How the Climate Assembly manufactured consent

This stage-managed Assembly is a sham. There is no democratic mandate for extreme climate policies.

Ben Pile

Topics Politics UK

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As I have been pointing out for over a decade here on spiked, the political consensus on climate change is not shared by the public – or, at best, the public’s appetite for climate policy has not been tested democratically. And governments are well aware of this, too. Last year, six government departments engaged a number of campaigning organisations to convene a Climate Assembly, which they hoped would overcome this democratic deficit and produce a ‘mandate’ for climate policy. The Assembly presented a report of its recommendations to parliament last September. But this 500-page volume looks much more like the work of the Assembly’s convenors than any real expression of the public’s views.

For most people so far, the democratic deficit on climate policy has been of little consequence. Emissions-reduction targets have been abstract. To the extent that the climate agenda has caused problems – such as rising energy prices – they have been relatively easily absorbed by most households and businesses. Resistance to any of these policies has been easily dismissed as ‘denial’.

But the green agenda has much more in store for us. And its slow progress is owed to the fact that, despite their enthusiasm for climate policy, all governments have been unsure about how to turn abstract emissions-reduction targets into more tangible policy. Much of their hopes have been invested in drawing up international agreements between governments that would ringfence climate policy from public resistance, by shifting political authority beyond democratic control. But even those agreements have proved elusive.

This has frustrated green politicians, lobbyists and campaigners alike. Caught between the glacial pace of international negotiations and the public’s indifference to ‘saving the planet’, the green movement needed to find a new way to persuade government that it could act, in short order, without creating a political backlash. Egged on by Greta Thunberg and her schools-strike movement and Extinction Rebellion (XR), alongside uncritical coverage in the news media, the late Theresa May and early Boris Johnson administrations decided to champion ‘Net Zero’. In doing so, they announced a new phase of climate policymaking that would move beyond targets, to more direct interventions in industry, economy and lifestyles.

The Climate Assembly then had to be convened in great haste to appear to give the public’s blessing to this new agenda. It was XR who had demanded both Net Zero and a ‘citizens assembly’ to determine how it would be achieved. And the government, its departments and parliament duly agreed to Net Zero without a single vote cast. And here is where democracy was further abandoned.

Parliament committed just £120,000 to the Assembly. But two ‘philanthropic’ organisations – the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation (EFF) and the European Climate Foundation (ECF) – stumped up £200,000 each. Why? If the Net Zero agenda requires a democratic foundation, then it requires a foundation free from the influence of… foundations. If policymaking and mandate-making had been influenced by oil companies in the same way as they have been by ‘philanthropy’, and had decided against Net Zero, then no one would accept this as mere coincidence.

Very few green organisations of any kind acting in the UK are free from the influence of the ECF and its donor organisations. And that includes the ‘grassroots’ XR. The green ‘think tank’, the Green Alliance, which has deep links into parliament, is also funded by the ECF’s generous billionaire hedge-fund managers, including Sir Christopher Hohn. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was once a manager of Hohn’s aggressive ‘ethical’ hedge fund, the Children’s Investment Fund Management (TCI), which diverts a proportion of its profits to Hohn’s philanthropic venture, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), which supports outfits like XR, the Green Alliance and the ECF.

What’s striking is that the Green Alliance’s own research found that MPs were aware that ‘for the overwhelming majority of people, climate change is a non-issue’ and is ‘of low-importance to voters compared to other issues’. In 2018, it produced a report called ‘Building the Mandate for Climate Action’, which clearly points to a recognition of the democratic deficit. But instead of persuading the public, the report recommends bypassing conventional democratic means of testing democratic will.

The 2018 report was used to persuade parliament to convene the Climate Assembly. More troubling, it was produced by the Green Alliance’s former director, and now ‘professor in practice’ at Lancaster University, Rebecca Willis, who was one of four ‘Expert Leads’ (ELs) appointed to direct the Climate Assembly. The four ELs were free to choose speakers that Assembly members – 108 members of the public – would hear from. These speakers, divided into ‘Informants’ and ‘Advocates’, were invariably drawn from the EL’s own networks. And worse, just as Willis herself apparently moved from campaigning activism into ‘academia’, many of these seemingly academic experts are seasoned political activists.

Of course, no one imagines that academia has no connection to political activism of one kind or another (and generally this is not a major issue). But it would be foolish to forget that academic expertise is loaded with ideological baggage, too. And the speakers presented to the Climate Assembly were drawn from just one side of the debate – the other has been abolished from campuses.

For instance, Steve Melia was presented to the Assembly as an academic from the University of the West of England. But he was arrested while taking part in an Extinction Rebellion roadblock. Similarly, ‘Informant’ Jason Torrance was a founder-member of the UK branch of Earth First and the 1990s anti-road movement, Reclaim the Streets. ‘Advocate’ Leo Murray was a member of anti-airport campaign, Plane Stupid. There was no disagreement and no debate between the individuals chosen by the ELs, whose political backgrounds were not disclosed to the Assembly. Instead, they were presented in the most politically neutral terms.

The Assembly members themselves, despite all of the experts supporting climate policy, did actually voice disagreements. But these have been largely downplayed since. Throughout the videos of the six meetings and the 500-page report, there are significant indications of dissent from the convenor’s obvious bias. One speaker, Kirsten Leggat, from the 2050 Climate Group, claimed that she was ‘here to speak for the young people of the UK now and the generations that have not yet been born’. ‘What percentage of younger people agree with you?’, asked an Assembly member. Leggat had no answer.

When a session was hastily organised on the implications of Covid-19 for the Net Zero agenda, several Assembly members complained. One said, in strong terms, that ‘failing to seek prior consensus from the Assembly as to whether the Assembly collectively wishes any statement to be made on its behalf linking Net Zero to coronavirus smacks of political hubris… I refuse to be balloted on these rash, grossly naive and insensitive questions and I expect to see this response accurately conveyed to parliament.’ Naturally, it wasn’t. The member’s comment was buried in the report’s 500 pages, which no MP seems to have read.

And that epitomises the problem. The Climate Assembly did not convene itself, did not choose its own experts and did not choose how to represent its choices to parliament. In the case of voting, for example, the Assembly was not asked to express dissent from or assent to any propositions, but to order their preferences, which had been put to them by the convenors. In other words, the assembly was not permitted to reject policy recommendations explicitly.

Worse still, the Assembly was, on at least one occasion, divided into three groups, each to consider different issues. In other words, the convenors were able to manipulate the Assembly’s votes to give support to the climate agenda. For instance, despite the Assembly’s clear rejection of one possible government intervention, the convenors have claimed that the Assembly supported it. In the session in question, the Assembly was divided into three groups, one of which considered the question of reducing meat and dairy consumption. Of eight proposals considered by the group of 35, just 29 per cent – 10 assembly members – supported interventions to reduce meat and dairy consumption, making it the second least popular option. Yet reducing meat and dairy consumption has been presented in the media, by green organisations and government departments, as a recommendation endorsed by the Assembly – thereby giving a ‘mandate’ to policymakers.

It is an affront to democracy that the Assembly was even convened – dominated as it was by an ideological agenda shaped by entirely unaccountable special interest lobbying – let alone that the public’s views were twisted to support pre-determined policy preferences. At every turn, activists, academics, politicians and lobbyists have been fully aware of the democratic deficit on climate policy. But they have sought to circumvent this in order to further their agenda. The Climate Assembly was a performance designed to produce a ‘mandate’, but which even then, despite tightly controlled ‘voting’, with debate and counter-argument having been abolished, still did not elicit what its backers wanted.

The same organisations that have been at the heart of all lobbying for climate policies were also involved in the Climate Assembly. Campaigning organisations with zero public support, but with the backing of a small number of billionaire ‘philanthropists’, have been free to align public institutions to their purpose and to exclude debate at the expense of democracy. The organisations themselves regularly boast about their achievements: their success in influencing politicians, drafting policies (including Net Zero), in controlling public debates and protecting decision-making processes (such as the Assembly) from inconvenient challenges.

What is concerning is not only that these organisations may succeed in reorganising society in this manifestly undemocratic way. Another danger is that such a wilful disregard for democracy may destroy it for generations to come. It was development economist Amartya Sen who argued powerfully that famines do not occur in democracies – politicians that are accountable to the public are forced to make better decisions in our interests. Once politicians have decided that they do not require our assent for their agendas, and that they will act despite public dissent and against our interests, then their failures to serve our interests can be recast as a success: as ‘saving the planet’. Politicians have already promised to take away our cars and our boilers, to control our diets and increase the costs of energy. Do you believe that they are anything but indifferent to you being cold, hungry, immobile, poor and jobless? Think again. They serve only themselves.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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