In response to the growing recognition we are within a climate emergency and that our existing modes of politics have not been delivering policy programmes that address the nature, scale or urgency of our predicament, the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies is growing. It is one of the key demands of Extinction Rebellion. Such assemblies can be comprised of normal citizens that are randomly selected by sortition, with means to ensure diversity of gender, age, class and so on. These assemblies the call for evidence from experts who they choose, to help inform their deliberations. It is significant that more of these assemblies are being set up – mostly as consultative groups. The question of what the legitimate powers of such an assembly could be, especially in relation to parliaments and governments, is a live one. But whatever its powers, a Citizens’ Assembly is decisively influenced by the way the agenda is established, the way deliberations are facilitated, and the kinds of experts who are called upon to present. I am going to ask you to consider suggesting some experts for a Citizens’ Assembly on the climate emergency, but before that I want to share some context on the key challenges to consider with any such Assembly and in the selection of experts.
The way the agenda is established is key. The first thing to recognise is that the climate emergency is not adequately engaged unless we move beyond only talking about cutting and drawing down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Instead, it is essential to realise that climate change is already here and its impacts on our societies will be getting worse. Therefore, how we better prepare for disruption at home and abroad is a key part of any policy discussion about the climate emergency.
The way deliberations are facilitated is also key. The tasks of selecting experts, guiding the choice of topics, and facilitating how the citizen participants discuss their information, are central to what will be achieved. If management consultants or other mainstream organisations are in charge of these processes, then they may inadvertently bring establishment ideologies that should now be questioned as part of the system that has brought us to this point of emergency. A process of inquiring into the hidden ideological assumptions of hosts and facilitators would be one way of attempting to address this risk.
Then there is the key issue of the kinds of experts who are called upon to present. A problem facing any Citizens’ Assembly are the narrow specialisms, scientific reticence and personal conservativism that are widespread within research and academic institutions.
Narrow specialisms are a problem because, for instance, an expert in one particular aspect of climate science, such as glaciers, may not have had the time, interest or networks to become well informed about other aspects of climate. Or an expert in corporate sustainability may know nothing (or the wrong thing) about the monetary systems that corporations have to operate within. To “get on” in academia it is almost a requirement to specialise until you are spending all your time examining the details of one set of ideas or situations. Polymaths don’t do so well in that system. It means that Citizens’ Assemblies, just like policy makers, find difficulty in accessing usable knowledge from researchers, and must attempt the integration of ideas themselves. The other problem is when an expert is invited to speak beyond their area of expertise and does so without realising that they could explore the scholarship and debates in relevant fields. This happens on climate issues, where people trained in mathematics and statistics begin to offer ideas about the policy implications of the projections of their climate models. We may want them to engage in such discussions, but both we and they need to be careful if they are using a status related to being a climate expert to then talk about something else. For instance, many climate scientists are quoted in mainstream media saying that to be “alarmist” is counter-productive, and yet there is a lot of scholarship in psychology and communications studies which explore whether that is true or not, and for different types of audiences.
Scientific reticence is something that one of the world’s most famous climate scientists, James Hansen, has pointed to and which I cite in the Deep Adaptation paper. He explained how there is a culture in natural science, and therefore climate science, to be very specific, nuanced, cautious and unemotional about any claims to know something as a result of their research. Combined with the narrowness of many research projects, it also means that much scientific expertise will need translating into insights for either citizens or policy makers. Some researchers break free from this reticence and speak more broadly about their conclusions and the implications of their research. In my case, after reviewing the research on climate change and its impacts, in the context of increasing emissions from our system of debt-fuelled economic growth, I concluded that it is too late to stop destructive impacts of climate change on our societies. Not that we shouldn’t try to limit the impacts but that we need a new conversation about adaptation. In saying that I made it clear I was expressing an opinion and was not reporting on research about mechanisms of collapse. I think it is an extremely difficult and resource intensive exercise to try and model the mechanisms of climate-induced societal collapse. Even if doing so, such projections would simply be debatable theories rather than proving anything. Given how fast-moving our current situation is, I wonder how useful such work would be, though I encourage more attempts at it within the food security and disaster reduction research fields.
Personal conservatism is a way of being in the world where, in comparison to the average view, one accepts the systems of power, authority, and status as they are currently configured. It makes sense that if you have worked hard for decades in front of your computer to rise to the top of your profession, and gain a high salary and status, that you will have some gratitude towards the system. Or at least less anger towards it than others! Such people may also have many responsibilities, both personal and professional, which feel like they limit the risks one can take with what to say, or what to let oneself even consider. I cite some research on this personal conservativism in the Deep Adaptation paper when I explain some of the factors in the ongoing denial in the environmental field. It means that both citizens and policy makers may find experts feeling less critical about our political and economic systems than they might be if there were not so invested in the system. That might mean they are less bold with their ideas about what policies could be considered.
With all that in mind, if you were advising a team of people in putting together a list of experts to be called to present at Citizens’ Assemblies on the climate emergency in the UK, what would be your criteria? For either the institution or the individual? The organisers typically expect experts to come from Universities or authoritative organisations. And what topics would be included? After all, we don’t want climatologists telling us about implications for monetary policy. Yet, given the systemic nature of our predicament, it would unhelpful, perhaps useless, if we would restrict our discussions to those topics that climate experts can talk about with confidence.
A Citizens Assembly on the climate emergency could consider major changes in at least each of the following policy areas: Food and agriculture; Emergency preparedness; Foreign Affairs; Development assistance; Water and utilities; Land use planning; Monetary policies; Banking regulation; Corporate law; Community development; Education; Health; Taxation. And many more!
Yes, the field is huge, unwieldly, and daunting. But what can we learn from how, after 30 years of efforts to promote sustainable development, we are now going backwards rapidly on biodiversity, emissions, weird weather, food and water security? Surely it is time to see that we need to address more of the root causes of our predicament? That means changes to our economic system, not just more housing insulation and sea walls.
Do you know any experts in relevant areas who seem to not be too restricted by their narrow specialism, scientific reticence, or personal conservativism? Not just in climate, but in any of the areas that matter to system change to both reduce and adapt to our climate emergency?
If so, please either share their details in the comments below, with a link to their organisation and stating what policy areas they are relevant to, or if preferring to be private, then use the contact form at the bottom of the page here (putting the word Expert in the subject line). In particular, we are interested in people who speak English and in or can easily travel by train to the UK. Organisers typically expect experts to come from Universities or authoritative organisations, rather than independent researchers or authors.
The list we produce by August 1st 2019 will be shared with a number of groups and officials who are involved in Citizens Assemblies and other policy dialogues.
If you are interested in Citizens Assemblies and the development of policies for deep adaptation to our climate emergency, then please consider joining the Government and Policy discussion group on the Deep Adaptation Forum.