In 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon hailed the COP 21 Agreement as “a monumental triumph for people and our planet”. Less than three years later, President Trump withdrew the USA from the Agreement. Reneging of international climate agreements is nothing new. Perverse incentives are aplenty in global initiatives like the Clean Development Mechanism and REDD+, where well-intentioned policy, may ironically expedite resource depletion and increase emissions, as found by the World Bank.
Revisiting arguments of her magnum opus, Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom, Economics Nobel Laureate advises, “a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements”. Today, we are witnessing the emergence of this polycentric approach to climate change. In the USA, few Democrat-led states are defying the Washington consensus. In the UK, most climate action is being taken at the local level, accounting for 70% of climate change reduction measures.
Yet citizens remain passive victims rather than active participants of the policymaking process. Citizens’ participation can help implement realistic change, boosting government legitimacy and promoting transparency. As demonstrated in the world’s biggest climate demonstrations today, globally, youth are demanding further involvement and greater north-south cooperation.
Some have started heeding to this call, like the UK’s recently created citizens’ assembly to deliberate the climate emergency. A Youth Steering Group has also been established as part of the process. Involving youth and those most impacted by climate change, gives communities ownership of their ideas, driving adherence and reduces free-riding amongst citizens, as found in a study in the Journal of Politics. This is vital to incorporate given failed top-down initiatives, like Delhi’s odd-even car scheme or Shanghai’s draconian recycling policy, which received universal criticism.
Experimenting at the local level gives a fail-fast method to identify, scale-up and replicate initiatives in similar policy contexts. For instance, Swayam Shishan Prayog, an NGO, has enabled more than 60,000 rural women entrepreneurs to start businesses in high-social-impact sectors such as clean energy and sustainable agriculture at the grassroots level. This gives those at the forefront of climate change, ownership of contextual policy actions.
Some fear citizens’ assemblies will undermine the authority and expertise of officials. Yet, from Ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy, citizens’ assemblies are a quintessential facet of democracy, preceding the electoral ballot itself. Recent examples like Ireland’s citizens’ assembly on climate change can give insights. Selecting a representative group and equipping them with climate education is essential to avoid political capture. Adequate time for deliberation, independent governance and serious response are required to prevent assemblies from becoming a farce. For instance, in Gdansk, Poland, the mayor agreed that any recommendation with 80% support of the citizens’ assembly on flood mitigation, would be implemented. In today’s fragmented politics, such a mechanism can revive public trust in the climate deliberation process.
Economically, climate pledges need to be matched with financing and budgeting. For instance, the UK’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, will remain mere lip service till the government commits the more than £1 trillion estimated to achieve this. The situation is desperate at lower levels of government where budget cuts and competing demands mean climate change quickly slips off the agenda.
Citizens’ participation can introduce novel climate financing techniques, through participative forums, and hold governments to account through involvement in budgeting processes. Since local climate change strategies are decided on a review basis, public valuation can contribute to ongoing policy feedback mechanisms. Critics cite the ‘value-action gap’, or divergence between public agreement in principle and practice. Nonetheless, citizens’ willingness to pay for climate actions often incorporates intrinsic stewardship, as found in a study in Land Economics. Moreover, climate change is high on the public agenda, with Britons ranking it the third most important national issue in a YouGov poll, a sentiment shared in countries across the world.
Citizens’ assemblies and public valuation are not a panacea to climate change problems and need to be implemented in tandem with existing policies. Strong political and economic institutions are essential for public participation to be effective. Actions like the World’s Largest Lesson, educating young people on the Sustainable Development Goals, are required, alongside the integration of climate change in national education systems.
From Jakarta, where citizens have sued their President for rising carbon emissions, to school children around the world, who have used social media to organise and partake in strikes against climate change, citizens are demanding involvement in policymaking. As we keep revisiting our 2050 targets, public participation will ensure our politicians are held accountable, our budget is invested in innovative and publicly prioritised policies and climate funding occurs in a just manner. As an African proverb states, “what you do for me, but without me, is against me”. As global citizens, our voice needs to be at the centre of policymaking to make climate response effective.