People have the power to effect change – and when it comes to the climate, a change in thinking is key

CITIZENS’ assemblies are not exactly new. The tradition stems back to ancient Athenian democracy, but a modern resurgence in their use has come along with the popularity of other forms of deliberative or participatory democracy (think citizens’ panels or juries, and the use of referendums). Arguably this trend is a consequence of the perception that the model of vesting power in hierarchical structures (of which governments are the most important) is broken.

Emelita Robbins. Picture: TONY PIKE. (30623008)
Emelita Robbins. Picture: TONY PIKE. (30623008)

Participatory democracy is part of a general call for more ‘people power’ in politics and across society and the desire for the introduction of democratic reform. Initiatives like the citizens’ assembly are intended to give greater legitimacy to the decisions of elected representatives.

Most governments are in favour of participatory democracy but have fallen short when it comes to using the different forms once they appreciate that the participants have autonomy over the outcomes. It is this fact that makes it so exciting that the States Assembly and the government have chosen to adopt the use of a citizens’ assembly in Jersey to decide ‘how we can work together to become carbon neutral’. It really is a case of doing politics differently in the Island.

The States Assembly (like governments across the globe) has declared that there is a climate emergency and it has determined that it has immediate decisions to make about policies on climate change. These decisions will have a significant impact upon all our lives and the generations which follow. The scale of the problem is such that it is clear that change is only going to be effective if we all get on board, and I think that it is evident that a shift people’s behaviour is going to do more to resolve the challenges of climate change than anything any government or current technology can offer.

The downside of this is that if people don’t see that we are in this together (or dismiss the value of contributing to the change because we are a small population, for example) it means we actively give up our own opportunity to be part of the change. Potentially, of course, if everyone, everywhere, thought climate change was someone else’s problem, we would all contribute to the loss of the opportunity to change.

This way of thinking is also important when it comes to answering whether we believe, as an island, that buying ‘carbon offsets’ or funding projects that achieve reductions elsewhere in the world forms part of the way for Jersey to reach net zero. The Carbon Neutral Strategy has set a principle that buying carbon offsets is part of the solution to offset unavoidable carbon emissions at the point of neutrality. However, the Assembly has heard that global decarbonisation certainly cannot be achieved through the global practice of buying offsets alone and offsets themselves will vary in price and availability over time. One of the questions before us is how quickly can we reduce local carbon emissions and what role should offsets play, if any?

The recommendations of Jersey’s Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change will be presented to the States in the form of a report. A debate shall follow, and the recommendations shall be considered as part of the long-term development of the climate-action plan for the Island. The government will also publish a report that sets out its response to the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly, stating which are accepted and how these will be implemented, including an indicative timetable. The government will also publish a clear and reasoned justification for deciding not to adopt any of the remaining recommendations.

History is full of examples that show us that citizens can drive transformational change – from the Suffragettes to civic movements such as one very close to my own heart, the modern hospice movement. Living in a parliamentary democracy means we as citizens have the power to influence the policy and the legislation that shapes our lives – after all if we don’t like what our elected representatives are doing we can choose not to vote for them the next time we go to the polls.

But the truth is that power can feel very diluted. The citizens’ assembly process is creating a dialogue between our government and Islanders. Democracy should be a dialogue; it’s not just about voting, it’s about reflecting into the debate, and each other’s thoughts, passions and ideas. The citizens’ assembly process offers real power to the people. No system is perfect, but the assembly model does enable Islanders to have a direct role in decision-making and the capacity to recommend change.

It is clearly a new way of doing politics in Jersey. I hope it goes some way to reinstating trust and engagement in our local political process, and, most of all, engages us all in the question of how we can work together to avoid the climate disaster.

Emelita Robbins is the chairwoman of the Jersey Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change

For more comment and opinion pieces, see today's JEP.

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