Representative democracy has failed to address the climate and ecological crisis. A Welsh Citizens’ Assembly is the radical answer, says Dr Rhian Barrance.
Last month Plaid Cymru tabled a motion calling for a citizens’ assembly on how to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19.
While the motion did not pass, it renewed a debate about the value of citizens’ assemblies and their place within the Welsh political system.
A citizens’ assembly is a form of deliberative democracy which has been shown to be effective at addressing particular kinds of difficult and life threatening problems that our electoral system struggles to deal with, such as global heating and species extinction.
This is why nations around the world have established citizens’ assemblies on the climate emergency, and environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion Cymru have been campaigning for a Welsh citizens’ assembly on the climate and ecological crisis.
How do citizens’ assemblies work?
Citizens’ assemblies bring together ordinary people to listen to evidence, deliberate and make recommendations to the government on a particular issue.
They are organized and facilitated by independent organisations, such as Involve, who ensure that the participants hear balanced evidence from a range of experts, as well as those most affected by the issue being discussed. This enables participants to make informed and considered decisions.
A citizens’ assembly usually takes place over several days or weekends, to give members sufficient time to consider the evidence and deliberate. While elected representatives are vulnerable to lobbying behind closed doors by high-emissions industries, the evidence presented to assemblies and the deliberations of its members are fully transparent.
The participants are randomly selected from the electoral roll using a process called sortition, which ensures that the assembly reflects the country in terms of characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, education level, socio-economic background and attitude to the issue in question. This is important for social justice, as it ensures that people from all backgrounds are represented, and that the policies recommended by assemblies do not disproportionately affect any one group.
Citizens’ assemblies have been shown to be effective at building a public mandate for change, and involving people who are usually disengaged from politics. In fact, 57% of the participants in a 2019 citizens’ assembly held by the Welsh Assembly had not voted in the 2016 Senedd elections.
Why has representative democracy failed us on global heating?
Scientists have been warning of the catastrophic dangers of global heating for decades. Despite this, our political leaders have taken very little action. While the UK Government has committed to decarbonise to net zero by 2050, scientists are clear that this date is far too late to avoid the most damaging effects of the crisis. The fact is that the government is nowhere near on track to meet even the modest 2050 target.
As Laura McAllister, Professor of Public Policy at Cardiff University, recently pointed out, our current political system generally produces governments that are ‘conservative and short-termist’. It does not reward long-term planning, which means that it is particularly ill-equipped to deal with crises such as global heating.
And despite the Welsh Government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which recognises this problem and commits to considering the impact of policies on the future generations, we are still nowhere near to taking the necessary action in Wales.
As we have delayed action for so long, we are now facing a global emergency. It is not only future generations that will suffer if we fail to act. The effects of the crisis are already being felt around the world, including in Wales, where communities were devastated by flooding in February, and coastal towns are vulnerable to rising sea levels.
In fact, the villagers of Fairbourne in the north of Wales are likely to become the UK’s first internal climate refugees, having been told that their village will be decommissioned as the council can no longer protect it from the sea. Despite this, the climate crisis is still not being prioritised by our political leaders.
The French Government has now established its own citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis.
Having had discussions with political leaders in Wales, I don’t doubt that many want to take action on the climate and ecological crisis. But, as previous research has shown, it is very difficult for politicians to take the necessary steps within short-term political cycles when they are concerned about re-election.
And they are right to be concerned – the reality is that radical and wide-ranging environmental policies will not be accepted if they are simply imposed from above, without public input and public support. This is something the French Government discovered in 2018, when it attempted to introduce a fuel tax hike without considering the impact on its poorest citizens. This sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement and led to major protests against the government.
Having learned from this experience, the French Government has now established its own citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis. Unlike many other assemblies, this one has teeth, as Macron has committed to taking forward its recommendations, either through a vote in Parliament, a referendum or direct implementation.
A Welsh citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency
We need a Welsh citizens’ assembly so that people from all backgrounds in Wales can decide how the Welsh Government should respond to the climate and ecological emergency. This is particularly urgent in a post-Covid world as the Welsh Government is making wide-ranging decisions about how to renew our society and economy.
If Wales commissions a citizens’ assembly which allows the participants to consider how to decarbonise faster than 2050, its recommendations are likely to be very different to those proposed by the Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ assembly which was recently established by UK parliamentary sub-committees.
Two of Climate Assembly UK’s expert leads have called for the Welsh Government to establish its own citizens’ assembly on the crisis. Lorraine Whitmarsh, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University, has argued that:
“The UK Climate Assembly is addressing the ways in which the UK can reach net-zero by 2050, but this central question leaves open many issues around what a better, future society might look like. There is an excellent opportunity for the Welsh Government to put the wellbeing of future generations front and centre of a climate change citizens’ assembly: what should a sustainable and prosperous Wales look like in future?”
In addition, Rebecca Willis, Professor of Environmental Policy at Lancaster University, has emphasised how important it is for Welsh citizens to be involved in these discussions:
“It is really important that the citizens of Wales are able to engage in the debate about how to reach net zero, in the specific context of Wales. Reaching this target will need action in areas including home heating, transport, food and farming – all areas in which it is vital to hear the citizen voice, and where there are considerations in Wales that are distinct and different from the rest of the UK. A Wales citizens’ assembly on climate change will help the Welsh Government to develop its own distinctive climate strategy that speaks to the needs and wishes of the Welsh public.”
The Welsh Government was the first in the world to formally recognise the problem of short-termism in electoral politics, and to legislate to protect and promote the wellbeing of future generations.
The Future Generations Act is an important first step, but the government must go further if it is to meet the challenges of the climate and ecological emergency. It must establish a citizens’ assembly for Wales, and give it decisive powers to make the urgent changes we need.
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