To Tackle Climate Change, We Need To Update Democracy

Article by Mark Baldassare and Cheryl Katz: “…Engaging the public through direct democracy can provide an antidote to the widespread government distrust and extreme political polarization that is currently paralyzing the nation. As shown by the overwhelming and bipartisan support for the outcome of a ballot measure such as Proposition 20’s Coastal Commission, statutes enacted through the initiative process have the potential to stand the test of time. State lawmakers, in turn, feel the weight of public opinion and are loath to tinker with laws that have received majority endorsement. 

The seeming intractability of citizens’ initiatives could be seen as an argument against direct democracy. This was exemplified by recent failed propositions aimed at changing the low commercial property tax rates set by the 1978 Proposition 13 (i.e. 2020 Proposition 15) and at ending the ban on affirmative action programs established by the 1996 Proposition 209 (i.e. 2020 Proposition 16). One reason these efforts were doomed is that proponents failed to engage with the public on such controversial policy issues and did not overcome voters’ inherent skepticism. When voters are dubious about a measure’s intentions or outcome, the default is to say “no” — shown by the historical initiative pass rate of 35%.            

“Giving citizens agency in tackling the planet’s most pressing issue stands to motivate them to adopt difficult measures and make the lifestyle changes required.”

Another form of direct democracy is citizens assemblies, in which a large group of randomly selected members of the public engage in guided discussions and make policy recommendations. When applied to climate change, giving citizens agency in tackling the planet’s most pressing issue stands to motivate them to adopt difficult measures and make the lifestyle changes required. For example, political scientist Carsten Berg’s analysis of the citizens’ assemblies convened for the European Union’s Conference on the Future of Europe in 2022 describes how participation engendered a sense of group purpose and spurred collaboration toward a common goal. 

Direct democracy tools can help overcome the public’s feelings of helplessness in the face of the climate crisis and generate a shared sense of responsibility for mitigation. A 2022 research report examined the emotional experiences of participants in a 2020-21 Scottish citizens’ assembly convened to address the question of how Scotland could “tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way.” Compared to the general population, writes Lancaster University researcher Nadine Andrews, assembly members had “higher levels of hopefulness and optimism, lower levels of worry and overwhelm, and a lower proportion reporting that their emotions about climate change were having a negative impact on their mental health,” while participating in the process. Participants told Andrews they felt a sense of agency and empowerment to change their behavior and take “urgent climate action.”  

While invaluable for promoting climate justice, however, citizens’ assemblies have lacked the authority to create policy. As Berg points out, the outcome of the Future of Europe deliberations was non-binding, had a small reach and received little public attention. And Andrews found that participants’ hope and optimism about tackling climate change dropped in the wake of the Scottish government’s lackluster response to the panel’s report. The outcome of any such effort in California will need to be much more results-oriented…(More)”.