Meyer-Resende: Citizen assemblies do not address the biggest problem in democracies

Michael Meyer-Resende writes in the EUobserver:

[M]any climate activists want to expand democracy. They are deeply frustrated with the insufficient response to the threat of global heating.

There is much talk that the old institutions of representative democracy are not good enough to meet the challenge. “Politicians simply can’t see past the next election,” says the group Extinction Rebellion. The role of citizens is reduced to voting once every four or five years. Or so the argument goes.

That is why one idea has gained much enthusiasm among climate activists: citizen assemblies.

In these assemblies, people who are drawn by lot from pre-defined groups that broadly represent society, hear from experts, discuss what should be done about climate change and adopt recommendations, or even decisions.

There have been many such assemblies and they usually agree on stricter measures to protect the climate. That is no surprise. Anybody who spends some time reviewing the broad scientific consensus on climate developments can only be alarmed.

Apathy – the biggest enemy

Such assemblies allow for an informed debate that is not influenced by the many lobbies that defend the high-carbon status quo.

Citizen assemblies are certainly a good idea even if it is not so clear to which extent they had an impact on policies. They do not, however, address the biggest problem in democracies, which is the sense of public apathy.

A Pew opinion poll shows that the majority of people in selected EU member states accept that climate change is a major threat, but this knowledge does not translate into sufficient political pressure for more decisive action.

As the British researcher Rebecca Willis notes in her book Too Hot to Handle?, voters rarely ask politicians about climate policies.

Citizen assemblies may not be the answer to this problem. They do not scale easily. While it is great that 100 or 200 citizens can discuss and recommend climate policies, their impact on the rest of society is limited.

Climate activists’ juxtaposition of ‘old’ representative democracy versus ‘new’ participatory democracy does not describe reality. For activists actually like ‘old’ tools, like international agreements, such as the Paris agreements. They work with the findings of international bodies, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They celebrate judgments by courts in the Netherlands and Germany, which supported their agenda.

Courts, international agreements and expert bodies are not forms of innovative participatory democracy. They stand on the opposite end of grassroots democratic participation. They act at a distance from citizens and employ the logics of political negotiations or legal reasoning.

Activists embrace such core institutions of democracies, they support expert opinions. And they are right to do so.

Arguably the most significant push to influence public opinion has not resulted from citizen assemblies, but from the Fridays for Future movement, which employs one of the oldest political rights: peaceful protests.

As successful as Fridays for Future has been, there is the risk that moving the public from the described apathy to engagement ends in the extreme polarisation that now bedevils the US, where many Republicans are practically opposed to climate policies because it annoys the Democrats.

Many climate activists now sound as if climate change can only be addressed by abolishing ‘capitalism’, the patriarchy and traditional gender roles. This is not a platform that will mobilise a broad public and is more likely to end in the dysfunction of US-type polarisation.

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