The Climate Change Citizens Assembly

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Ad Astra over at The Political Sword has a very interesting post about Julia Gillard’s citizens assembly policy. It’s a long post and it is all worth reading. I’ll excerpt a fairly large part below:

I suppose we should not be surprised that most journalists have sneeringly dismissed the proposal by Julia Gillard to convene a ‘Citizen’s Assembly on Climate’ as just another ‘talkfest’ or more derisively a ‘gobfest’, or just a cynical ‘stunt’ to make us believe she is doing something about climate change, or to enable her to coast to the election without a proper policy. Some journalists have called it a ‘massive failure of leadership’, and ‘an excuse for inaction’. Miranda Devine’s PM’s so sure Bob’s your uncle wrote one of the more acerbic pieces about it.  As one would expect, Lenore Taylor wrote a more balanced piece: Gillard seeks citizens’ group on ETS policy.

Of course Coalition members have joined in the chorus, but so have several niche columnists and bloggers, some of whom I respect as writers. Mungo MacCallum says: “Gillard’s idea of a people’s assembly to achieve consensus under the guidance of a commission of experts is the silliest and most pusillanimous proposal to date…”. Grog of Grog’s Gamut talks about “…her mind numbingly stupid climate change policy, I think this is proof that whoever advised her to adopt the citizen’s panel should be taken out back and shot…” – pretty strong sentiments that reflect annoyance and disbelief.

Even nine out of ten in an online poll, for what it’s worth, thinks the idea is ‘a lot of hot air’, having selected the option that canvassed that answer.

But is this onslaught of negativity based on knowledge of such forums, or experience in educational settings, or an understanding of how public opinion is formed and can be influenced? Or does the idea just seem daft and therefore something to be flicked away like an annoying cattle fly?

Writing in the National Times, Carolyn Hendricks, political scientist at the Crawford school of economics and government at the Australian National University, is not so negative, although you might not think so from the title of her piece: Citizens’ assembly on climate may turn the heat on Gillard.  In The Australian Mike Steketee writes positively in Academic sees merit in citizens’ assemblies.

Education the answer

Those of you that have a background in education will be less skeptical than most in the media, most of whom are trained as journalists not as educators or in public relations. You will remember the work of Kurt Lewin who pioneered social psychology, group dynamics and action research. You may recall the way he used groups to persuade housewives to use offal in place of better animal protein during wartime shortages. He tried traditional ‘instruction’ with almost no resultant change in their behaviour; it was only when he involved the women in group discussions about how THEY might use offal, and how THEY ACTUALLY HAD used it, that a substantial change towards the use of offal in their kitchens resulted. It was the discussion that did the trick – the women reached conclusions themselves; it was that which changed their behaviour. Since then group process has been used extensively in education, health care, science, the arts, business and commerce to effect behaviour change. It works.

If this group process is what Julia has in mind, it stands a good chance of meeting her aim – to facilitate a new and deep consensus in the community about the need for action about climate change, the options for action, and the consequences of those actions.

So let’s not join the knockers without giving it a go, condemning it out of hand just because it doesn’t ring a positive bell. It’s the knockers who need to ask themselves: ’Why am I knocking this idea?’ and ‘What is the evidence I have to support a negative attitude to it?’ If they come up short, they might care to read on.

Unlike journalists who fume about the idea but offer no reason why ‘it won’t work’, my support for the idea will be accompanied by an account about how it might produce the results Julia seeks.

Ad Astra also writes in the comments:

The fact is that consensus on climate change has fallen mainly I believe because of the GBNT mantra. It needs to be rebuilt. The Citizens’ Assembly is one mechanism. Whether or not it should have been mentioned during the campaign is debatable. Julia was being pressed by the climate change believers to do something, yet was conscious that the electorate was no longer behind radical action – Possum’s figures show that. So she decided to mark time by giving herself time to re-establish the consensus that once existed. So rather than seeing it as a dumb move, I saw it as logical step. Of course many misinterpreted what she was about, and saw it as a delaying tactic, some even saw it as handing decision making on what to do about climate change to the Citizens’ Assembly, which it wasn’t and she said so.

Now, there is a lot of research out there about communicating climate change. One piece of research in particular that I have read is by the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which talks about the importance of behaviour and opinions being changed by talking with people like yourself. That is, people believe and trust more what they are told by their friends, family and people who they think are like them – “trusted intermediaries”.

These are rarely politicians, journalists or civil servants – they are people’s next door neighbours. Social norms, identity, and status all play an essential role in encouraging people to move towards more sustainable behaviours, and to accept the need for transformation of our economy. It is not enough to rely on a single message of financial benefit or altruism (or just “ramming through” legislation) to encourage sustainable behaviours  – rather, sophistical campaigns must fuse a range of incentives with a credible social message which is spread through community groups, neighborhood associations, workplaces and amongst friends.

Without genuine community consensus, a progressive government who enacts major climate change legislation (such as a carbon price, whether ETS or carbon tax) will be extremely vulnerable to a scare campaign by a conservative opposition. The progress made will be easily overturned because the reforming government never won “hearts and minds”.

A citizens assembly, carefully chosen, could be made up of a community-wide version of “trusted intermediaries”. They would be your friends, family and people like you. Perhaps more people would trust a random group of Australians than a bunch of scientists, politicians or climate policy wonks.

I would have preferred that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme had passed last December. I think Julia Gillard, Penny Wong and Kevin Rudd (and Malcolm Turnbull) all would have preferred a carbon price now instead of a policy of a citizens assembly.

Unfortunately, the Greens Party and the climate denialists in the Liberal Party, led by Chief Denialists Minchin, Abetz and Abbott, voted against action on climate change. The denialists won a huge symbolic victory, and the public debate was swamped by denialist rubbish. This (and the “Great Big New Tax” mantra) destroyed the pre-Copenhagen community consensus on climate change and the CPRS.

So, action in 2013 is not good. But perhaps it is necessary.

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