How Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly helped climate action

Blog post by Frances Foley: “..In July 2016, the new government – led by Fine Gael, backed by independents – put forward a bill to establish a national-level Citizens’ Assembly to look at the biggest issues of the day. These included the challenges of an ageing population; the role fixed-term parliaments; referendums; the 8th Amendment on abortion; and climate change.

Citizens from every region, every socio-economic background, each ethnicity and age group and from right across the spectrum of political opinion convened over the course of two weekends between September and November 2017. The issue seemed daunting in scale and complexity, but the participants had been well-briefed and had at their disposal a line up of experts, scientists, advocates and other witnesses who would help them make sense of the material. By the end, citizens had produced a radical series of recommendations which went far beyond what any major Irish party was promising, surprising even the initiators of the process….

As expected, the passage for some of the proposals through the Irish party gauntlet has not been smooth. The 8-hour long debate on increasing the carbon tax, for example, suggests that mixing deliberative and representative democracy still produces conflict and confusion. It is certainly clear that parliaments have to adapt and develop if citizens’ assemblies are ever to find their place in our modern democracies.

But the most encouraging move has been the simple acknowledgement that many of the barriers to implementation lie at the level of governance. The new Climate Action Commission, with a mandate to monitor climate action across government, should act as the governmental guarantor of the vision from the Citizens’ Assembly. Citizens’ proposals have themselves stimulated a review of internal government processes to stop their demands getting mired in party wrangling and government bureaucracy. By their very nature, the success of citizens’ assemblies can also provide an alternative vision of how decisions can be made – and in so doing shame political parties and parliaments into improving their decision-making practices.

Does the Irish Citizens’ Assembly constitute a case of rapid transition? In terms of its breadth, scale and vision, the experiment is impressive. But in terms of speed, deliberative processes are often criticised for being slow, unwieldly and costly. The response to this should be to ask what we’re getting: whilst an Assembly is not the most rapid vehicle for change – most serious processes take several months, if not a couple of years – the results, both in specific outcomes and in cultural or political shifts – can be astounding….

In respect to climate change, this harmony between ends and means is particularly significant. The climate crisis is the most severe collective decision-making challenge of our times, one that demands courage, but also careful thought….(More)”.