A climate for deliberation?
During the first peak of coronavirus infections, communities across the UK were connecting in creative and innovative ways through mutual aid groups, the now familiar street WhatsApp groups and national volunteering programmes. This period also saw heightened public communication efforts from the government, with daily press conferences that went on to feature members of the public, streamed in to voice their concerns to those making decisions about the government’s response to the public health crisis.
As lockdown measures ease and then tighten it is hard to know when exactly the UK, like many countries around the world, will come through this crisis. Yet a big question remains about what sort of economy and society we want to rebuild together following this crisis. And crucially, what voice will communities have in the decisions about how we rebuild? The coming months are a critical period for national policy making, but they could also be a major opportunity to find solutions that match up to the reality of people’s lives across the UK.
Climate Assembly UK, the UK’s first national citizens' assembly on climate change, which reported its findings last week, has been an exemplar of how citizens from across the country can come together, debate the huge issues facing us and develop well thought out solutions. Meeting over several weekends, including online after the lockdown began, over 100 people were able to discuss, debate and agree a raft of recommendations – over 50 – on how the UK can meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
It is not just the outcomes that we should pay attention to, essential though they are, but also the process of how they were reached. It is a process that deserves to be far more widely used within policy making, which is why it is at the heart of IPPR's Environmental Justice Commission (EJC).
The EJC had always planned to hold a series of citizens’ juries across the country, but in light of this year’s events these processes are going to look considerably different to how we had originally imagined them. Gone are the town halls and chatting over tea breaks, to be replaced instead with Zoom breakout groups and unstable internet connections. This year the French Convention sur le Climat, Scottish Citizens’ Assembly and UK Parliament Climate Assembly have all had to hold their remaining meetings online too.
This month we convened our first of four citizens juries, starting in Tees Valley and County Durham. Since this group of 23 residents have never come together before, we have been working hard to think creatively about what ‘coming together’ means in online spaces and the unexpected opportunities of a virtual process.
No, there isn’t the same buzz as an in-person meeting, but for many people this allows space to feel more confident about speaking up, without quite as much competition with the loudest of the group. Recruiting for an online jury has also opened the process up to parents with caring responsibilities and people from areas across the region who may not have had the time to travel to multiple meetings.
With the right technology support, convening a jury online could open the conversation about climate policy and fairness to more of those on low incomes, more single parents, ethnic minority communities and gig economy workers, who have all suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
This disparity is very much a part of the climate and nature emergencies, where the poorest households and ethnic minority communities contribute much less to emissions than their richer, whiter counterparts, yet they are amongst the most vulnerable to the risks of environmental breakdown. The highest income earners in the UK have a carbon footprint that is 42 per cent higher than the lowest earners. Air pollution disproportionately affects schools in deprived areas.
The pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have exposed existing inequalities that, without action, will remain a deciding factor in how different communities and areas of the UK experience the climate and nature emergencies. Whether in person or online, deliberative democracy can help us address these disparities and develop policy ideas that create opportunities for people across the UK to thrive in healthy, prosperous communities.
Jacana Bresson is events & engagement officer at IPPR