“They told us from the start that they weren’t going to dispute the reality of the crisis,” says Caspar, a 25-year-old student, recalling his participation in Oxford’s Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. “It was very much, ‘this is happening. We’re in it. But we want to know what you think we should do in response’.”
When the UK Government passed legislation to reach ‘net zero’ carbon by 2050, the members of Oxford City Council wondered whether their city might not do even more — and faster. “We wanted to ask citizens directly if they thought we should be reaching that goal sooner than 2050, and what trade-offs they’d be willing to make if so,” says Mish Tuller, Head of Communications, Partnerships & Policy at Oxford City Council. “It was the first full Citizens’ Assembly in the UK on this issue.”
Citizens’ Assemblies — in which a representative group of citizens are invited to learn about, deliberate upon, and make recommendations in relation to a particular issue — are gaining traction in the UK and globally. Citizens’ Assemblies give citizens the time and opportunity to learn about an issue, discuss it in detail, before reaching conclusions and arriving at workable recommendations of what should be done. This can help overcome divisive problems, and make seemingly impossible change possible. The approach can improve civic participation and increase the likelihood that marginalised voices are heard. At their best, they can shift power from politicians and lobbyists on issues of vital importance, putting it back in the hands of the people.
The Citizens’ Assembly that Caspar took part in over two weekends in September 2019 was, according to Caspar, sobering but practical on the dangers of the climate crisis. Each day was full of talks from experts, some of them Oxford professors, others involved in local business, on how city issues like transport, housing, and biodiversity might be affected. After each panel, Caspar recalls, participants broke into groups to discuss and do voting exercises that cast their views on which areas should be prioritised. “I think the focus wasn’t so much on how we voted, at this stage, as to get us thinking about what was important to us,” he says. “If, for example, more efficient housing was a greater priority than carbon emissions — what do we change first?”
The participants, chosen to reflect the Oxford population, were all broadly in support of ambitious action. “There was only one other student and one teacher,” recalls Caspar. “There was someone there who had a corner shop, some others were self-employed, or retired at home. There were definitely people there I might not otherwise have met.” The concerns most people had centred around two issues. One was personal cost: "If they had to refit their homes to new standards, or if transport became much more expensive, how would that affect them?” The second was the broader human cost. “Oxford has a big homelessness problem, and inequality is increasing. They wanted the Council to be really ambitious, but not to forget these issues are also important.”
Caspar, who had strong views about the climate crisis before the Assembly, admits that there wasn’t much in the talks and panels that was wholly new to him, “but what I did learn about is what people are currently doing.” He believes this aspect of the experience may have the most untapped potential. “I knew that Oxford City Council were doing a lot on the issue,” he says, citing the visibility of the Council’s electric buses and recycling campaigns. “But there were lots of community schemes I didn’t know were going on that I’m now aware of. It’s really good to know in detail what the local government’s doing.”
That civic awareness extended beyond the Assembly members, something Caspar feels the Council could take advantage of in the future: “I talked to [friends and family] about the Assembly, they talked to others too. The other Assembly members did the same, so the awareness sort of spread throughout Oxford.” That interest could be harnessed, he suggests, to get people involved in community and civic initiatives. “We were meant to represent ourselves, and our own opinions. But as a group, we’re also meant to represent the city of Oxford. So I think in that sense it’s important for them to realise that we’re talking with other people. It would be interesting if, in addition to our views, they’d asked us what we think the people around us believe, and maybe given people who weren’t directly in the Assembly a way to participate.”
The most surprising aspect of his experience, Caspar says, is how much more optimistic he feels about how much impact humans can still have on the climate crisis.
“I had a real view of doom and gloom [about the climate crisis] going in. But the speakers were optimistic, telling us how many programmes were already in place, or just waiting to start. That made me feel that it was possible to change.”
After seeing the whole process through, he’s convinced that such assemblies add value to the democratic process, especially on an issue as complex as the climate crisis. “It’s less partisan. It’s not just a Labour Government in a city council listening only to Labour voters,” he says. “I’m not sure it would be as successful on a party-specific issue. But when it’s a complex issue that affects all of us, then yes, I think it’s a really good idea.”
For the Council’s part, as a response to the Assembly, it has committed over £19 million in funding for interventions to tackle the climate crisis, while keeping regard to the members’ concerns that the programme doesn’t disadvantage low-income households or sacrifice current standards of living. The Council keeps the Assembly participants updated on plans and new developments, going so far as to organise a trip to the city recycling plant some months after the Assembly, alongside plans of becoming ‘net-zero’ by the end of 2030. “It really does feel that they’ve listened to us,” says Caspar.