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What is a citizens’ assembly?

David Attenborough
David Attenborough
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David Attenborough

David Attenborough will attend the first public meeting on climate crisis

In Depth Gabriel Power
Friday, January 24, 2020 - 12:56pm

Sir David Attenborough has insisted that politicians listen to the recommendations of the first citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis.

According to The Guardian, the veteran naturalist and broadcaster will address the 110 members of the public as they meet for the first of four weekends in Birmingham.

The assembly was commissioned by six parliamentary select committees and on the third weekend will begin making decisions about ways to meet the UK’s net-zero emissions target, the paper adds.

What is a citizens’ assembly?

Parliament’s website describes a citizens’ assembly as a “group of people who are brought together to discuss an issue or issues, and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen.

“The people who take part are chosen so they reflect the wider population – in terms of demographics”, the site adds.

This means that participants are chosen by “age, gender, ethnicity, social class” and sometimes “relevant attitudes (e.g. preferences for a small or large state)”.

In the case of the climate crisis assembly, 110 people were randomly chosen to meet and discuss the issue.

The idea behind a citizens’ assembly is to give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions, says participation charity Involve.

Assembly participants are “asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations”, the site adds, and many often adopt a three-step process of learning, deliberation and decision making.

The process is supported by a team of impartial facilitators who guide participants through the process, ensuring that everyone is heard.

Have they been used before?

Yes, citizens’ assemblies have been used multiple times in the UK to tackle a wide range of issues.

A notable example is the assembly held in Ireland on the issue of abortion, which according to the Electoral Reform Society “helped to break years of political deadlock”.

“Despite increasing pressure for change, politicians of all stripes had been reluctant to engage with the issue of abortion directly and to place it firmly on the political and legislative agenda,” writes Michela Palese, a research and policy officer at the think-tank.

“But it only took 99 ordinary citizens to help break years of political deadlock and reach a consensus on this highly polarising issue.”

In a letter to The Guardian, one Irish voter said that despite his scepticism: “Issues were discussed logically and with complete transparency and fairness. The result was a revelation in many ways.”

The UK assembly on climate change will produce a report that will be considered by the six select committees but, as the Guardian says, “there is no guarantee the government will take up any of the proposals”.

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