

    Just check for the huge changes in response year by year. If they had stratified not by the numbers of 2019 but by the prior study they’d get a completely different jury composition.

    My point is that the equality-by-lot community should be aware that our processes should be made resilient against manipulative bias and distortion (ab)used in traditional current political surveys.

    We now have modern methods which produce rational collective intelligence, rather than just recording whatever the collective ignorance is produced by mass media and social media narrative of the day.


  5. [Richard Askwith]: Citizens’ Assemblies work best with questions about what’s right and what’s wrong; questions to which there are relatively few answers [yes or no]. . . .Delegate such choices — fully and publicly — to a Citizens’ Assembly, and the shouting stops.

    Agreed. The idea that you can ask a bunch of amateurs to “come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050” is an invitation to manipulation.

    Terry: One of the most likely distortions of a random selection (without mandatory service) on such a topic is that people who view climate change as a monumental problem would be far more likely to agree to serve than people who believe it is a hoax.

    Agreed. That’s why activists Extinction Rebellion is favourable in principle. Their objection is that the net-zero target is 2050, not 2025.


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