Opinion: Citizens’ Assemblies have the power to break tribal politics

Farhana Yamin and Maya de Souza feel Citizens' Assemblies have the power to tackle climate emergency

Farhana Yamin and Maya de Souza feel Citizens' Assemblies have the power to tackle climate emergency. - Credit: Archant

Boris Johnson has become prime minister at a time when British democracy is going through a crisis.

Parliament appears deadlocked, our politics is polarised, and MPs seem to spend more time bickering than providing leadership on the many long-term challenges we face.

But there are signs of hope that politics can be done differently when looking at a local level. Camden Council is leading the way in experimenting with new forms of citizens' led decision-making. In July, Camden convened the first ever Citizens' Assembly on the Climate Crisis in the whole of the UK.

Citizens' Assemblies are a way to rebuild trust through an innovative way of making decisions, giving ordinary people a chance to co-create solutions to problems that affect them on the basis of all the relevant information. They work by random selection of participants who receive expert advice and deliberate to come up with joint solutions to a problem. There is strong evidence from around the world demonstrating that when citizens come together outside their party-political tribes, they make bolder, more far-sighted decisions than happens in a normal political setting.

The push to have Citizens Assemblies has come to the fore because Extinction Rebellion has demanded the creation of a national citizens assembly as one of their three demands. Despite witnessing a national reduction of C02 emissions of 27per cent since 2010, and in Camden a steeper fall of 32pc, emissions need to fall further and faster to achieve "net zero carbon emissions" and prevent irreversible damage to the planet. The decision by Camden to pilot a Citizens Assembly on a single issue - the Climate Crisis - is being keenly watched not only by Extinction Rebellion but also the nearly 100 local councils in the UK and thousands more abroad who like Camden have declared a climate and ecological emergency. It follows on from a broader Citizens Assembly in 2017 to shape a vision for Camden 2025.

Camden's Climate Citizens' Assembly met three times in July. It considered evidence from climate scientists, renewable energy experts and environmentalists about how CO2 emissions can be reduced in Camden. Fifty Camden residents chosen at random participated. Suggestions for cutting emissions were made online by a wide range of individuals with local businesses and institutions such as the Roundhouse, British Museum and University College Hospital contributing. More than 600 ideas were received with 250 residents making submissions.

At its concluding session on July 21, the assembly voted in favour of 17 resolutions including installing solar panels on all available roofs and cutting fossil fuel-based energy out of new council developments. The Assembly called for a permanent climate emergency group of experts and residents to oversee the shift. These solutions will be presented to a full council meeting on October 7 which will consider the adoption of a new Environmental Action Plan in 2020.

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The leader of the council, Georgia Gould, has already committed to the idea of establishing a local solution centre to bring together local business, artists, thinkers and do-ers to take forward initiatives. We are pleased that this idea emerged at another local event Dartmouth Park Talks which Cllr Gould attended, which we hosted also on a non-partisan basis, showing the rich and constructive civic life of Camden.

For more information visit camden.gov.uk/climate-crisis.

- Maya de Souza was previously a councillor in Camden. Farhana Yamin is a climate change lawyer and activist. They host Dartmouth Park Talks, a platform for dialogue and discussion on the big issues facing our local and global community.