A Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change: Insights from Social Psychology

This is a blog by Emily Cox from Tyndall Centre Cardiff.


The UK government plans to set up a Citizens’ Assembly to address action on climate change. Research in social psychology suggests that this might be an extremely welcome addition to democracy in climate policy. However, it also suggests that some aspects of the government’s plans, and even the recommendations of Extinction Rebellion, might be making some crucial mistakes. Academics have been perfecting deliberative decision-making for decades, and the government should use these insights when setting up and running the citizens’ assembly.

The achievements of activist collective Extinction Rebellion would be hard to downplay at this point in time. After a week-long civil disruption in London, and amid threats to close down Heathrow Airport, climate change is on the news and policy agenda like never before. And last week, the UK government announced that it would meet another of Extinction Rebellion’s three demands – to set up a citizens’ assembly to provide recommendations on climate policy.

I have consistently felt that the citizens’ assembly is the most exciting Extinction Rebellion demand, because our research suggests that it may have genuine potential to come up with some very reasonable and workable policy recommendations. Lots of our research uses ‘deliberative’ methods: essentially, we get a random selection of members of the general public to discuss complex issues, sometimes on topics they have no prior awareness of. By allowing people to discuss things in depth over the course of several hours, they can come to considered and nuanced opinions. Non-experts have an ability to see past the tunnel vision of the specialist, and use analogies from their everyday lives to make sense of complex topics; because of this, they can sometimes identify issues which experts have missed. Besides, the current system of representative democracy is clearly failing to solve long-term collective action problems such as climate change. More than ever, there is a need now to experiment with new forms of participatory democracy.

There is a major flaw in the government’s proposal which means this won’t actually be achieved at this point: the government’s plans do not give the citizens’ assembly any actual power. They will simply be an ‘advisory body’, who can make recommendations to be followed or ignored by the government. Thus the differences in climate policy will be negligible; at worst, the assembly will be a tool for legitimising whichever policy the government have already decided they will follow. Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace have both already made this point, so I won’t go into more detail on this here. But it’s more than this – giving a citizens’ assembly decision-making power could actually benefit the policy-makers themselves. This is because it would absolve the government of responsibility for unpopular decisions in a domain where many decisions are likely to go against someone’s wishes. In a world of increasingly populist politics, and where vested interests wield a disproportionate amount of influence, this aspect is truly exciting.

I’m also concerned about the suggestion from some Extinction Rebellion activists that participation in a citizens’ assembly should be a full-time job. I appreciate that climate change is an important issue, and that therefore it can seem trite to assume that recommendations can be drawn in the space of a couple of weekends. But the point of a citizens’ assembly is that it should be open to all participants. Of course participants should be paid for their time; but people who gain genuine enjoyment and pride from their work (including, luckily, many of the people I know) would never quit their jobs to do this. Thus the assembly would not be representative. Reasoned discussion doesn’t necessarily require huge amounts of time; a good example is jury duty, where randomly-selected juries are trusted to come up with well thought-out, consensus responses to extremely tricky decisions in a short space of time.

Finally, there is an urgent need for more discussion and input into how participants should be selected. In our research, we select people at random using a professional recruitment company, according to quotas to make sure the participants are balanced in terms of gender, ethnicity, and demographic factors. Importantly, we use a technique called ‘topic blindness’: we don’t mention the topic of the study, to avoid self-selection bias. If you tell people the study is about climate change, people who are already passionate about the topic are more likely to agree to take part, and the discussion can quickly become polarised between activists and sceptics. Climate change will impact everyone, therefore it’s more ethical and more effective to allow everyone the chance to participate, regardless of pre-existing views or level of understanding. Even for people who don’t have much knowledge about climate change beforehand, you’d be surprised at how smart people are – how smart everyone is – when given the chance to deliberate.

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