written by Elliot Ross, Scotland’s Climate Assembly Secretariat

Scotland’s citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency has drawn together over 100 ordinary citizens, and tasked them with agreeing a response to the question, “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way?”

It sets out nothing less than a new mandate for radical and decisive action on the part of Parliament, Government, business, communities and individuals to tackle the climate emergency. The 82 recommendations call for big changes to how we work, how we travel, how we build our buildings, how we heat our homes, how our public services are run, how we ensure we all understand the climate emergency, how we use our land, how our communities are connected, how our businesses work, what we eat and, in short, how we live our lives.

The Assembly is made up of a ‘mini-Scotland’, broadly representative of the country in terms of age, gender, household income, ethnicity, geography, rurality, disability, and attitude towards climate change. It operates independently of government, and took evidence from over 100 expert speakers.

The Interim Report was laid in Parliament in March, marking the culmination of a long journey for the individual citizens from across the country, whose hard work shines through in the detail and ambition of their report. But as co-conveners Ruth Harvey and Josh Littlejohn urge, “This cannot be the end of the story of citizens actively leading our response to the climate emergency through informed deliberation together. For the good of Scotland and the wider world, it must be the beginning.”

The climate crisis is a human rights issue. The impacts of climate change, as well as the changes required to combat and deal with it, will affect everyone in Scotland and around the world. The people whose lives are impacted by policymaking related to climate must have a strong voice in shaping decisions. By involving citizens in this way, Scotland can justly claim to be at the leading edge of innovations in democratic participation globally.

Julie, 40, a member who moved to Scotland from France 13 years ago and works as a translator, reflected, “Following the climate assembly, I am more confident that we citizens can push the government, businesses, individuals to take the necessary decisions and make the fundamental changes to tackle the big climate issue. I switched from feeling guilty of damaging the planet to feeling empowered that things can be done, and fast.”

The recommendations, supported by an overwhelming consensus of members, bear significant weight. Scottish ministers are legally required to respond within six months, providing a direct route into policy making with the COP26 climate conference currently scheduled for Glasgow in November.

Grounded in Scotland’s Climate Change (2019) Act, and receiving cross-party support, Scotland’s Climate Assembly is the first fully online citizens’ assembly in Scotland. Citizens’ assemblies are spaces where people come together to learn, discuss and deliberate about a topic. The journey of assemblies is unique, allowing people from all walks of life, with differing opinions and life experiences, to reach meaningful agreement and consensus, often about a contentious issue.

Colin, a member who live near Peebles in the Borders, said, “People could disagree without being disagreeable. It really captured that it’s good to disagree and understand things by having that conversation with people, but to do it in a constructive way. Everyone seemed to follow the spirit of that. It wasn’t confrontational.”

Forbes, a member who works in a manufacturing plant, agrees. “I really enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t always easy and could be a bit stressful sometimes, but in general was enjoyable. It’s a representation of life – you’ve got to deal with people, and people have got to deal with you! The scope of what’s facing us is really daunting but shying away from it won’t sort it, will it?”

Such initiatives for citizen involvement are becoming increasingly popular; Scotland’s Climate Assembly follows from other climate assemblies in France and the UK, and a Global Climate Assembly is proposed to coincide with COP26.

Members of Scotland’s Climate Assembly were selected through a lottery process; 20,000 invitations were sent out to the population. Originally scheduled to meet online over a period of six weekends, Assembly members chose to meet for a seventh weekend in March to discuss and refine their recommendations. A further weekend is also planned to discuss the ministerial response in November.

Learning is a key principle in assemblies, and to ensure the recommendations were evidence-based, the Assembly was provided with evidence from over 100 expert speakers. The remit of the evidence was guided by the Assembly’s Evidence Group, a group of nine experts tasked with ensuring the evidence base was balanced, accessible and comprehensive. Over the first two weekends, Assembly members learnt about climate change, mitigation, adaptation, systems change and fairness. They then split into three streams: Diet, Land Use and Lifestyle; Homes and Communities; Travel and Work, to consider these topics in depth. Further evidence focused on energy, finance and the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan.

Reflecting on the Assembly’s recommendations on diet, one member, Ellie, a landscape architect in the Borders, said, “I was astonished to learn about the high levels of carbon associated with the meat and dairy industry. After hearing a lot of evidence, it felt really important to myself, and other members I worked with, to ensure the government set a precedent for a shift away from the high-carbon diet habits that we have in Scotland towards a low-carbon plant-based diet.”

Due to the Assembly being fully online, evidence was presented in video format; the Assembly’s evidential videos are available to watch on its website and YouTube channel.

Members recognised the value of their learning journey and the need for Scottish society to be better informed on issues and options related to the climate emergency. For policy changes to be fair and effective, they need to be underpinned by a sustained public information campaign to embolden and enliven the people of Scotland.

Fairness, a key term in the remit, was integrated throughout the Assembly and informed the recommendations, as the policies that combat climate change can disproportionately affect some people more than others. The Assembly recognised that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to tackling climate change, and Scotland needs to take into account the needs of different communities across Scotland.

Assembly members were all aged 16 and over; however, it was recognised that children are typically not invited to engage in decision-making processes, despite these decisions directly affecting their future. The Assembly therefore worked closely with Scotland’s Children’s Parliament to ensure younger voices were heard and that the reflections of their team of Climate Investigators was integrated into the Assembly’s thinking as it agreed its recommendations. One Assembly member, Jocelyn, 61, found the children’s involvement particularly valuable. “Their understanding of climate change and enthusiasm in wanting to help find solutions for the future was remarkable,” she said. “They are a source of hope for us all.”

The Children’s Parliament worked with over 100 children from ten schools, echoing the demographic breadth of the Assembly. The children were selected to ensure a mix of gender, ethnicity, household income and rurality. Over five months, the children were presented with evidence similar to that presented to the Assembly and completed participatory workshops and three surveys. They created 42 ambitious calls to action, which are reflective of the Assembly’s recommendations. These calls to action were presented to Assembly members before they refined their own recommendations. All the materials used by the Children’s Parliament are available on the Climate Assembly website.

Discussions of the climate emergency sometimes feel highly complex; at other times deeply daunting. Scotland’s Climate Assembly has left no doubt about the stakes:

“If we fail to act now, we will fail our current and future generations, in Scotland and across the world.”

But there are grounds for hope, too, with active citizens taking a leading role in shaping decision making. As Andrew, a member from the island of Benbecula, explains, “I’ve gained a better understanding of the boots-on-the-ground solutions that can be taken, and I’ve gained real optimism for the future.”