What is a Citizens' Assembly?
A Citizens' Assembly is a democratic process that seeks to answer a question or solve a problem facing a community in a way that fairly represents everyone’s interests. An Assembly is usually made up of about 100–500 people who live in a community and share a government. Participants are chosen by lottery to ensure they represent the makeup of that place in terms of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood. These everyday people come together, online or in person, to learn the facts of the issue at hand, question a variety of experts and stakeholders, consider various responses, and discuss what they think should happen. Then, they offer recommendations to their elected officials and the wider public, which can be turned into laws.
A Climate Assembly, of course, is simply a Citizens' Assembly about climate change!
So-called “Citizens' Assemblies*,” have their roots in ancient Athenian democratic processes and various Indigenous decision-making practices, are making a comeback in modern democracies. We believe it's time to bring them back to help us all respond to this issue of our lifetimes. Their essence is to gather a group of people reflecting the diversity of the population and engage them in a process of learning, discussing, deliberating, and decision-making known as Deliberative Democracy, the result being a set of recommendations that stands as a Voice of the People.
(*Please note that “Citizens” is a term of art that has become connected with this type of process, and that we in no way intend to exclude non-citizens. Everyone is impacted by climate change, and everyone needs to be consulted about and involved in the solution!)
You probably have some questions.
Most of us have never heard of government working like this, and it might seem a little unusual. It’s natural to have a lot of questions about how something like this really works. We’ll outline, step-by-step, how Citizens’ Assemblies are usually organized and implemented so that you can get a concrete idea of how these processes go.
But first, before we talk through the logistics of how a Citizens’ Assembly works, let’s address a more fundamental question: can something like this really work? Can a group of ordinary people from all walks of life come together to create policy solutions to complex and urgent issues facing our communities?
The answer, emphatically, is yes. Across the world, on all types of issues, Citizens’ Assemblies have a proven track record of success at making change that reflects the will of the people and improving the public's opinion of democracy. See our history page and case studies for detailed summaries of some of these events. Read about how:
Randomly-selected Texans in the mid-1990s shaped the state’s energy future in surprising ways;
The 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform crafted a new electoral process;
The Irish Constitutional Convention, and its successor, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, both paved the way to historic referenda on some of Ireland’s most polarizing questions;
Citizens’ Assemblies in Gdansk, Poland, have made sweeping changes in city policy on flood mitigation, air pollution, civic engagement and the treatment of LGBT people;
Ongoing or recently-completed Climate Assemblies in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere demonstrate the capacity of groups of ordinary people to find equitable, effective, and popular climate policy.
If organized in a way that allows for participation, deliberation, and representation, Citizens’ Assemblies work. We know this because they have for decades.
What, then, would a Climate Assembly look like?
Citizens’ Assemblies actually structured in three phases: Selection, Learning, and Deliberation.
Selection: Lottery + Compensation
Selecting members is a crucial component of a Citizens’ Assembly. Participants must be chosen to reflect the diversity of backgrounds and experience found in the wider population. This is usually accomplished through a process known as a ‘civic lottery,’ completed by an independent, third-party organization. Like with jury duty, those who take part in the Assembly are compensated for their time. Childcare, eldercare, and travel accommodations are also provided, and every effort is made to guarantee that no one’s external situation or lack of privilege precludes their participation. This helps ensure true representation.
For Climate Assembly UK, a nonpartisan group called the Sortition Foundation mailed invitations to 30,000 randomly-selected households across the country. From those who responded that they were available on the Assembly’s dates, stratified random sampling was completed to select 110 participants. These 110 people represent the UK population in terms of age, gender, educational qualification, ethnicity, where in the UK they live, whether they live in an urban or rural area, and attitudes towards climate change. Participants are paid 150 pounds each weekend.
Because the body that makes decisions truly represents the wider population, a Citizens’ Assembly will create fairer solutions, since all interests and perspectives have a seat at the table. In addition to this, deep participation by a representative group of citizens makes an Assembly’s recommendations more widely trusted by the general public. Every member of the community will see people in the Assembly who look and live like they do, and that they know share their concerns. This provides legitimacy to the Assembly’s conclusions.
Learning: Balanced + Comprehensive
Once selected, the Assembly is brought together. This usually happens in a conference hall or convention center, although recently, in response to Covid-19, many Assemblies have transitioned online. After an introductory period, the learning phase begins, in which the members investigate the problem they are tasked with finding answers to.
In this phase, participants hear evidence from a broad range of stakeholders and researchers. They can also ask questions, request more information or sources, and invite public input through public hearings and open submissions. Even if members had never heard much about the subject of the Assembly before it began, through this process, they become experts. In fact, members of the Assembly wind up spending more time with the topic under discussion than is possible for almost any elected official, whose time is split between a wide range of responsibilities. Assembly members also bring deep levels of local and community knowledge to the table, providing valuable context and insight to what they are learning.
The material presented to the Assembly is prepared by impartial, third-party civic organizations and reviewed by an oversight panel. It is also made available to the general public. This transparency helps ensure that the information is balanced, accurate, and comprehensive. There is no way for the Assembly to be coerced or fed false or biased information without the general public realizing, because we can watch what’s happening live on YouTube!
Finally, the Assembly discusses what they think should happen.
Everyday people will deal with the consequences of climate change, so everyday people should decide how we respond.
People are more likely to trust a program or process that has been developed with citizen involvement. Citizen participation gives legitimacy to the solutions offered. Prioritizing community involvement speeds up the process of implementing environmental policies, from building solar farms and transmission lines, to creating more resilient coastline.
With no campaigning, no lobbying, and no backdoor influence by special interests, there is no way to stack the deck. Furthermore, a Citizen’s Assembly allows participants to hear directly from the relevant experts, public actors, and civil society groups about the solutions they propose, thereby considering all significant recommendations in an even-handed way.
How we respond to the issue of climate is a topic particularly well-suited for a Citizens’ Assembly, because of:
breadth and complex interconnectedness with other societal issues,1) the climate problem’s
2) the necessity for active public consent, and
3) climate change’s politically polarizing nature.
Breadth, depth, and intersectionality
A Citizens’ Assembly allows for a full and comprehensive examination of the issue. Because of the cascading effects of climate impacts and the far-reaching implications of decarbonization, this feature of a Citizens’ Assembly is crucial for considering the climate emergency.
Rather than one issue, climate change is best thought of as an era: something that will happen to the whole of our society, deepening and exacerbating all existing social problems, as well as creating new ones. This is why climate change is often referred to as a “threat multiplier”—responding to the climate problem requires consideration of nearly every other facet of society.
Throughout the different processes of learning, questioning experts, and discussing the many components of the issue under consideration, the participants in a Climate Assembly will become impartial experts on the intricacies of the climate challenge. In fact, by the time the Assembly makes its recommendations, each member will have spent significantly longer thinking about climate change, and how it should be addressed, than their elected officials ever have. After all, a politician’s time is split between many different issues—not to mention fundraising, campaigning, and all of the other obligations that come along with politicking in America today. Combined with the representative nature of the Assembly, which will ensure all voices and lived experiences are given equal say, a Climate Assembly provides a uniquely informed and equitable window into how people wish to address climate change.
Collective problems require collective buy-in.
Responding to climate change is defined by the choices we make: how much we are willing to change, and how quickly. Fundamentally, climate action is a trade-off: the more aggressively—and potentially disruptively—we choose to act now, the more we might save in the decades to come. Historically, rather than entrusting people with knowledge and decision-making power, governments and NGOs have instead chosen to circumvent them.
This attitude is profoundly condescending, elitist, and immoral, of course—but it’s also fundamentally ineffective.
In any program that involves large changes to society, active public consent is not just important; it’s foundational. Many of us must change the way we live our lives, and according to science, we must do so quickly. And yet, we have little idea what policies the majority of the population might support, nor what many people might be willing to do—because we’ve never really asked.