Why citizens assemblies matter

Montage of three images: the Houses of Parliament lit at dusk (left), wind turbines in front of a sunset (right), Professor Rebecca Willis smiles to the camera (centre)

Professor Rebecca (Becky) Willis is a pragmatic environmentalist. While applauding direct action campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, she has chosen a different route – to work inside the political system to effect change from within.

“What really interests me is to start from politics as it actually is: how do the Labour or Conservative parties see the world; where does the environment match up with a party’s philosophy; and how can you use that to push the environmental agenda?” says Becky, who was appointed a Professor in Practice at the Lancaster Environment Centre last year, combining teaching and research with her other roles as an environmental consultant and advisor.

This weekend sees the start of the UK’s first national Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, set up by six Parliamentary committees. Becky’s role is to find experts to brief the 110 ‘representative’ citizens who are meeting over four weekends to deliberate about what action politicians should take in response to climate change.

For Becky it is the culmination of many years working with policy makers and MPs to inform them on the environmental dangers we face, and to understand what stops them from taking the action needed.

“Climate change is the hardest nut for politics to crack. Carbon emissions are very diffuse and those who are invested in carbon emissions are very widespread. It’s the ultimate collective action problem,” says Becky, who became interested in the environmental movement through studying politics as a student.

Initially she steered clear of academia, turning down a place to do a PhD to work in European Parliament, first as a researcher and then as a policy advisor, specialising in environmental issues. It cemented her interest in the green agenda and how to get politicians to follow through on what the science is telling us.

She returned to the UK to become head of policy and then director at the independent think tank, Green Alliance, which works with policy makers and businesses to accelerate the transition to a green economy.

She left in 2004 to set up as an independent researcher and consultant, while remaining as associate of Green Alliance. She helped to develop policy for the growing renewables and community energy sectors and sees the feed in tariff as a notable success. In 2009 she founded the Green Alliance Climate Leadership Programme, supporting MPs from across the political spectrum to become advocates of action on climate change.

“Most MPs have a basic understanding of the science but haven’t thought through what it means for them, their party, their country and their future,” she said.

She was already advising Government in her role as vice chair of the influential Sustainable Development Commission, tasked with ensuring decision makers balance the interests of the environment with those of the economy.

“It was at the Sustainable Development Commission that I saw the potential for engaged academics to influence policy and bring about change. My colleagues – amazing people like Anne Power and Tim Lang – managed to combine the authority and rigour of academia, with an ability to persuade, and get things done. I saw first hand the possibilities of a role like that, and it was one of things that led me to head back into academia,” she said.

In 2014 she started a PhD at Lancaster University. “It was a complete continuation of my career obsession: I was researching how MPs understand and respond to climate change. I wanted to look at it from their point of view. What does it feel like as an MP, with all the pressures the job brings, to be asked to tackle climate change as well? How do you react to that, do you take it on or do you ignore it?”

She interviewed 23 MPs in depth, some of whom had been on the Green Alliance Climate Leadership programme, to see if it had changed their willingness to raise the issue of climate change.

“Some said they felt like freaks for talking about climate, that they didn’t fit in with the culture of their party or the Commons, that they were seen as an awkward squad. This was true of Labour MPs as well as Tories. The ones who weren’t speaking out on climate were making a tactical decision not to.”

MPs also told her that they felt constrained by their role as representatives of their constituents, because the subject rarely came up on the doorstep.

“Campaigning on climate change is not like campaigning about threats to jobs, schools or hospitals. The benefits of action are indirect and less tangible at a local level.”

This is one reason Becky is so passionate about the current Citizens Assembly, hoping that it will offer politicians the mandate that they require to act.

“Climate policy has been very expert led. One of the main findings of my PhD is the need for more deliberation and discussion about climate change.

“The Assembly aims to find out what people think the UK’s climate strategy should be once they have had the opportunity to understand the evidence and deliberate with each other and with experts.

“A key question is about the relationship between citizens and the state on this issue, so responsibility doesn’t just fall on the individual. For instance, what does the Government need to provide in terms of infrastructure and public transport so people can reduce the carbon emissions from the way they get around?

“A lot of the questions involved are values and principles based. You can’t ask economists and engineers what ideas of fairness you should use when responding to climate change, but these are questions citizens are really good at answering. I hope the Assembly will give politicians a much clearer idea of where the mandate lies for climate action.”

Becky is fitting her Citizens Assembly work around her commitments at Lancaster University, teaching on the Energy, Environment and Economy undergraduate module and carrying out research into local authorities’ responses to climate change. She is also an advisor to the National Lottery’s Climate Action Fund, and a trustee of the New Economics Foundation. In March, Bristol University Press will publish her book, Too Hot to Handle, based on her research and experience advising politicians.

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