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Assemble The Citizens

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

In less than a month, Theresa May’s premiership will be history. It is understandable that she wants to use her last weeks in office to deliver positive change, and hence her raft of late measures to make up for lost time. One such policy was the recent commitment of the UK to a legally binding target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a welcome step forward in the fight against climate change.

But this is not the way to deliver sustainable change. Introducing a new target when the country is already slipping on its existing carbon reduction budgets reveals the weakness of a rushed policy enacted without much debate, and should not mask our collective failure to make sufficient progress. However, there are worse ways for a lame duck PM to behave than by attempting to create an eco legacy, but all of us should pay heed if we wish to pass on something that will endure. A legacy is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. It is not a plan for the garden layout. The best time to start planting was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. Today.

The transition to a zero carbon economy in the UK is technically achievable, according to the Committee on Climate Change, although it is led primarily by changes in our personal attitude and collective behaviour. As CEO Chris Stark acknowledges, many of the policies that will support this transition will not be designed in Westminster – they are devolved decisions that will be defined at local government level. There is clearly work to be done nationally and internationally – but there is also a big opportunity to do more locally.

Across the country, 92 principal councils have declared a climate emergency, and 61 have set themselves a target date of becoming net carbon neutral by 2030. Of the remainder, 22 have not yet set a date, and 9 are aiming to become zero carbon by 2050. Last night, The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead became the most recent council to declare “an environmental and climate emergency” as the local groundswell continues to build momentum. In passing these motions, many councils have acknowledged the impact of children who continue to strike for more climate action, and the passion of local residents who have also made their voices heard.

As a member of the public, I attended the first full session of my borough council yesterday as newly elected councillors debated and then passed this latest climate emergency motion. It was insightful to see how our councillors were seated, in their parties, facing one another on opposite sides. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider how the dynamic would change if they sat in alphabetical name order instead of by tribe.

An amendment to the climate emergency motion was proposed by one of the councillors, to bring the zero carbon date forward from 2050 to 2030, in line with a petition signed by several thousand members of the public and also by many of the same councillors seated in the room. Sadly, councillors fell back behind party lines with some reversing their personal backing for the petition and the amendment was not passed. References to national policy support came across as caveats to realising local ambition, rather than local ambition driving more national policy support.

Having rejected a more ambitious target on the grounds that it was fiscally irresponsible, several of the ensuing pre-prepared speeches supporting the motion rang hollow by those who had just voted against the amendment. In the words of sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, “we can not solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency.” In an emergency, you take action immediately even if you don’t have all the solutions in advance. Not to do so is morally irresponsible.

The date of 2050 or 2030 is not material to the need for drastic changes in the “short term” and certainly not to the action needed over the current term of my new borough council. It’s not a linear change from now to whatever end date: it’s transformation change now. My disappointment personally was not in the conservative end date, but in the partisan approach taken. As one councillor stated, “climate change is not a political issue, it’s a welfare issue”. And yet the instinct to resort to tribal politics was never far from the surface – even in a debate about a climate crisis that is potentially one of the most unifying issues we have ever faced.

Politics is too important to be left to politicians, which is why I take heart in the leadership role played by Oxford City Council in appointing the first citizens’ assembly in the UK to address the climate emergency. In January, council members unanimously declared a climate emergency and agreed to create a citizens’ assembly in Oxford – involving a randomly selected representative sample of Oxford residents – to consider new carbon targets and additional measures to reduce emissions. For every council with the ambition of net zero carbon across its administrative area, such involvement of residents is essential to bring about a broader coalition.

Appointing a citizens’ assembly is a classic catch-22 situation: it is the councils that are not ambitious enough to appoint a citizens’ assembly that need a citizens’ assembly to become more ambitious. Insulated from the pressures of party and money, these members of the public can help prioritise the common good and the urgency our situation demands, rather than what is politically exigent or advantageous.

Immediate climate action requires social and political action, which in turn requires significant public support. There will be obstacles, many of which are not yet apparent and none of which are insurmountable. All of us, as citizens, need to be on board if we are to scale this challenge.

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