Citizens’ assemblies could offer popular support for climate action

August 1, 2019   By Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network

A week ago, the UK reached its hottest recorded temperature. Over the weekend half a month’s rain fell in one hour. On Tuesday, major flooding hit Yorkshire. And yesterday, the Met Office confirmed that the UK’s 10 hottest years on record have all happened since the start of the century. In fact, our coldest year on record was so long ago it saw the Marquess of Salisbury and William Gladstone fighting out an election (1892, in case you’re wondering).

The bottom line is that climate change is real and it is happening now. But its impact on the country and on the work of local government has barely begun. Just to take the destruction and disruption of the last couple of days: if we carry on with current carbon emissions trajectories, the proportion of national infrastructure at risk from flooding will grow by 200% by 2080 and the number of people at risk will almost double to 3.5 million. Thousands of extra care homes, hospitals and schools will find themselves in flood risk areas.

But cold numerical estimates do little to capture the vast scale of suffering that will be caused by uncontrolled climate change. It is no exaggeration to say that the displacement, disease and destruction of a heating world will undo in a couple of decades all the efforts councils are currently making to improve the health, wealth and wellbeing of their residents.

Fortunately, the local government sector seems to be starting to get the message. As LGC reported yesterday, over half of councils have now declared a climate emergency and the Local Government Association has established a Climate Emergency Network to lobby central government.

But declarations and meetings with ministers (who are generally distracted by a far less important issue, Brexit) can only be part of the response. The key test is whether councils are willing to take matters into their own hands and act.

Of course, councils are already taking important steps but what we have learned during the failure to act since the Kyoto Protocol which now exceeds 20 years, is that government cannot simply impose climate change measures. If the state does not work in collaboration with communities and citizens then the way is opened for politicians and the public to lose interest. At worst, it allows populist deniers to portray climate change policy as some sort of elite conspiracy. The fact is climate change requires a mass movement pressing the politicians ever onwards and revealing deniers for the minority view they are.

Councils have an absolutely central role in building that mass movement by following the example of Camden LBC, Devon CC and a handful of others by calling a citizens’ assembly to develop a local climate change action plan. Such forums are vital because they ensure that climate policy is owned by citizens not state. And if done right they can be the catalyst for meaningful action taken by thousands of individuals and organisations across a place rather than placing all responsibility in the hands of resource-poor councils.

Put simply, if every council at every tier held an assembly and started acting on their recommendations by the end of 2020, this country would have the unstoppable wave of popular determination and practical action needed to address this unprecedented emergency.

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