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Citizens assemblies are no solution to the climate challenge — we need innovation

Citizens assemblies are no solution to the climate challenge — we need innovation

At first sight, long-term swings in individual seats in Australian elections are a definite niche interest, one for the real trainspotter.

But during a visit to Sydney University’s Complex Systems Institute, I noticed a fascinating piece in The Australian newspaper.

The Australian Labor Party had a good result in the 2007 federal elections, and a relatively poor one in those of 2019. Nationally, there was a swing of seven per cent from Labor to the centre-right Coalition.

In eight constituencies in Queensland — equivalent to some 30 seats in the House of Commons — the average swing away from Labor was over 16 per cent. All were held by Labor in 2007. All were won by the Coalition in 2019.

They had one key thing in common: in each constituency, coal mining or commodity extraction was an important part of the local economy.

We see exactly the same phenomenon across the west as a whole. Substantial groups of voters are very reluctant to pay the price now for policies which might yield benefits in terms of the climate a decade or more into the future.

Two decades ago, long before climate change became a fashionable topic, lorry drivers brought the UK to a virtual standstill in a protest against rising fuel prices. Much more recently, President Emmanuel Macron saw the streets of French cities in flames. The initial trigger which led to the so-called “gilet jaunes” movement was also proposed fuel tax increases.

So how can changes be made on a sufficient scale to address climate change in the light of this lack of democratic consent?

The liberal left in various countries sets great store by so-called citizens assemblies. A small group of citizens, reflecting the socio-demographic characteristics of the population, is selected at random to solve a particular policy challenge. One, set up by parliament itself, has been meeting in Britain on the topic of climate change. The 110 assembly members are encouraged to consider the topic in depth.

The liberal hope is that, guided by experts, ordinary people will come up with policy recommendations congenial to them. But this is only half the story. To be more convincing, the assembly members need to be made to live for a year or so experiencing the consequences of the policies they devise.

Anyone can advocate, say, an immediate ban on petrol and diesel vehicles in the abstract. But if you have to give up your own car here and now, you may come to an entirely different conclusion about what should be done.

But there is a silver lining. In Australia, this year solar energy costs are falling below those of coal and gas for the first time. A decade ago, they were over five times more expensive. As a result, households are installing solar panels in huge numbers. In the deserts, companies are building massive solar farms.

Hair shirts imposed on electorates by central planners will not work, and will instead spark democratic discontent. Ingenuity and innovation create the opportunity for a solution arising out of free choice.

As published in City AM Wednesday 26th February 2020
Image: Australia protest via Wikimedia by Takver licensed for use CC BY-SA 2.0
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