Diets not riots: what would massive public dialogue on climate change look like?

Extinction Rebellion

The UN’s COP24 climate conference reaches its halfway point this weekend, and carbon emissions are going in the wrong direction worldwide. Debates about the best ways to tackle climate change are spilling out on to the streets and making headlines beyond the conference in Poland.

In France, the gilets jaunes have made a violent and disruptive impact, inflamed by anger over a fuel tax designed to cut carbon, widely perceived as unfair. Now Paris is preparing for even more serious confrontations. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion have occupied the streets with a different tone – marking themselves as non-violent, but prepared to disrupt traffic and face arrest en masse.

Both reflect the contrasting politics and expectations in both countries. Emmanuel Macron’s tax is a red flag for those who have already viewed him as arrogant and out of touch. It seems as if the effects on people’s livelihoods were loftily ignored. The policy was not, it appears, designed with people’s needs, perceptions and everyday practices in mind. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone considering applying context-free, rapid and radical tax measures to cut carbon.

It doesn’t help that the protests have tapped into long histories of animosity between citizens and the police, and various groups, including the far right, have seized the opportunity to sow chaos. So the protests have become about much more than just a tax.

But if the gilets jaunes started off through a pushback against the sudden shock of a climate policy imposed from above, Extinction Rebellion are pushing in the other direction: for them, change has not been radical enough, not fast enough; they feel let down not only by government ministers and their partners in business, but by high-profile green groups and NGOs. The principal emotion (though not the only one) in XR appears to be grief: grief looking back on the losses already incurred to ecosystems, and a strange anticipatory grief for losses yet to come.

However, there are openings. One of XR’s calls is for a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee radical government action on climate change – although it’s not clear from XR’s own website how much they envisage it being used to deliberate on options. However, the general point is that it’s not just about stopping traffic, but about demanding to be heard.

So beyond grief and anger, where are the spaces now to think through how things could change for the better?

One of the ways to approach this question is to look at how decisions are made, and what gets in the way. Last month, a Green Alliance report by Rebecca Willis drew on interviews with 23 current and former UK MPs to explore the barriers to action on climate change.

Getting inside the politicians’ heads shows the challenges of doing things differently, even for supposedly powerful actors. MPs see climate change as an ‘outsider’ issue, believe that interest from their constituents is limited, and find the long term nature of climate policy difficult to reconcile with more urgent pressures. But there are ideas too, including using deliberative processes where citizens and decision-makers can look at evidence and options together.

The UK government has been exploring ways to prepare the public for policies on climate change for more than a decade. There are of course lots of things that are just technically quite hard to change. But you can still feel the political nervousness among those in power about proposing truly radical, systemic change. Fear of change, job losses, higher taxes, of industries failing; even resentment of other countries who aren’t doing enough, or who might overtake us; these fears are sincerely felt by some voters, and cynically exploited by others with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

In many cases fear combines with an existing sense of injustice: in working class communities injustice is already part of the collective psychological furniture, part of the story for generations, so new ideas and new proposals do not fall on neutral ground. The rhetoric around a Green New Deal in the USA partly speaks to this concern, framing the initiative as a way to create living-wage jobs – with a long list of ideas on policies, technologies and infrastructure, but with limited detail on the public’s role in decision-making. Although polling and survey results are used to show that support for green policies would be high, reactions (if tested on the ground) might look more uneven at a finer level of detail.

Despite general support for renewable energy, including in the UK, trust in authorities and intellectuals is not a given. Transformations – in employment, infrastructure, in daily life, food, the everyday business of getting around and getting on – that appear exciting and novel to some, will land very differently with others. Without proper engagement and agency, the pushback is almost inevitable.

A more articulate, but related point is made by Blythe et al. in a recent paper, The Dark Side of Transformation:

“It is crucial that this work [i.e. the study and practice of transformational change] be undertaken with careful attention to the ways that vulnerable or marginalised social groups already use, benefit, and derive well‐being from resources and to how that might change under different regimes of access under transformative change. Insufficient attention to diverse aspirations threatens to undermine the whole transformative agenda by removing what is arguably one of the central emancipatory tenants of transformation, namely the discovery of radically alternative futures.”

This “discovery of radically alternative futures” is where it’s at. Could researchers, decision-makers and groups of citizens really get together and think through how this might work? By ‘this’, I mean organised collective effort, in some way, to think through the implications of transformative action (as it’s COP24 fortnight, let’s say using low-carbon futures as a starting point) in a way that will help people to thrive, to do more of the things they enjoy and find meaningful? Let’s call it a diet (not the food kind, the kind of deliberative assembly), to justify the tenuous pun in the blog title.

Some connections would have to be made for this to work:

  • An exercise in collective public discussion done in this way is difficult to design, could be costly, and the benefits would not be immediate. Those involved would need to recognise and address that.
  • The uneasy qualities of uncertainty must be recognised. Uncertainty can be a good thing, when people use it to see that things they take for granted are actually not quite as fixed as they think. But climate change can also add to vulnerabilities and uncertainties, making it hard to plan ahead.
  • The activity must be sustained over time, to allow feedback, see what happens and adapt.
  • Options need to be on the table, and hard implications of choices discussed, as not everyone will get the same benefits from a particular choice.
  • Space must be made to acknowledge that there are a range of priorities, values and fears, and different ways to understand the problems involved, as this can help to shape the options that get discussed.
  • Where technical solutions exist, it should be clear if these will lead to lock-in or can be reversed or adapted if things don’t work out as intended.
  • People need to trust that they are actually being heard, and that ideas (even if not all of them) will be acted on, and that the process is connected to a wider effort.
  • There needs to be room for experiments and pilots to happen, with the chance that some of them may not work.
  • It’s not all about decarbonisation – many policies, even energy cuts, have implications for all kinds of areas of life, including farming, housing, transport and so on. Seeing everything through a climate lens can obscure some other important factors.

I’m sure there are more principles, but this is only a blog post, so I’m open to other ideas. The point is that these kinds of principles can help to guide the public engagement on climate change that might lay the ground for change, and are often forgotten or sidelined in the effort to decide on solutions.

There are questions too. How fast should, and can, such a process (or processes) be? Who would be able to join together to organise it? How coordinated does it have to be anyway? How realistic is it to connect this to decision-making and how can change be seen to happen? How could it avoid being depoliticised or captured by powerful actors? How would it articulate with more unruly processes like XR or more specific movements for environmental justice, without undermining them? How to ensure time-poor and often-marginalised groups get a proper say?

And what links can be made internationally – for example, by building links with similar processes in other countries (such as dialogues among coal-dependent communities in Canada, or communities in Kenya just beginning to access energy via renewables) – could building this kind of solidarity help? Could ideas spread to other countries and inform their strategies? How can the decisions made be just, not only at a local level, but also recognising the continuing injustice faced by people with little access to energy; and others facing severe vulnerability made worse by climate change?

One thing is clear: whatever the hard work of negotiators and ambitious words of leaders at COP24, it is no more acceptable than it ever was to see climate and justice as separate issues. Environmental change itself helps to tip the scales away from those who already experience injustice; almost any significant climate policy you can think of will have implications and opportunities for justice too. This is not an excuse to step back from action, but rather a good reason to ask some hard questions, and keep asking them, about transformations and how people get involved, respond and react to them.