It is hard to believe it has been almost 35 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s groundbreaking testimony to US Congress confirming the reality of climate change and the urgent need to act. How is it then, that since this prominent moment, we have now emitted more than in all of history before that landmark event? One study argues that after three decades of attempted climate policymaking, the blame for the failure to sufficiently address climate change lies not with our scientific understanding of it, nor the lack of technological solutions but instead with political failures. 

What type of political failures?

There are many factors that have contributed to why climate change hasn’t been adequately addressed through politics, but the main one which will be considered here is ‘short-termism’ and its complicated relationship with voters.

Short-termism encompasses the idea that because politicians work in electoral cycles (4 years in the context of the UK), and have to secure re-election at the end of this cycle, they are unlikely to impose any policies on voters without clear signals that this would receive widespread support, as this may endanger their chances of re-election.

This makes the implementation of certain climate policy measures (which may have longer-term benefits, but are initially contentious, such as higher levels of taxation to encourage behavioural changes) a political gamble, one that many politicians are unwilling to take if it sacrifices their chances of winning the next election.

The evidence that short-termism has hindered climate action is confirmed by the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Published last year, it highlights that governments are more likely to prioritise short-term climate action, reducing the opportunity for transformative measures.  

With this in mind, longer-term climate policy is unlikely to come to fruition unless the electorate clearly indicates its support for the measures being implemented.

How can this be addressed?

One way for politicians to better understand the views of the electorate and which policies would garner support, is through the use of citizens’ assemblies. A citizens’ assembly randomly selects a representative group of the electorate to meet, learn about, discuss and make recommendations on a certain topic. Sound familiar? That’s because the UK has already held a citizen’s climate assembly (and we wrote about it at the time – check it out)!

Climate Assembly UK

In case you aren’t familiar, the Climate Assembly UK (CAUK) was commissioned by the UK Government in June 2019 and took place in early 2020. It brought together 108 randomly selected people from across the UK, who met across 6 weekends to explore and discuss how the UK should get to net zero emissions by 2050. After its conclusion, an extensive report was created, highlighting detailed recommendations for politicians on climate policies which gained support with the participants. 

How did it go?

Unfortunately the impact of the CAUK report was limited, and Stephen Elstub highlights that this is for a number of reasons, most of which stem from a failure to set out how the results of the report would actually be used. He argues this has meant that the CAUK has had an agenda-setting influence at best, rather than accelerating policy implementation.

Where else has this happened? 

Alongside CAUK, there have been many citizens’ climate assemblies held, both at a local and  regional level, but also at a national scale including in France and Ireland. This article highlights that the French citizens’ climate assembly is considered to have been somewhat more successful than CAUK for a number of reasons, but principally:

  • It received 10x more funding, giving it a broader scope of what could be achieved.
  • It generated a far wider national debate on climate change.
  • The French citizens’ climate assembly was designed to influence policy making whereas the CAUK was an exercise designed to inform policy making, meaning the outcome in France was a greater effect on policy implementation.

The Irish citizens’ assembly on climate change had a significant influence on the Irish Climate Action Plan, published in 2019. Since then, Ireland has held a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss too, which recently strongly voted in favour of a referendum to amend the Irish Constitution to include biodiversity protection. If this referendum were to go ahead as a result, it would be a huge moment for citizens’ assemblies as mechanisms for bringing about climate action. Not only this, but this highlights an example of a clear signal for the Irish government of voters’ preferences on things they’d like to see in environmental policy, reducing the negative effect of short-termism. 

What next? 

It’s clear that if used correctly, citizens’ climate assemblies have the potential to be a key tool for aiding longer-term, transformative climate governance by giving politicians strong indicators into which policies are likely to gain the most support. Furthermore, implementing policies favoured by citizens’ assemblies gives them a further legitimacy in the eyes of the public, increasing their chance of success. Beyond their impact on political governance and policy, citizens’ climate assemblies are great ways to engage people and empower them in the climate decision-making process. I hope we see many more of them! 

Be Curious!

  • Watch ‘The People V Climate Change’ on iPlayer which documents the Climate Assembly that took place in the UK in 2020.
  • Read the report produced by CAUK.
  • Watch this short video which covers some more reasons why politics has failed to sufficiently address climate change.