by Johanna Lundahl
Five Washington state legislators, all committee chairs, have called for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate in fall, 2020. They wrote in a , “Too often in Olympia [Washington’s state capital], the debate around our response to climate change devolves into environmentalists versus big businesses, urban versus rural, Democrats versus Republican. It would help us all to bring more voices to the table to understand deeply held concerns, concerns about the status quo as well as concerns about the policies proposed to fight climate change.”
The is a non-partisan direct democracy process that will bring together roughly 100 randomly selected residents of Washington who demographically mirror the state in age, gender, ethnicity, education, and previous views on climate. Assembly members will come together online over the course of several weekends to develop connections, learn from science and policy experts, deliberate on paths forward, and most importantly recommend policies to lawmakers.
In this case, the recommendations, once agreed upon by the assembly participants, will be delivered to the Chairs of five House Committees. The legislators who authored the Op-Ed have promised to take the recommendations for climate law and policy seriously, and the Assembly’s work will flow directly into the drafting of policies for the 2021 Washington Legislative session.
A key event development in September, 2019, the Protectors of the Salish Sea—a group of Indigenous organizers also known as “Water Protectors”—held a sit-in in front of the Capitol Building in Olympia, WA. They called on Governor Jay Inslee, the self-proclaimed Climate Governor, to end any new fossil fuel project permitting and convene “a special session on climate change that includes the voices of the youth, Indigenous Peoples, and those most affected by the climate crisis.” Their six-month vigil ended in March 2020, when they left the capitol in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Climate activist Michael Foster decided to Climate Assembly Washington, an informal group passionate about the opportunity to expand democratic methods to address the climate crisis. With the example of France’s and the U.K.’s national climate change assemblies in mind, the group began working to introduce the concept of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate to Washington lawmakers, stakeholders, and potential funders.
Citizens’ Assemblies are not well known in the United States, however, the use of deliberative democracy in public forums was actually invented here in the 1970s. The Jefferson Center began to design and regularly operate in 1971. Stanford professor James Fishkin’stechniques have been used since the 1990s to understand what conclusions the public might reach about a topic if they had the opportunity to become fully informed and engaged.
A Citizens’ Assembly process, if carried out correctly, can break through the standoff of opposing interests. Mirroring the origins of the democratic process from ancient Greece, the Assembly participants are chosen by lot, and serve only once. The makeup of an assembly should perfectly reflect the population of the larger public, effectively creating a mini-version of the state, country, or city from which it is convened. The random selection process ensures a representative population.
Climate Assembly Washington hopes that by directly engaging Washington residents, the assembly will generate actionable and exciting solutions for lawmakers. The group itself will step aside at the point where a neutral organization, experienced in managing a project as timely and delicate as a climate assembly, will take on the work of coordinating the project. The group advocates for a process, not an outcome, as it is appropriate for the citizens of the state to determine the best steps forward.
The Washington activists asked the committee chairs of the committees in the state legislature to call for the assembly, and they did so in their May 31st Op-Ed. Representative Ryu of the 32nd district is among those eager for the Assembly’s recommendations to inform their own work. As she wrote, “We must hear the authentic voices of Washington’s residents, from indigenous communities to farmers and tech workers, to know what actions the people of our state recommend when they work together to create solutions.”
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Assembly will now take place completely online. Efforts will be made to ensure equal access to participation, with the additional needs of providing access to high quality internet, and equipment to ensure that even those with few resources can participate. The assembly must also be broken up into shorter sessions and spaced out longer over time. Not many people can remain engaged over long hours online.
Big decisions lie ahead: about the design of the assembly, who will coordinate it, and where all the funding will come from, but Climate Assembly Washington’s goal is in sight.
With ongoing outreach to environmental organizations around the state, the group’s next tasks include fundraising, facilitating the choosing of coordinators, and hosting a workshop to determine the specific focus of the Assembly. Donations to fund the event are coming from crowdfunding as well as major donors who are passionate about expanding democracy, and agree to donate with no strings attached.
Washington State will be the first state in the country to host an online Citizens’ Assembly on climate this coming fall, providing another positive example of the Citizens’ Assembly model for the country to learn from. Just as assemblies have spread across the UK and around Europe, deliberative democracy techniques can be used more widely across the United States to address the climate crisis. The greatest challenge of modern times requires the greatest resources available: the people — each able to share their perspectives and add to the expanded conversation.
Environmentalist author Bill McKibben has shared his excitement for the model. “As a rural New Englander, used to governance by Town Meeting, I’m excited by the prospect of these Citizens Assemblies: I know how much creativity and unity they will produce!”
Advocates say that it’s time to have faith in the residents of Washington State. They understand the urgency of the situation, and, given the opportunity to learn about and discuss potential solutions, expect them to respond with enthusiasm.