Extinction Rebellion’s third demand calls on the government to create and be led by a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice. Since writing this guide, six parliamentary select committees announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on how to reach net zero carbon emissions. Citizens’ assemblies must follow specific standards and soon we will publish a document outlining the finer details of what we think this assembly should look like. In the meantime, this introductory guide explains what a citizens’ assembly is, how it works and why we need one. We also present several ground-breaking examples of similar processes from around the world.
Citizens’ assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy – a process in which ordinary people make political decisions. Public hearings, ranging from citizens’ juries with less than twenty people to citizens’ summits of more than seven hundred, have transformed policy-making in Australia, Belgium, Canada, India, Ireland, Poland and the UK. In a citizens’ assembly, a group of randomly selected members of the public reflect on an issue of public concern. The aim is to bring together a cross-section of society. Participants hear from experts and stakeholders, ask questions, deliberate on policy options and make recommendations that shape government policy.
Extinction Rebellion believes that the UK public must have the chance to determine how the country responds to the emergency we are facing. If organised properly, a national citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice will enable politicians to address the emergency before it’s too late.
“A citizens’ assembly provides us, the people, with a way to request radical change. Such a request gives government legitimacy to act and allows for cross-party support. To carry on failing to act is no longer an option. It’s time for a citizens’ assembly.”
Members of citizens’ assemblies are selected at random from the population. This process is similar to how a jury is selected in the legal system of Switzerland and many other countries. In addition, the assembly organisers use demographic quotas to ensure that it is inclusive in terms of a range of factors; for example, gender, age, ethno-cultural heritage, education level, sexual orientation, disability and geography. Once members have been selected, the process includes four key phases: listening, learning, deliberating and deciding.
Citizens’ assemblies can be useful in providing elected politicians with a better understanding of how they should act on climate and ecological justice. Recent research confirms that Members of the Swiss Parliament do not have a clear sense of the public mandate for climate action. Often opinion polls gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions, and they do not inform citizens or enable them to explore the implications of different options with other people. Citizens’ assemblies provide an opportunity to explore the views of a broadly representative sample of people in a fair and equitable way.
Citizens’ assemblies can also be held at city or local level. However, given the urgency and complexity of the climate emergency, only the national government has the power to tackle the scale and scope of necessary action—that is why Extinction Rebellion is demanding a national citizens’ assembly.
Citizens’ assemblies are a form of participatory democracy. They are a vital addition to the system of representative democracy, which in Switzerland includes our elected Members of Parliament. Public participation acts as a counterweight to a parliamentary system that prioritises short-term electoral gain over the long-term needs of current and future generations. Deliberative processes, supported by safeguards against bias, lead to more diverse and informed voices in political debates than in a purely elected body. Additionally, assembly members are not chosen to represent political parties and so are free to make decisions solely based on their own informed viewpoints, values and sense of what policies would be for the common good.