Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly consideration of climate change

The final report from the deliberations of the Citizens' Assembly on How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change is now available and delivered to the Oireachtas (and to our non-Irish readers, yes, whenever the political institutions of Ireland are discussed there is indeed a hint of Lord of the Rings). That means I am now allowed, apparently, to discuss this as a member of the Expert Advisory Group (other members were: Anna Davies, Margaret Desmond, John Garry, Aine Ryall, and Diarmund Torney).

The Citizens' Assembly is an exercise in deliberative democracy. There are people far more qualified than I to provide a definitive outline of what that is. But, at its most basic, it is picking randomly from those eligible to vote and bringing them together to hear evidence, discuss and then vote on issues within their charge. The Citizens' Assembly has considered 5 topics of which climate change was the third.

The assembly members were given two weekends to discuss the issues and then vote on a series of resolutions. The role of the Expert Advisory Group was to aid the Chair and secretariat to shape these deliberations. I got to know how to get to Government buildings rather well.

What were the key issues?

Finding the angle: The scope given was very broad and could have been taken in any number of directions. At the same time there were existing national activities around the national mitigation and adaptation planning and several existant bodies.  Ultimately, the citizens wanted to know what would change in their lives were Ireland to become a climate leader. So, the final structure was to spend the first day as a scientific primer and scene setting and then dive into the three major sectors of energy, transport and agriculture. Each sector should show what the status quo is, what 30 years hence may look like with leadership and take examples of how we are currently doing (ideally drawn from Irish exemplars).

Finding the right mix of speakers: Citizens needed to hear from speakers who could speak to the range of issues objectively. This was a challenging and rewarding puzzle to help solve. Particularly important was to hear inspirational examples of actual leadership in the here and now.

Helping find questions that answer the charge: The charge was how the State can make Ireland a leader so questions needed to be cast in the context of legal frameworks, incentives, policy and taxation. Questions needed to be realistic and recognise the need for trade-offs (no questions enabling having one's cake and eating it), and most importantly of all actionable.

The weekends themselves were fascinating. I'd urge people to look at the video presentations to see what was presented to the citizens. The citizens really engaged thoughtfully with the issue and asked challenging questions.

The final voting was very strongly (>80% in all cases) for a range of policy and fiscal measures which, if enacted in full would, indeed, make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.

What happens next? Well, that, ultimately is up to members of the Oireachtas to decide. The report contains a wealth of information for their consideration.

It was a tremendous honour to serve the Assembly on this topic. It took me somewhat outside my comfort zone quite often but it was a real privelige to see the process in action and work with experts I wouldn't ordinarily interact with. The Chair and secretariat did sterling effort, but most of all the citizens impressed me with how much they engaged.

It is just a pity that this level of civic engagement is so much the exception rather than the norm in our modern democracies. When our governments do not care because we do not care or don't wish to become informed we quite frankly get the governments we deserve. Exercises such as the Citizens' Assembly offer a tantalising glimpse of an alternative.