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Opinion: What is deliberative democracy and how can it bring about climate action?

Ursula Quill makes the argument for the role of democratic movements like Citizen’s Assemblies in the face of the climate crisis.

Ursula Quill

AS THE UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) entered its final days and hours of intense negotiation in Glasgow, the stark words this week of former President Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders, struck an important tone of urgency and compassion as she responded to the news that we are still on track for 2.4-degree world:

I’m saying to the leaders here today, this is on your watch . . . It’s so important. We are literally talking about having a safe future. You can’t negotiate with science. You can’t talk about a glass being half-full. We have to get it down. We have to be on track to 1.5 degrees, and it is doable.

She rightly pointed the finger at countries such as Australia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and China for blocking progress to ending fossil fuel consumption. The emotion in her voice spoke to the sense of frustration at the gap between the rhetoric of global leaders last week, and the commitments they are willing to make.

Commitments to climate justice are a real test for the EU, to see if they can stand firm against pressures from other large countries. Ireland, and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan, has an important role to play as part of the negotiating team for the EU to ensure commitments on climate finance for countries most vulnerable to climate change.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has stated, “The finance and adaptation gap represents a glaring injustice for the developing world.”

The good news

One positive step from Glasgow is that Ireland has joined the new initiative Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). The alliance is a significant international move on ending the extraction of fossil fuels entirely, rather than simply reducing emissions.

As has been noted by Dr Tara Shine and Dr Diarmuid Torney, COP26 in Glasgow should not be viewed as the last chance to save the planet. Climate action is a continuous and ongoing process and no matter what commitments are or are not agreed to in the final stages, it is crucial that the pressure continues when leaders go back home.

More than two years have passed since Ireland became the second country to declare a joint climate and biodiversity emergency. This arose following the Oireachtas Climate Action report which responded to the clear demands of the Citizens’ Assembly chaired by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy in 2017 that the State lead on climate action.

Yet despite this declaration, it felt like there have been too many missed opportunities to treat the emergency with the action needed if we are to successfully transition to a carbon-free economy and society.

For too long, successive governments have failed to lead on climate. And yet, deliberative engagement with citizens demonstrates huge public support for climate action. By embedding deliberative democracy within our political culture and democratic system, perhaps we can improve governments’ responsiveness and engagement with citizens on this issue.

What is deliberative democracy?

Deliberative democracy is the idea that political decisions and discourse in the public sphere are improved when citizens can engage in fair and reasonable discussion grounded in the public good, to be swayed by the force of the better argument. Citizens’ inclusion in the deliberative process brings with it a sense of ownership over the outcome.

Ireland has been at the forefront of using innovative forms of deliberative democracy to tackle contentious areas of policy and constitutional reform. The Convention on the Constitution recommended the Constitution should be amended to allow for marriage equality, while the Citizens’ Assembly on the Eighth Amendment was a crucial part of the process leading to the 2018 referendum on abortion.

The Programme for Government last year called for Citizens’ Assemblies on a number of issues, including Gender Equality, Education, Drugs, and Biodiversity Loss.

Recently, the Conference on the Future of Europe, the largest ever exercise of transnational deliberative democracy, began in Strasbourg. A group of randomly selected citizens from across the EU will debate topics such as the future of jobs, fundamental rights, climate change, and migration.

Fittingly, as the Conference draws its inspiration from the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, one of these sessions will take place at Dublin Castle in December, hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs. The Conference is an important opportunity for EU institutions, often accused of being disconnected from citizens, to engage directly with the public.

Deliberative democracy and climate action

Exercises in deliberative democracy focusing on climate change demonstrate a clear desire on the part of citizens to be ambitious about climate action. In France, the Citizens Convention for Climate, established by President Emmanuel Macron in response to the yellow vests’ protests, was perhaps the most interesting example.

The 150 randomly selected citizens met over 2019 and 2020 and presented 149 proposals for climate action to the French government but citizen members were critical of the fact that less than 40% of those proposals made it into the Climate and Resilience Act which was signed into law in August this year.

The deliberative processes in this country and beyond show a real willingness from people to engage with the science on climate change and to work collectively in their communities for climate action. The impact of such ambitious recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly here was acknowledged by government members speaking at the introduction of the Climate Action Bill in the Dáil.

The ambition of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act and the Climate Action Plan published last week, shows the positive impact of the Citizens’ Assembly on government policy. It is a huge step forward.

It is also very positive to see commitments in the Climate Action Plan to citizen engagement, including through the National Dialogue on Climate Action, and the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity.

Time not on our side

However, there should be a renewed sense of urgency from the government in relation to climate change, following COP26 and the publication of the IPCC report this summer.

While the ambitious targets of the Climate Act and the Plan are to be welcomed, there are clear areas that need to be addressed, such as fossil fuel subsidies of €2.4 billion in 2019 as stated by the CSO earlier this year, including indirect subsidies comprising €1.9 billion of fuel subsidies in 2019, of which nearly €700 million are on road transport fuels, and €634 million which relates to subsidies on jet kerosene due to its tax exemption for commercial aviation.

Furthermore, the looming threat of winter blackouts demands a pause on the development of data centres given their outsized dependence on the national energy grid. The exit of Equinor from offshore wind development this week raises serious questions about our ambitions for wind energy, particularly as an island nation.

It was disappointing that the Act did not clearly define our commitments to climate justice. Ireland should prove its sincerity on climate justice at COP26 and commit to significant climate finance for countries most vulnerable to climate change.

As we move towards a climate-neutral economy, we also need to ensure that we do not leave communities behind in the transition. A positive example of Just Transition is the creation of jobs for Bord na Móna workers in the restoration of peatlands in the Midlands which will both reduce carbon emissions and restore biodiversity to up to 80,000 acres of bog. We need a similar approach to the transition of agricultural practice.

An annual 7% reduction in emissions will require a reimagining of housing, transport, and food. The past 18 months have given us a glimpse of what that reimagining might look like, and also of what can be achieved when the State really takes the lead in an emergency. As thousands of workers return to commuting to the office, we should reflect on the future of work from a climate perspective. In the words of Mary Robinson, we need to “imagine the world we are hurrying towards.”

The right to an environment

There is a huge role to be played by civil society and local communities in climate action. Here in Ireland, civil society groups have put pressure on the government to strengthen their climate targets. In the landmark 2020 climate case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment, the Supreme Court quashed the government’s National Mitigation Plan as it did not specify how it proposed to achieve the transition to a low carbon, climate-resilient, and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.

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The Supreme Court judgment clarified that a right to the environment could not be derived from the Constitution. However, it stated that inserting a right to the environment into the Constitution would have the advantage of being subject to “debate and democratic approval”.

The recent successful referendums on marriage equality and abortion are examples of how Irish people embrace the opportunity to participate in public debate on the ownership of constitutional rights.

In a significant resolution passed last month, the UN Human Rights Council, declared access to a healthy environment to be a human right, and noted the importance of “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” for “the effective enjoyment of all human rights”.

The Climate Action Plan commits to progressing the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity. The government should now act in line with the resolution they have signed and the Programme for Government and set a date for the Assembly. 

This could generate the public conversation needed on the right to a healthy environment. It has the potential to transform how the State engages with these joint emergencies of Climate and Biodiversity. After the dust settles on COP, we must ensure that the work of acting for a safe climate and environment continues to be met with the urgency needed.

Ursula Quill is a PhD researcher in Citizens’ Assemblies and deliberative democracy at the School of Law, TCD. She is a candidate in the Trinity Seanad By-Election.

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