Comment: Will the climate disaster that awaits us be the final proof of the failure of democracy? Long trumpeted as the best way for people to live together, no democratic state has heeded the predictions of science nor the clamouring of those for whom the message is loud and clear.

As each year passes the chance of keeping global heating to a mere 2C increase becomes a chimaera. Temperatures continue to rise albeit more slowly but we might just reach that target, scientists have calculated, if we can reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent on 2010 levels by 2030.

That gives us less than eight years. We will know only when it’s too late that the target of zero emissions by 2025, set by the climate activist organization Extinction Rebellion (XR), was where we needed to be.

Do lemmings know where they’re going when they jump?

Call it compromise, greenwashing, or ‘green’ growth, the strategies of the business world, industry, and agriculture amount to a comforting sense of business as usual, of doing what we can at our own speed. Our Emissions Reduction Plan is an attenuated denial of the urgency of beginning radical changes – including restricting fossil fuel use with a form of rationing.

It’s this sense of urgency and the failure of governments to respond that motivated the formation of Extinction Rebellion in the UK in 2018. The group uses non-violent actions of civil disobedience and disruption to “compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss and the risk of social and ecological collapse”.

The organisation came to international attention soon after it was formed by famously blocking five of London’s bridges, bringing traffic to a standstill.

Extinction Rebellion now has branches in 76 countries, including in Aotearoa New Zealand, where members have been visible in two recent actions in Auckland.

In July the group confronted spectators arriving for the All Blacks-Ireland rugby test match with pamphlets protesting the sponsorship by the major oil and petrochemical company INEOS.

In August, along with other climate activist groups, it disrupted a meeting held by Auckland University’s Energy Education Trust. Titled Energy Matters, its speaker was Z Energy’s CEO Mike Bennetts. The selection of the head of a petrol company, the groups claimed, was an inappropriate choice for an institution that has divested from fossil fuels.

Indeed, Bennetts’ promotion of biofuels, and support for the recent government mandate for their increased use, was a sidestep from the real need which is the restructuring of transport to reduce the kilometres travelled by private vehicles.

Extinction International considers climate change a disaster equivalent to war and that the response requires governments to be on a war footing – similar to the position adopted by many countries for Covid lockdowns. It also wants the gulf between government action and the recommendations of climate scientists – and the increasing numbers of concerned citizens – to be addressed through citizens’ assemblies.

Also called citizens’ juries, these are formed of a randomly selected group of citizens of a predetermined number who agree to meet to address a particular question or issue. Key to this form of deliberative democracy is the random selection of participants followed by “sortition” – the process of ensuring that the selection reflects the demography of the country.

Also crucial is the impartiality of the scientific and technical information participants are given to inform their decisions.

The process is complex, takes time, costs money and has no guarantee of achieving its original goal as set out in the question to be deliberated. Changing people’s opinions is not necessarily the same as changing policies since governments can listen but not necessarily enact recommendations.

In the EU there has been a surge of interest in the process to guide decision-making on climate policy, according to the European Climate Foundation. Spain launched its assembly in October last year, involving more than 100 people to discuss the question “A safer and fairer Spain in the face of climate change, how do we do it?”

Examples are both heartening and discouraging. Abortion and gay marriage were both legalised in Ireland subsequent to citizens’ assemblies in 2017. Another assembly this year is tasked with studying how to respond to the loss of biodiversity. Participants have 18 months to prepare their report and the Irish government is required to respond to, but not necessarily accept, their findings.

In France an assembly, or “grand debat” was President Emmanuel Macron’s answer to the “yellow vest” riots of 2018 which had been provoked by a fuel tax rise. Out of 255,000 people contacted, 150 were selected to participate in the assembly in 2019. (Sortition must have been difficult because the French census doesn’t collect religious or ethnic details.)

Their task was to propose ways of reducing France’s emissions by 40 percent on 1990 levels by 2030. They met for seven three-day weekends over nine months, each participant was paid $2405, and they came up with 149 proposals.

At the final count only 19 made it into France’s updated climate law of 2020, and a further 36 were accepted watered down. Macron is quoted: “You can’t say that just because 150 citizens wrote something it’s the Bible or the Koran.”

The New Zealand chapter of Extinction Rebellion has developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for a citizens’ assembly that “achieves our strategic goals and honours the unique knowledge and role of Māori as tangata whenua through meaningful partnership”. It’s an impressive, well-written document and is not the only careful consideration of this alternative form of consultation.

Hauraki District Council suggests citizens’ assemblies “might be a better option than public advisory councils … when there is a potentially contentious policy decision or project that needs…. community engagement.”

Watercare, the body tasked with managing Auckland’s water, has partnered with Koi Tu: the Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland and its team, called Complex Conversations, to engage in what it says is New Zealand’s first citizens’ assembly in the realm of public decision-making.

The critique by Complex Conversations of current processes of public consultation is interesting. Select committees, royal commissions and boards of enquiries can reinforce inequality, it says, because participation implicitly requires education, money and trust. Social media, it says, has opened up new and ostensibly direct communication channels between citizens and decision-makers. And while it may appear democratic, it points out that these channels are based on algorithms that favour frequent, short engagement and strong reactions.

In early July, Watercare sent out invitations to 12,000 people of whom 40 were selected as a representative sample of Aucklanders by age, ethnicity, gender, home ownership and place of residence. They receive remuneration of $800 and their task, over four weekends, is to come up with a consensus decision on the various options for future water sources. Their report will be delivered on September 24.

The University of Otago’s Department of Public Health has used the process on several occasions. One assembly discussed the question of whether researchers should have access to people’s personal medical records. The unanimous conclusion was that access should be given with certain safeguards.

Another assembly, focused on the age at which women should have free screening for breast cancer, was acknowledged internationally for its findings. In its conclusion, the report noted that the process provided a different perspective from interest-group advocacy or expert deliberation.

If democracy is to work, it needs to acknowledge and engage changing perspectives. Public sensitivities to the climate and ecological crises may be approaching a tipping point as anxiety verges on terror.

Government policies bear little relation to this fear nor to the evidence of science. Citizens Assemblies could be one way of addressing this gap.

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