The climate crisis is not like the hole in the ozone layer, river pollution or plastic waste. All these are symptoms of an economy which doesn’t value the environment, but only climate change requires us to make a significant shift away from a fundamental building block of our societies: fossil fuels. Societies are shaped by the energy source they use. The way we design our cities, towns, and other infrastructures is conditioned by the fact we have abundant petrol in the pumps and gas in the pipes. The fossil economy co-evolved with our society, and our politics. To address the climate crisis, we need to move from a fossil economy to a renewable one. Such a transition implies a radical rethink of the infrastructures, relations, and institutions that shape our political and social lives.

For all the work mapping the technological requirements of this transition, precious little attention has been paid to the political institutions required to drive and sustain it. What political reforms are needed to catalyse the transition? Which political institutions would best enable human flourishing in a society re-shaped around renewable energy? How can these new institutions be brought into existence? These are questions that require urgent answers. Here, we map out our vision of a democracy which is better adapted to the climate crisis.  

 

What challenges must a new political system respond to?

The first requirement for a political system is that it helps generate rapid action on climate change. The imperative of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement cannot be overstated and in the UK, and many other countries, there is strong political and public support for ambitious climate action. But the impacts of climate change will themselves change politics. There will be greater stresses to our own climate in the UK, including heatwaves, droughts and floods; as well as indirect effects on our security and food systems, possibly resulting in greater political and social insecurity. Any reforms must therefore respond to the dual challenge of catalysing a rapid transition, whilst protecting and enhancing wellbeing against the backdrop of changes to the climate. 

Some have argued, in response to these challenges, that democracy is ill-suited to climate action. The veteran earth scientist James Lovelock famously said “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”. While few express this view quite so strongly, many climate experts suggest, implicitly, that scientific and technical authorities should guide decision-making, with the role of people being reduced to offering passive consent. But it is naïve to imagine that these changes sweeping our society – the transition away from fossil fuels and the climate impacts we face – can be dealt with through a process of expert decision-making alone, still less autocracy. These are intensely social decisions, requiring support and trust. 

The future of democracy

We would also increase participation and meaningful deliberation within the national legislature by replacing the House of Lords with a second chamber of ordinary citizens selected by sortition.

We argue instead that democracy needs to be strengthened and reformed, not bypassed. We need to reach in the other direction, toward a stronger and more participatory democracy. Our vision is of a deliberative democratic system where a wide range of citizens are actively engaged in the decision-making process. Where everyone has opportunities to become informed, to debate with one another, to co-develop preferences and priorities, and to participate in decision making. 

A more deliberative democracy will be capable of making decisions for the longer term, forging a greater level of consensus over major issues whilst encouraging informed and open debate. This would build trust in the democratic process, bring a wider range of knowledge and expertise to bear on climate policy challenges, and ensure the costs of the transition and impacts of climate change do not fall unfairly across society. A political system with less entrenched political opposition and higher levels of trust will allow for the inevitable mistakes and changes of direction that will occur as we respond to the climate crisis.  

What reforms are needed?

What does this mean in practice, over the fifteen years? Our vision is for a sweep of improvements to the democratic process, at national and local level. First, our future system makes greater use of deliberative mini-publics (DMPs) such as citizens’ assemblies and juries. Building on the recent upsurge in the use of DMPs on climate issues, we see a future where legal reform gives these fora formal standing in the policy process at a national and local level. These methods can produce useful insights for climate policy design and are a highly visible form of public deliberation. Their widespread use helps to normalise amongst the public and policy makers the idea that ‘average’ citizens can and should contribute to the policy process.

We would also increase participation and meaningful deliberation within the national legislature by replacing the House of Lords with a second chamber of ordinary citizens selected by sortition. This second chamber would provide a counterweight to the highly partisan politics of the current legislature. 

This new culture of democratic debate and engagement will strengthen our democracy in the face of the pressures of climate change. But we must recognise that blanket consensus is likely not possible, nor even desirable.

There would be greater transparency about and regulation of lobbying access and political funding. This would limit the power of incumbent companies, such as oil and gas operators, who tend to oppose or delay reforms which threaten their business model. The process by which governments develop policy, such as statutory consultations, could be reformed to allow greater access for citizen voices. More widely still, a healthy and independent media helps democracies function better. 

Finally, the distance between citizens and policy makers is decreased by bringing decision making down to the most local feasible level. Local authorities are equipped with resources and powers to design and implement local energy plans and other climate initiatives that meet the specific needs of their area. 

These changes add up to more than the sum of their parts. In fifteen years, a culture of deliberative politics has emerged that touches every part of our lives – from debates in the national legislature to conversations in the local pub. The citizenry fully understands their role in the policy process, has ample opportunities to input, to become informed, and to build a level of intersubjectivity that cuts across cultural and political dividing lines.

This new culture of democratic debate and engagement will strengthen our democracy in the face of the pressures of climate change. But we must recognise that blanket consensus is likely not possible, nor even desirable. Political contestation is based on material as well as ideological differences between sections of society that may not be overcome through improved deliberation. What this new system achieves is an increased recognition of the legitimacy of contrasting opinions. It provides the settings to mediate these disagreements, whilst creating consensus where possible. Where consensus exists, policy consistency will be much more easily achieved. This stability will be all the greater for being underpinned by genuine public consensus, rather than an artificial elite consensus imposed from the top. 

All these changes act to improve overall trust in the political system. People trust that when hard decisions are made, they are made for the right reasons are justified. This trust allows decision makers to experiment and trial different solutions to policy problems, changing course when needed and doubling down on what works.

In this approach, deliberative reforms run alongside climate action that is meaningful in two senses – a meaningful, adequate response to the climate challenge; and meaningful to citizens.

How do we get there?

Achieving institutional change is never easy. But our vision does not seek to wipe away the old and start anew. We aim to build on the democratic institutions bequeathed by previous generations. Our current system is already a deliberative democracy, if a deeply imperfect one. We have the right to a vote, a relatively free media, a multi-party system with free and fair elections, the division of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary. These are all institutions built through a long history of struggle for recognition of the governed to have a say in the political process. While each is open to legitimate critique, they are valuable building blocks for a better and more deliberative democracy. 

The main challenge we then face is that our proposals may seem abstract or unworkable. We see this not as a sudden change, but a gradual, yet far-reaching, shift. First steps at deliberation, which we have already seen through Climate Assembly UK and the many local Assemblies and Juries, can help to develop understanding about the climate crisis and prompt debate about how we respond. Crucially, these processes can help to develop responses which are meaningful and engage citizens, linking to their lives and aspirations, which in turn should help to build support, and lay the ground for a more ambitious strategy. A crucial part of this is using individual initiatives, like Climate Assembly UK, to reach out to wider groups across society. Research demonstrates that people’s support for policy increases if it is seen as part of a democratic process, even if they themselves were not involved, similar to people’s support for jury trials.  

In this approach, deliberative reforms run alongside climate action that is meaningful in two senses – a meaningful, adequate response to the climate challenge; and meaningful to citizens. This creates a virtuous circle, where greater participation leads to improved decisions that materially benefit people’s lives, leading to greater support for participation. At each turn of this circle, we can build a democracy that is better adapted to the post-fossil age, and is capable of withstanding the shocks and uncertainties that the next fifteen years are certain to bring.

 

Dr Jacob Ainscough and Professor Rebecca Willis run the Climate Citizens initiative at Lancaster University.