Feature story

A Tale of Two Citizens’ Assemblies 

Last year, citizens took to the streets to demand a voice in climate policy. Now they’re having their say.

The Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat is charged with working out how to cut France’s GHG emissions 40 percent by 2030 ‘in a spirit of social justice’.

It’s Saturday morning in Paris. But as weekending crowds drift past the Tour Eiffel and the Trocadéro toward a leisurely café, dozens of ordinary citizens from across the country are instead setting to work: filing into France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council to crowd around tables and review notes ahead of a long day of arguments, tough choices—and, possibly, changing the world.

There is Myriam, a bus driver from the Rhône, and Grégoire, a vocational trainer from Calvados; Brigitte from Somme and Alexia from Guadeloupe. There are farmers, students, experts and sceptics, 150 in all, chosen by lot to make up a demographically representative “micro-France” charged with tackling one of the country’s toughest challenges: how to agree on the climate policy France needs to get on track with the Paris Accord.

France’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat has six months to figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 40 percent by 2030 “in a spirit of social justice,” asking the question, how to not only slash greenhouse gas emissions, but agree on it? Over seven intense weekends, they are hearing experts on topics from food waste to the French constitution, weighing the arguments and finally proposing consensus solutions which French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to submit, “without filter”, for referendum, parliamentary vote or decree.

It’s a rare chance for citizens to take the reins from their representatives and hash out the issues for themselves. That doesn’t make it any easier. “There are choices to make,” said Sylvain, 45, a delegate from Paris.  “You have to give up other things. We’re debating.” But, he says, in the process delegates have also kindled a team spirit based on working together for the common good.

There are, of course, more conventional political responses in terms of legislation or regulation. But there is also simply: let this society that wants to change, change, and give it the means to do it.
Laurence Tubiana, ECF chief executive and co-president of the governing committee of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat

ECF chief executive Laurence Tubiana, co-president of the governing committee of the Convention and an early supporter, argues that governments underestimate the degree to which society is willing to change, and that given authority and resources, citizens can transform consensus on the threat of climate change to consensus on a way to combat it.

“There are, of course, more conventional political responses in terms of legislation or regulation. But there is also simply: let this society that wants to change, change, and give it the means to do it,” she said.

France’s citizens’ assembly is the unlikely offspring of the French climate movement sparked by the 2018 resignation of ecology minister Nicolas Hulot and of the Gilets Jaunes protests, in which populist activists in yellow safety vests have taken to the streets to protest inequality, set off by a fuel tax hike they charged unfairly hurt the working class. In addition to deep social rifts, the uproar exposed the French government’s failure to include social considerations in climate policies.

As Macron called for a “grand debate” on democracy, a broad coalition of activists across democracy, climate and social justice answered. In an open letter, the group calling itself Gilets Citoyens – “citizen vests” – called for a citizens’ assembly to restore confidence in the system by bringing the public more directly into the policy process, breaking political polarisation along the way.

The 150 citizens were chosen by lot to make up a demographically representative ‘micro-France’.

Citizens’ assemblies are exercises in deliberative democracy which bring together a cross-section of society to debate and advise on specific societal challenges. In the UK, for example, a 2018 citizens’ assembly advised Parliament on funding social care for the needy. Although not in common use, they have sometimes achieved extraordinary results, as in Ireland, where recommendations of a 2016 citizens’ assembly formed the basis for last year’s historic referendum legalising abortion.

Ireland’s citizens’ assembly was the first to tackle national climate policy, producing far-reaching recommendations that set the stage for the country’s 2050 climate neutrality target to become law next year as well as a suite of measures related to infrastructure, low-carbon energy, agriculture, forestry and waste. Now, taking climate policy to the people seems to be catching on. At the same time that the Gilets Citoyens were proposing a citizens’ assembly on climate in France, across the Channel, British climate activists Extinction Rebellion were demanding one for the UK as well.

“A citizens’ assembly provides us, the people, with a way to decide what’s best for our future, even if that requires radical changes in the present,” the group said in a published list of three demands of the British government.

It argued that “because they are informed and democratic, the citizens’ assembly’s decisions will provide political cover and public pressure for politicians to set aside the usual politicking and do the right thing” – in essence, that a citizens’ assembly could transcend the politics as usual that hold back effective policy.

In response, six select committees of Parliament commissioned Climate Assembly UK, which will meet over four weekends in spring 2020, with funding support by the House of Commons, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the ECF.

Like in France, the more than 100 UK citizens’ assembly members are a representative cross-section of society, charged with finding solutions for how the UK can meet its net-zero 2050 target as well as the consensus to make them stick. Unlike in France, Parliament is under no obligation to consider the results, much less enact them.

That raises risks. If the process or its results aren’t taken seriously—or are deliberately undermined by interest groups—this potentially promising avenue to consensus on climate action loses its power. More broadly, to work well, citizens’ assemblies must be done well, with the right expert advice and well-designed questions simple enough for citizens to address but broad enough to supply a workable mandate, said Katherine Kramer, climate change lead for the UK charity Christian Aid.

But alongside the risks come potential rewards. “In the UK context I think there is a clearly a public appetite for change,” Kramer said. “The numbers of people we’ve seen on the streets show that there’s also a real appetite for engagement, and I think a citizens’ assembly does offer an opportunity for that kind of engagement and democratic legitimacy.”

The ECF is working to make sure the process goes forward. In France, the ECF is working with YouTubers, think tanks and NGOs to bring the debate beyond the Convention to the broader public. In the UK, the ECF is protecting Climate Assembly UK’s integrity, coordinating with communications partners and other grantees to ensure UK delegates will be able to do their job free of influence by politics or interest groups, and that their proposals are heard beyond traditional climate constituencies.

The ECF is also watching closely, to see how the model works in practice, and learn how to help other places that might want to hold citizens’ assemblies of their own. Erica Hope, Director for Climate Planning and Laws, is coordinating “a slightly more structured approach, starting by understanding what counts as a citizens’ assembly, what are the components that make it work, how can they be made more useful for the climate discussion and so on.” By taking a step back from France and the UK’s “real-time experiments,” she said ECF can eventually advise other places considering citizens’ assemblies on climate how to do them well.

We will succeed...and next year we will say, we did not know it was impossible, so we did it.
Pierre, 49, member of France’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat

Because as we enter a new era of citizen demands to be heard on climate policy, Tubiana said, governments can no longer avoid listening.

“I don’t see a way out,” she told a press conference at COP 25 in Madrid. “People can go on the march every Friday, but if there is not space offered for them to contribute and elaborate the policy we will finally go to a clash and violence and frustration.”

Citizens’ assemblies, she said, offer a better way – so much so that she has called for “a global citizens’ assembly” for COP 26 in Glasgow.

Pierre, 49, a member of France’s Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, hopes Paris will inspire other countries to “give a word to their citizens” by holding citizens’ assemblies themselves.

And despite the challenges, he suggests it would be a mistake to underestimate the citizens’ will. “I believe we will succeed together because we really want it,” he said. “And next year we will say, we did not know it was impossible, so we did it.”

Photos: Katrin Baumann/Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat