The global citizens’ assembly is a new operating system for global governance.
The creation of a Global Citizens’ Assembly in the build up to the UN’s annual climate conference COP26 in Glasgow next month appears to be a victory for proponents of more inclusive, deliberative forms of democracy at the highest level.
But its arrival and inclusion in the multilateral negotiating arena does not necessarily guarantee the radical action and genuine representation of global voices we so desperately need in the climate sphere.
Citizens’ assemblies are a deliberative process during which a representative group of the general population are given the time, space and access to information in order to consider and discuss a given issue in depth, discuss and usually offer proposals for political representatives to enact.
Citizens’ assemblies can be traced back to the ecclesia (popular assemblies) in ancient Athens in which up to 6,000 citizens were given the ability to vote directly on degrees, laws, and to elect some magistrates.
Participation in these assemblies was seen as a duty to those who were eligible to take part and voting followed a simple majority rule with citizens listening to speakers on both sides of a given debate and voting afterwards.
In recent years, citizens assemblies have come back into fashion, riding a wave of increased support and pressure for the institutionalisation of more deliberative and participatory forms of democracy in the face of signs of increased apathy with politics in the Global North and declining political participation worldwide.
The global citizens’ assembly is a new operating system for global governance.
Assemblies like these have been popping up with increased frequency from the local to the transnational level with mandates ranging from an ‘Adolescent Assembly’ in Barcelona to reproductive rights in Ireland, national policy in Scotland and the future of the European Union, among many others.
Citizens’ assemblies have also been touted as a potential solution to generate momentum for much-needed political action in this climate and ecological space.
Environmental social movement Extinction Rebellion, for example, has demanded the institutionalisation of citizens’ assemblies as a way of “going beyond” the inertia and deadlock of conventional politics.
Its activists argue that well designed deliberative processes tend towards “more diverse and informed voices in political debates” and increases the likelihood for politics to represent the “common good”, particularly when “our current political systems are failing us”.
Speaking on the Green Alliance podcast in May 2020, Dr. Rebecca Willis - researcher and expert lead for the Climate Assembly UK - argued that “to crack climate change we need more democracy and better democracy, not less”.
Climate Assembly UK, whose members met over six weekends in Spring last year, released a report with their findings in September 2020.
But despite the proliferation of citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative across the world in recent years, some questions remain.
Can this process really be translated to the global level? How would a Global Citizens’ Assembly work in practice? Can it be applied to an issue as complex and wide-reaching as the climate and ecological crisis?
Democratic scholars have long lamented the “democratic deficit” in global governance: a perceived lack of transparency, accountability and genuinely global representation at the highest levels of multilateral negotiations.
Writing in 2013 and speculating about a global deliberative system for climate change, democratic scholar Professor John Dryzek argued that: “Failure to act effectively on climate change is not a failure of democracy. Rather, it results from the fact that so far we haven’t done democracy right”.
A ‘global’ citizens’ assembly seeks to remedy this deficit, adhering to the same basic principles as a regular assembly but expanding the remit of representation to the global scale.
Launched on October 7 2021, the Global Assembly formed in the run-up to COP26 will form digitally for over 60 hours across 11 weeks seeking to develop a holistic understanding of the climate and ecological crisis.
Taking a “snapshot of the planet’s population”, the assembly brings together 100 people from across the world - selected by random, stratified sortition - to deliberate the question: “How can humanity address the climate and ecological crisis in a fair and effective way?”
Creating a genuinely representative global ‘sample’ of people means that 60 of the 100 people come from Asia and 17 from Africa, with half of the members women and 70 members earning less than $10 a day.
Participants are also receiving a stipend as well as technical, communications and translation support to facilitate participation.
Members of the assembly will also be accompanied by ‘Community Hosts’ from organizations as close to each initial randomly selected map point as possible, with discussions guided and led by independent experts from fields ranging from science, economics, deliberation and indigenous knowledge.
Assembly members will report their initial proposals at COP26 on Monday November 1 at the same time world leaders are making their initial presentations, providing direct context for the gap - or not - between leaders and citizens' ambitions on climate, before developing a set of principles detailed in a report for policymakers in March 2022.
The question remains however, what impact can this Global Assembly really have at COP26 and beyond?
When we talk about the climate and ecological crisis we are not talking about a single issue: this is a phenomenon which encompasses every sector and biosphere; affects individuals, local communities and nation states in varied and unequal ways, and provides a sobering call to action on the behalf of future generations too.
This means that the scope and mandate of a Global Assembly is incredibly wide-ranging and complex.
In the context of unprecedented global heating and limited timescale for action highlighted in the latest IPCC report and declaration of climate emergency co-signed by over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries worldwide, a fair question to ask is whether a deliberative process like this is really appropriate given the scale and urgency of the task at hand.
Claire Mellier, a Global Assembly co-organiser, said: “Our existing governance system was built for an earlier age and doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the climate and ecological crisis that the world is facing.
"The global citizens’ assembly is not a campaign or NGO, it's a new operating system for global governance”. Yet deliberative processes like this have been trialled on the global scale in the context of climate negotiations before.
It produced a report that was unilaterally more ‘radical’ than the policy proposals suggested by national governments at both conferences, yet this report had no legal standing and there were no mechanisms in place to ensure their findings were adhered or even listened to by parties to the conference.
Organisers of this Global Assembly have labelled this iteration as part of a “year of testing and prototyping” to provide “proof of concept”, and admit that “institutions will not act on recommendations without significant encouragement”.
One way they hope to overcome this challenge is by formally institutionalising the Global Assembly within the multilateral negotiating process for the next decade.
In doing so, perhaps the assembly will, as Alok Sharma, president of COP 26 has stated, create “a vital link between local conversation and global conference” for years to come.
John Rembowski is a coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Global, community lead for The Climate App, Six Degrees sustainability consultant and an MSc global environmental politics student at the University of Edinburgh.