Citizen Assemblies for Deliberative Democracy

How do we move to a collaborative environment where we can really respond to the climate emergency?

According to Rod Oram, National’s only contribution is ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘no’ from the side lines. However, is this not just a symptom of the way politics is conducted in New Zealand, at least at the parliamentary level? 

One possible answer is a Citizens Assembly as carried out in Ireland. The Irish Assembly was a body comprising the Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, established to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future. The Assembly Members deliberated on the topics as outlined in the Resolution approving its establishment.

Aotearoa Climate Emergency is holding a conference on 11th November on the need for a Citizens Assembly here in New Zealand to break the political deadlock. To be successful there must be deliberation, where questions are open and participants listen carefully.

Wikipedia defines Deliberation as “a relation to others as equals engaged in mutual exchange of reasons oriented as if to reach a shared practical judgement”(15). Achieving a deliberative stance in citizen assemblies involves careful facilitation and attention to “emotional interaction”(16). Its achievement in group settings can be a pleasurable experience and consistent with ideals of human cognition”(17).

As a Greater Wellington Regional Councillor, I believe that our interactions were most often not deliberative, and lead to the demise of 100% electric trolley buses. Now we have Mayor elect Andy Foster advocating for more road tunnels before investment in mass transit such as light rail.

The Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” reports in 1972 provided the basis for my political activism over the last 45 years, shifting me towards a vegan diet, a bicycle for everyday commuting, and environmental campaigns aimed at lowering our carbon footprint. However, our carbon footprints more than doubled and we now have the highest light vehicle ownership and close to the lowest air quality vehicle standards in the western world. Inequalities have increased dramatically and NZ now also has one of the highest youth suicides levels in the world.

Collectively we have failed to bring limits to growth into the public consciousness.

Wellington City Council declared a climate emergency only a few months ago. Yet, a massive expansion billion-dollar plan for Wellington Airport just went public. Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University James Renwick said expanding the airport was not a good call if the city is to have any hope of reducing carbon emissions, and that the “number of flights being taken needed to be managed down, not expanded.”  

What about overnight rail sleeper cars to Auckland, as was the case 50 years ago? It would serve business well, leaving and arriving in the centre of our respective cities! Judith Collins’s campaign for more roads is ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘no’  - no vehicle emission standards, no restrictions on factory style farming. And she scorns warnings from ecologists and climatologists of eventual collapse of civilization as we know it if we don’t halve emissions by 2030.  Any attempt to tackle the climate crisis as an economic cost, not as an opportunity for clean, better technology.

Bridges laid out National’s five climate policy principles in a speech at Fieldays in June of last year. They are: science-based; technology-driven; long-term incentives; global response; and economic impact. However, in the 15 months since, National has given no policy examples of what it means by those themes, according to Rod Oram.

What a joke to claim that we are feeding the world, when we converted forestry plantations and horticultural land to dairy farming, selling our milk powder to lactose intolerant Asians, and bringing on heart disease and cancer.  The truly deadly outcomes from dairy farming are methane with a warming potential 84 to 112 times that of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from effluent runoff and fertilisers with a warming potential of 298. Why not pioneer regenerative farming systems producing healthy foods for human and environmental resilience.

One third of Antarctica’s ice sheet—equivalent to up to 20 metres sea-level rise—sits below sea-level and is vulnerable to catastrophic collapse from ocean heating.  When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were last at 400 parts per million (ppm) 3 million years ago, sea levels were 20 metres higher.

Lowering our carbon footprint within a just transition framework can lead to increased well-being from active lifestyles, connected communities, better health outcomes, greater life expectancy, fewer suicides, alongside cleaner air and rivers.  Surely that is what we all want! 

The future could still be a more creaturely world running on wind and solar power, plants grown, harvested, and crafted within a few kilometers of our homes, and the earth’s biosphere “functioning steadily, resilient to impacts, with humans playing a vital part as stewards.”

To get there, we need a different approach, one where citizens can assess evidence, deliberating on the benefits and costs, and a just transition. A randomly selected citizen assembly might just provide a dispassionate assessment of business as usual, and lead to the measures that take us to carbon zero and sustainability via a just transition.