Nigel Doggett says citizens assemblies and direct action needed to fight emergency

Yet again this year is billed as a make or break year for climate action. The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow at the end of November will be the most important since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Chartist will be commissioning a series of articles on a range of climate-related topics in addition to our regular Greenwatch page. Check our website, chartist.org.uk, for updates as well as the journal.

Low carbon technologies such as renewable energy and ‘green’ hydrogen extracted from water are increasingly viable and affordable. Popular demands for action have risen with the awareness of such phenomena as extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, melting icecaps and deforestation.

What sort of democracy?

It is clearer than ever that tackling this emergency is a political problem. A system fostered by a society based on a stable climate, plentiful raw materials and particularly fossil fuels faces a crisis unprecedented in extent and urgency that upends these assumptions. This brings into question the nature of our democracy and its limitations. In her excellent book Too Hot To Handle (March 2020), academic and activist Rebecca Willis focusses on the democratic deficit to be addressed if we are to act effectively on climate change.

She characterises the ‘climate community’ centred on academia as over-focussed on depoliticised scientific and technological options, ignoring entrenched industrial interests, infrastructures and cultures of inequality and consumption that charge political dilemmas. Even laudable concepts such as ‘planetary boundaries’ seem abstract to many people and economic measures discussed in terms of ‘carbon taxes’ and ‘creative destruction’ can alienate those they need to persuade, without a political strategy such as using the resulting revenue for equitable purposes (as recently announced in Canada) and government intervention to guarantee employment in low carbon replacement industries.

Willis conducted interviews with a range of politicians to paint a remarkable picture of timidity and lack of leadership, citing a lack of popular engagement, albeit grounded in the practical difficulties of transforming our society and lifestyle. She identifies a despairing trend, shared by some of those in power and self-styled ‘environmentalists’ such as James Lovelock, to suggest that democracy itself is inadequate.

Many politicians, not just Prime Minister Johnson, are prone to grand gestures but wary of provoking a backlash by challenging vested carbon-intensive interests in business and trade unions alike, and lifestyles based on consumerism, travel and western diets. The sensitivity over climate concerns also reflects its fault lines that tend to parallel the Brexit/cultural divides over age, education, class and geography.

They therefore resort to ‘stealth strategies’ and ‘feelgood fallacies’ designed to achieve change without facing hard choices. So grants are paid for renewable energy alongside continued road building and tax breaks for fossil fuel production and aviation fuel alike. Popular concern also carries its own risks of tokenism and feelgood fallacies, such as over plastics reduction and even the electric car rollout, while SUV promotion continues apace.

The result is a failure to bring home the necessary rapid transformation, which will affect how we live in both good and bad ways. In other words, we are not being treated as adults. (Of course, it was movements of children in climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion’s direct actions last year that demanded our leaders tell the unvarnished truth.)

Instead we need to develop democracy beyond passive focus group consultations, to initiate genuine dialogue such as locally determined plans and citizens’ panels. The experience of UK climate assemblies and the Irish citizens’ assembly, drawn from a cross section of society, shows that a measured (and progressive) consensus can emerge. Perhaps counter-intuitively, basing government policy on such measures can bridge the divides that blight our politics, a development that would shock sectarian class warriors and Brexit hardliners alike.

Where does this leave climate and political activists, struggling for influence beyond either sloganising or local projects? Willis sees radical direct action as the other side of the coin. There cannot be many Green or Labour activists with any illusions about parliamentary reform in the absence of popular campaigning. But we also need to understand the web of factors that underlie people’s views and speak in terms relevant to them. (An echo here of the dilemmas facing the left on other issues.)

The key messages offered for ‘good climate citizens’ also apply to a wider field than climate action: don’t despair or give up; speak out to colleagues and political leaders at all levels; and amplify individual lifestyle decisions by initiating changes at whatever scale you can.

This should be fertile ground for our readers: after all, democratic socialism differs from liberalism in advocating the redistribution of economic and social power as well as electoral democracy. Political campaigners and activists need to engage in genuine dialogue with the public. That does not mean giving up our principles or reaching a centrist lowest common denominator. These lessons should be taken to heart by us all.

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