Empowering citizens to fight climate crisis

Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the most consequential issues Nepal is facing. Why not start working on a first batch of localized climate assemblies?

Illustration of people cooperating for environmental protection and sustainability. Photo: World Bank

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

Global gatherings focused at tackling climate change or biodiversity loss are important. They bring leaders together and they provide visibility to issues that otherwise would not be covered by the media. Yet at the end of the day, what matters is the mobilization of the citizens on the ground for action.

While we have to wait to see if the COP27 will yield any results in November. World leaders convened on June 2 and 3 for the Stockholm +50 conference. It is a symbolic commemoration of the first ever UN summit on environment, formally known as the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment that was held in the Swedish capital in 1972. Such high-level discussions have only a sense if they are supplemented and “augmented” by localized forms of deliberations.

If May was a busy time for UN officials involved in the preparation of this summit, the same can be said for 100 citizens in Spain who were busy with drafting the final recommendations of the first ever Spanish Citizen’s Assembly for the Climate. What happened in Spain is just one example of how citizens are stepping up and taking the lead in discussing the measures needed to win over the climate challenge.

Citizens in action

I am talking about the latest developments of what it’s technically known as deliberative democracy, a type of democracy that emboldens citizens to be part of the equation and have a say in how decisions are taken. By now there is a very robust theoretical field underpinning this approach to democracy thanks to the initial work of academicians like Jane Mansbridge, John Parkinson, Mark E Warren, John S Dryzek and others.

Interestingly there are more and more institutions, local and national governments starting embracing this approach that basically allows citizens, normally randomly selected through techniques that ensure diversity and inclusion, to gather and deliberate on the most pressing issues they face.

With local elections in Nepal just concluded and with a new crop of political administrators emerging, it could be interesting to know more about deliberative practices in the field of climate change and also related to any other policy domains. After all, who better than the citizens know the risks and implications of climate change? Not all citizens may be fully aware of what comes with climate change, but allowing them to know more about such complex issues and then enabling them to propose solutions would be a right step change now indispensable to solve the climate challenge.

There are different ways and modalities to practice climate assemblies. We need to be honest in saying that it is a field of practice still emerging and very fluid depending on the local contexts. Certainly, such mechanisms are not a panacea especially in the cases when citizens are only allowed to make formal propositions rather than express binding decisions. But the potential of these bottom-up democratic practices is huge because they could literally redraw the way democracy, especially at local level, works.

Assemblies for climate action 

While some academicians aim to have deliberative democracy practices replace the classic model of electoral and representative democracy, at the least for now there is a consensus that these assemblies, often modeled on the concept of mini-publics, as localized forms of discussion and deliberation, can be complementary with the existing liberal democratic framework.

How would they work in practice and how worthy for newly elected officials to experiment them? There are different approaches and modalities but one important element is the source of legitimacy that such assemblies must hold for them to be relevant.

Not all citizens may be fully aware of what comes with climate change, but allowing them to know more about such complex issues and then enabling them to propose solutions would be a step in the right direction. 

In the case of Spain, it was a decision of the central government, the Declaration of Climate Emergency in January 2020. France and the UK, among other countries, also launched similar initiatives and both were institutionally linked to existing political centers of powers. In France, it was President Macron who supported the initiative, in the UK it was the parliament.

In Nepal, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba could endorse a broad framework paving the way for a national assembly on climate change. Locally elected mayors and deputies can also do so.

There are already several examples of more localized climate change assemblies—in the UK and Poland for example. Then why not promote this idea among the most progressive and far-sighted local authorities?

In an essay for Carnegie Europe, Claire Mellier and Rich Wilson, two expert practitioners in deliberative democracy, share that these initiatives “were primarily created with the hope that they could help break the logjam in climate action”. Answering the question if these assemblies can really help solve the climate crisis, they wrote: “In short, they could, but assemblies need to help citizens understand the scale and urgency of the challenge, use robust rules and procedures, and create genuine public debates that touch all parts of society.”

The changes that climate change is causing require a serious, long term effort to involve and engage the people. Local communities across the country already have a very good tradition of consultations and discussions. We should not allow practices of electoral democracy to further dry away such localized and genuine expressions of civic engagement from the ancient times.

Instead practices of deliberative democracy could build on and reinvigorate such traditions.

These initiatives are not panacea and need to be well designed according to precise rules, from the participants’ selection to the different phases of learning and deliberation, the former an indispensable step that allows the members of these forums to listen to unbiased and neutral experts before they can decide.

Moreover, ideally some real power should be given to these forums. This is not happening even in Europe where we see several examples of climate assemblies. Yet it’s worth exploring the experiences so far accumulated across the world and understand how locally elected mayors in Nepal can initiate similar initiatives here.

What they are going to face in the coming days is going to be daunting. So why not bring along the citizenry to share the burden of decision making?

As today we celebrate World Environment Day today, let’s start a conversation on a different form of local governance, a model that can sustain and improve the model now in place. Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the most consequential issues Nepal and the entire world face. Why not start working on a first batch of localized climate assemblies?

The youth whose vote marked a real difference in many places across the country in this local election would surely be eager to know more about the possibility that gives them more voice and enables their personal agency to start making a difference.

 (Current piece has been written on the occasion of World Environment Day celebrated every year on June 5. This is the first of two series on new modalities of citizen’s centered governance. The next piece will be published a week later-Simone). 

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Views are personal. [email protected].