Citizens’ assembly on climate change announced

Dr Rebecca Willis
Dr Rebecca Willis

Lancaster researcher, who has championed the role of citizens’ assemblies in developing a political response to climate change, welcomes Parliament’s decision to set up an assembly this autumn.

Dr Rebecca Willis, a professor in practice at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, has spent the last five years researching British MPs’ attitudes to climate change, and the reasons why they find it so hard to act.

“My research shows that politicians are aware that the science tells us we need to act fast and significantly on climate change, and are convinced of the case for action,” said Dr Willis. “But they report limited interest from their constituents and don’t know if there is a political mandate to act.”

Last year she brought together the results of her research in a paper for Green Alliance, partners in the project. She argued that citizens’ assemblies - bringing together a representative group of the population with experts to discuss the response to a major issue – could help provide that political mandate and offer politicians a way forward.

For the past few months she’s been involved in dozens of meetings and events, both within and outside Parliament, championing the idea, and suggesting that an assembly run jointly by a group of Parliamentary select committees, might be the way forward.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with MPs and people involved in select committees, as well as the wider climate policy community, both about the principle and about the practicalities of holding a citizens’ assembly and how to make it happen,” said Dr Willis.

On Thursday six select committees (covering Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Environmental Audit; Housing, Communities and Local Government; Science and Technology; Transport; and Treasury) announced they will hold a joint Citizens Assembly on climate change this autumn.

It follows the Prime Minister’s initiative to amend the Climate Act to commit the UK to go carbon neutral by 2050. The Citizens’ Assembly is designed to “explore views on the fair sharing of potential costs of different policy choices and…. will inform political debate and Government policy making,” according to the announcement.”

Dr Willis gives credit to Extinction Rebellion, the School Climate Strikes and the UK Climate Emergency movement, which have all called for citizen’s assemblies, for putting extra pressure on politicians.

“While politicians now know what the protesters think, they still don’t have a clear sense of the mandate for climate action from the wider electorate: a crucial part of taking action is understanding what people will support as citizens as well as consumers and this Assembly will help provide that understanding.”

Dr Willis points out that citizens’ assemblies have already been used by the Irish Government to explore Climate Change, and that two select committees used a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care as part of an inquiry into the long-term funding of adult social care.

“Ideally, though, this Assembly would not be a one-off, but would become an established part of the UK’s response to climate change,” said Dr Willis.

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