The green transition starts in your municipality
Local citizens need to be involved in the green transition if the climate crisis is to gain broad public support, researchers argue. Local citizens’ assemblies focussing on climate issues may prove an important part of the solution – and come to play a role in the upcoming local elections.
In late summer 2020, 99 Danes took on the role of members of the first national Climate Citizens’ Assembly. Since then, the Assembly has offered political input on climate-related topics, and the idea is that all parts of society need to be involved if the green transition is to succeed in time.
In addition to the national Climate Citizens’ Assembly, a series of municipalities are working on establishing local climate citizens’ assemblies. Aarhus is the first municipality to have completed this process.
Professor of Political Science Lars Tønder from the University of Copenhagen understands the municipalities’ interest in climate citizens’ assemblies, which may prove key elements in the upcoming local elections, he argues:
‘You see, climate citizens’ assemblies serve two main purposes: First, they can have a measurable, positive effect on the green transition. Second, they speak to the idea of active democracy, especially when it comes to increasing social cohesion and trust between the population and the politicians’, he explains.
Lars Tønder is part of the research group DIGT (’Democratic Innovations in a Green Transition’), which has followed all meetings in the national Climate Citizens’ Assembly the past year and subsequently interviewed 11 of its members. The researchers have also obtained access to the Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities’ work on citizens’ assemblies.
Their impression of the first phase of the Assembly is generally positive:
‘In the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly we recognise a lot of the effects of citizens’ assemblies highlighted in existing research. The citizens we have interviewed stress that not only has it increased their knowledge of climate change; they have also gained a more nuanced understanding of possible solutions’, Lars Tønder says.
Room for improvement
But even though the Climate Citizens’ Assembly thus appears to have a positive effect on the green transition, not least by establishing a more informed basis for decision, there is room for improvement, Lars Tønder argues.
‘First and foremost, the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly is severely underfunded. Originally, DKK 150,000 were allocated to facilitating stage one of the Assembly. In comparison, no other national climate citizens’ assembly has cost less than DKK 7 million’.
The COVID-19 crisis has also been a challenge to the Climate Citizens’ Assembly, as it prevented the members from meeting in person.
‘Several citizens say that they considered the online format a barrier. They missed the informal conversations that make it easier to get a sense of the person you are talking to’, Lars Tønder says.
Who are we?
As flies on the Assembly’s virtual walls, the researchers also noticed another issue which has not been addressed before: It was important to the members of the Danish national Climate Citizens’ Assembly to appear competent and capable of understanding the expert presentations, which constituted central parts of the meetings. At the same time, though, they had difficulties defining their own role in the decision process and the political system in general.
‘They did not know whether they were expected to be experts, citizens, politicians or some form of hybrid. There may be several reasons for this, but our preliminary conclusion is that this confusion could to some degree have been avoided by making the objective of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly more clear to the members from the beginning’, Lars Tønder argues and expands:
Facts about the Climate Citizens' Assembly
A climate citizens’ assembly is a large group of randomly selected citizens, who on an informed basis discuss climate policy issues and on that basis offer their recommendations to the politicians. The Climate Citizens’ Assembly thus constitutes a mini version of the general public, which contributes to the political decision process.
In recent years, national climate citizens’ assemblies have been established in Ireland, France, England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark. The assemblies vary in objective, political structure and design.
Climate citizens’ assemblies have also been established at local levels, especially in England. Denmark has also experimented with different consultative civic engagement formats at local level. This includes citizens’ summits on climate adaptation and citizens’ assemblies on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but not actual climate citizens’ assemblies.
‘On the one hand, the Danish Parliament or the Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities could have made it clear to the members how their recommendations would be used in the political context. On the other hand, the tasks of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly could have been described more accurately to prevent doubt among the members as to what they were expected to do’.
The political connection
In interviews with members of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly, the research group found that several members had little confidence that the politicians and the Danish Government would in fact use their recommendations. One of the members thus argues:
‘It is my impression that no one will use it, and that it is six months’ work gone to waste. They should be ashamed to get this huge process going and then not use it’.
In a so-called concept note, the Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities is obligated to provide written feedback on concrete initiatives for which the Assembly has contributed with recommendations and made their opinions known. Furthermore, the Danish Parliament’s Climate, Energy and Utilities Committee promised to publicly describe the Committee’s deliberations regarding the Climate Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations. However, the concept note offers no deadline that holds the Danish Government or the Danish Parliament to this promise.
‘Therefore, the members of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly have a hard time figuring out what they can expect of the Government and the politicians. A clearer feedback mechanism as regards the recommendations provided by the Climate Citizens’ Assembly would have been useful here – it would have strengthened the trust and connection between these two parts of the process’, Lars Tønder argues.
Bridges gaps and shapes opinions
Nevertheless, Lars Tønder finds that the Climate Citizens’ Assembly on a general level has a positive effect on the green transition. This is due not least to their development of a more informed basis for decision.
‘Climate citizens’ assemblies can help bridge the gap between worrying about the climate crisis and taking progressive climate action. Our conclusion is that the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly has had a positive effect on the basis for decision, the sense of co-ownership and formation of public opinion regarding the green transition’, Lars Tønder stresses.
Climate citizens’ assemblies can help bridge the gap between worrying about the climate crisis and taking progressive climate action.
And a large share of the interviewed members of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly agree with the researchers here.
‘It is a democratic process. And this prompts you to start discussing things and to think: I have to see things from your perspective too. You live in a different part of the country and we care about different things’, one of the members point out.
So far, the work of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly has resulted in a report containing 118 recommendations. Some call for concrete action, e.g. introducing a climate tax and improving public transport, whereas others are more process-oriented. E.g. the politicians are encouraged to make the national Climate Citizens’ Assembly permanent – and to introduce climate citizens’ assemblies on local levels of the political system.
The National Climate Citizens' Assembly
- The Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly was established in connection with the 2020 Finance Act.
- The objective of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly is to involve a representative part of the Danish population in the design of Danish climate policy.
- The Assembly has 99 members, who were chosen on the basis of a series of simple criteria such as age, gender, geography, education and income to make sure they represent the Danish population.
- The members are tasked with debating various climate-related dilemmas close to home to ensure that the citizens are heard in connection with the design of Danish climate policy.
Hence, the report recommends introducing ‘a local climate citizens’ assembly in each municipality to support the local agenda and debate and thus create a framework that allows citizens committed to the cause a chance to be heard and facilitates the best possible climate committees close to the citizens’.
It is a recommendation that Lars Tønder and the other researchers support.
’We believe local climate citizens’ assemblies can reduce polarisation in the population with regard to the green transition. At the same time, local citizens’ assemblies can make people more aware of their opinions as well as more informed and interested in participating in the local political process’, Lars Tønder believes.