Breaking Through the Climate Gridlock with Citizen Power

Why climate advocates are increasingly turning to citizens’ assemblies to remedy governments’ sluggishness on climate change.

By César Rodríguez-Garavito and Jackie Gallant

Nearly thirty years ago, the international community formally recognized the urgency of the threat posed by climate change through the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yet, based on the current trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions, we are barreling towards an increase in temperature that far exceeds the 1.5 to two degrees Celsius after which dangerous destabilization of the climate system is possible.

This decades-long gridlock on ambitious climate action has led climate advocates and concerned citizens to search for alternative methods to jumpstart action on climate change. Increasingly, climate activists – including Extinction Rebellion – have been turning to one method in particular: citizens’ assemblies. In this explainer, the Climate Litigation Accelerator (CLX) provides an introduction to this emerging trend.

What Is a Citizens’ Assembly?

Drawing inspiration from examples of participatory democracy in Ancient Greece, citizens’ assemblies are a form of “deliberative mini-publics.” They are usually convened to consider major public policy issues, like electoral reform. Though citizens’ assemblies vary in the details of their institutional design, they tend to share certain core features.

For example, citizens are generally chosen to participate through a random selection process. Citizens’ assemblies work because they’re assumed to be representative of the public at large and not systematically biased towards a particular viewpoint or segment of society. That’s why this step is critical in the assembly design process. 

Once in session, a citizens’ assembly typically begins with a series of activities intended to educate the participants on the issue – or issues – for which the assembly was convened. The educational component is followed by activities intended to provide a space for discussion with fellow citizen participants and deliberation of the issue. This can take place in a variety of forms, including small group discussions and plenary sessions.

The educational efforts and deliberation activities culminate in a final decision rendered by the citizens’ assembly. The nature of that decision depends on the issue under review, but generally the citizens’ assembly will adopt a series of policy proposals or positions on the issue and on sub-topics of the issue.

Citizens Assemblies: Pros and Cons

Advocates of citizens’ assemblies offer a number of justifications for using citizens’ assemblies to shape public policy. One of the most significant is that these assemblies are thought to help break persistent gridlock on major issues within the political system. Advocates for citizens’ assemblies also argue that they enhance the democratic legitimacy of policy choices that involve significant trade-offs and facilitate buy-in for those tough policy choices.

Over the past several decades, there has also been a movement towards incorporating greater public participation in democratic governance. Citizens’ assemblies are one mechanism to do just that, and the evidence demonstrates that citizens’ assemblies are effective tools to increase public engagement. Citizens’ assemblies can also help combat distrust in political institutions, which can endanger the conditions necessary for democracy to thrive.

Skeptics have urged more caution when considering whether to advance citizens’ assemblies. In particular, some observers have argued that citizens’ assemblies may incentivize elected policymakers to “outsource” tough decision-making to these assemblies. There is also no guarantee of a good or appropriate outcome, which is a source of concern for some skeptics. Indeed, given the rising tide of populism and polarization, the assemblies may be unable to reach a consensus or may advance suboptimal policies. 

Can Citizen Assemblies Jumpstart More Ambitious Action on Climate Change?

For many climate advocates, citizens’ assemblies are seen as a key tool in the fight to secure more ambitious action on climate change. For them, the issue is ripe for deliberation by a citizens’ assembly because of the longstanding gridlock that has stymied progress on the issue and because a citizens’ assembly adds legitimacy to the major trade-offs associated with policymaking on climate change.

Some have also argued that citizens’ assemblies are well-positioned to consider long-term problems – which climate change undoubtedly is – “because citizens need not worry about the short-term incentives of electoral cycles, giving them more freedom than elected politicians.”

Climate Citizen Assemblies: A Growing Trend

In spring 2020, British citizens met over six weekends for the U.K. Climate Assembly, where they considered what the United Kingdom should do to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Ultimately, assembly members adopted a set of recommendations which were released in their final report. It remains to be seen how the government will respond to the Assembly’s findings and whether they will be incorporated into the U.K.’s climate policies.

In 2019 and 2020, French citizens had the opportunity to participate in Convention Citoyenne Pour le Climat, a national citizens’ assembly on climate change. The assembly was tasked with coming up with a series of policy measures, consistent with social justice, that would allow a forty percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The assembly’s report was released in 2020; though the ultimate impact of the assembly’s recommendations will become more apparent in the future, French president Emmanuel Macron has indicated that at least some of the assembly’s proposals will be incorporated into French policy.

What’s Next?

Climate advocates are taking citizens’ assemblies, which have historically operated within national boundaries, to the next level. In the fall of 2021, a global citizens’ assembly on climate change will be held in the lead up to COP26, aiming to jumpstart the COP process that has thus far failed to secure the emission reduction commitments necessary to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius. CLX will be closely documenting these developments. If citizens at the global assembly can find a path to ambitious climate action, so can global leaders.


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