Some rough, pessimistic thoughts on the political economy problem of climate assemblies

Rikki Dean

Across advanced democracies citizens’ assemblies on climate change – randomly selected, deliberative initiatives of usually between 100-200 people – are increasingly being adopted in the hope they can address democratic politics current failures on climate policy. My fear is that, as institutional design solutions to what is more a problem of political economy, these climate assemblies are destined to fail.

I developed these ideas in preparing my contribution to the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group launch event of Graham Smith’s new book, Can Democracy Safeguard the Future? A structuring assumption of the book, one that I think is widely-shared amongst deliberative democratic scholars, is that democracies’ poor record on climate change policy is a problem of democratic institutional design – predominantly the short-termism built into electoral politics. Though I agree there is some truth to that, I want to challenge this framing and suggest the problem runs deeper: that democratic politics’ failures on climate change need to be primarily viewed as a political economy problem embedded in the heart of our representation regime, and this has important implications for the likely success of institutional design solutions like climate assemblies.

The political economy of climate change

First I want to set out the scale of this political economy problem, using figures from Ian Gough’s work on carbon dioxide consumption and the minimum income standards. The minimum income standards is a consensual poverty measure that uses citizen deliberation to decide the bundle of goods that constitute the bare necessities of a good life. Ian Gough calculated that someone living at this deliberatively-agreed minimum income standard generates 5.6 tons of consumption-based carbon dioxide. This is substantially lower than the current average person in Britain, who generates 8.9 tons of consumption-based carbon dioxide. But it is still more than 2.5 times higher than the upper-bound for sustainable consumption of between 1-2 tons per person implied in the 2050 Net Zero target.

So, if we imagine a hypothetical Britain in which everyone lived at the minimum income standard, what Ian Gough calls a “bare necessities Britain”, (of course, a very unlikely scenario) then we would still massively overshoot the reductions in carbon necessary to maintain a stable habitat. What this means is – without some technological miracle – the defining political economy problem over the next 30 years for wealthy democracies will be: how we can collectively agree and deliver massive reductions in consumption. Reductions so large that they challenge what we currently take for granted as the bare necessities to maintain a good life.

The political economy of representative democracy

Now let’s think about the political economy of representative democracy. As a representative regime it appears to deliver the exact opposite promise. The representation regime that currently dominates democratic politics functions as an inequality regime premised on the promise of over-consumption.

Representative democracy, in a capitalist economy, legitimates the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few by forcing those elites to compete with promises to raise the consumption level for all. So the promise of representative of democracy is that the unlimited consumption of those at the top is good for everyone because it will also increase consumption for those at the bottom.

If we reject this premise of ever-growing consumption, then the oligarchic-democratic compromise of representative democracy is fundamentally ruptured. It is, then, no surprise that democratic politics is currently silent about the scale of the changes necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, with policy proposals limited to what George Monbiot has termed “micro-consumerist bollocks”.

The tension with democratic innovations

What I think is promising about deliberative mini-publics, is that they can carve out democratic spaces outside of this destructive representation regime.

The organisers of the German Climate Assembly (Bürgerrat Klima) have said, for instance, that many of the participants reported that participating opened their eyes to the scale of the climate problem. In addition, the recommendations of the many Assemblies that have now taken place tend to be significantly more radical than the policy status quo. However, they cannot entirely escape the representation regime, meaning there are two risks we need to be sensitive to.

The first risk is that it is a very tall ask to expect the participants in deliberative mini-publics to step completely outside of the normative order of everyday politics that growth in consumption is their right and the sign of good government. It is instructive that in the UK Climate Assembly there was very strong support for consumer information initiatives, like product labelling of carbon footprint, which do not actually limit people’s consumption. But there seemed to be little support for hard restrictions on consumption. They did not want to impose any strict constraints on meat eating or flying, for instance.

I think the depth of the issue here is demonstrated by the fact that one of the recommendations was to “Ban polluting private jets and helicopters, moving to electric when possible.” If we cannot even agree that planetary resource limits entail that private jets and helicopters (even if they are electric) should be off the table, then we are in big trouble. So there is a risk that, rather than reconstituting that representation regime, these initiatives actually reinforce it.

The second risk is even if these initiatives approach the necessary radicalism, then they remain a marginal part of our democratic institutions and must feed their recommendations for consumption reductions back into a representation regime founded on the promise of overconsumption.

I do not want to suggest that those organising and researching deliberative mini-publics are unaware of this problem. They recognise the problem – it is there in Graham Smith’s book, for instance – but it tends to remain in the background and it tends to be framed as a problem of lack of take-up by elites. However, I think the problem runs deeper than suggested, because resistance will not only come from the top.

So long as representative democracy remains wedded to a representation regime that legitimates inequality through rising consumption, then any recommendations to reduce consumption will be caught in a pincer movement between resistance from the elite who want to maintain their privileges and resistance from the masses who have been promised rising consumption. Unless we solve this political economy problem, then institutional design solutions like mini-publics, in my opinion, will be designed to fail.

There is still too often a sense in which climate assemblies are formulated as an alternative pathway to good policies – somehow protected and independent from the pressures which shape electoral politics. This is unlikely to ever be the case, and so we need to think more carefully and systematically about how these institutions can bring new pressures to bear on this representative regime, rather than bypass it, or be subjugated by it.

Rikki Dean is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Democratic Innovations Research Unit, Goethe University Frankfurt. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics on Democratising Bureaucracy and was a Visiting Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center, Harvard. His research currently focuses democratic systems theory, citizen participation, and political process preferences.

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