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Extinction Rebellion’s big idea is bad
The thing they’re actually asking for is rather silly
Flashback! Two topical pieces to read again: Last year I wrote a piece speculating about what will ACTUALLY happen when the Queen dies. And a few months ago, I wrote about how republicans should approach campaigning when we’re on the wildly unpopular side of the issue. Go read both, and see how they hold up!
And now for something that mercifully has no connection to the Monarchy.
Extinction Rebellion’s climate change plan is bad
I’m instinctively sympathetic when I see a protest. My music of choice as a teenager, and still as a white-collar professional and homeowner in his mid-thirties, is punk. So I love waving my fist in the air and sticking it to the man.
But when I see Extinction Rebellion (“XR”), all I see is a missed opportunity.
It’s not just their baffling, counter-productive schtick of super-gluing themselves to public transport. What frustrates me is that the thing they say they actually want is actually very silly.
This might sound strange, because obviously climate change is very important. But what is the big ask, the big demand the organisation is making to save our planet? Do they want the government to commit to ending fossil fuel use sooner than currently planned? Perhaps they want the government to create an army of tradespeople, and task them with installing solar panels and insulation in every home?
No, it turns out that the big ask is for… a non-binding “Citizens’ Assembly”.
Yes, this is absolutely true. “Let the people decide,” and “Citizens’ Assembly Now,” read XR banners in Parliament during a protest a couple of weeks ago.
It just seems bizarre to me that after all of the large, colourful stunts, the disruption, and activists putting themselves at risk, that the objective is so… underwhelming. All of that attention-seeking and you’re not demanding the overthrow of capitalism or for every motorist to be sent to cycling reeducation camps1?
But the worst thing about this is that a Citizens’ Assembly wouldn’t actually achieve anything.
That’s right folks, it’s time for a lazy man sat behind his keyboard to tell the activists actually doing something that they’re doing it wrong again. But hey, maybe you’ll find this interesting. So why not subscribe and get more of This Sort Of Thing in your inbox?
The case for Citizens’ Assemblies
In principle, the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly sounds pretty appealing: You randomly pick a number of members of the public similar to how people are picked for Jury Duty. Then those citizens are tasked with deliberating on the issue and making recommendations.
XR has a fairly detailed outline of its proposal, which you can read in full, if you like. But the gist is that XR believe that such an assembly can break what it calls the “deadlock” in the politics of climate change, by getting around some of the uglier aspects of party politics: The partisanship, vested interests, corporate lobbyists and so on.
So instead, they want to take climate policy out of traditional electoral politics, and put it in the hands of a new body - a Citizens’ Assembly - which would draw its ‘democratic’ legitimacy from the jury system by which members were selected.
I’m incredibly sceptical of this for reasons I will explain. But to steel-person2 XR’s case for something new, attempting to take a decision out of normal political control isn't completely unheard of. In fact, we do it quite often, and usually for good reasons.
For example, in 1997 control over interest rates was given away by the Chancellor and put into the hands of the Bank of England. I’m sure there are some smart economists or politicians who can explain why this was a bad idea, but most people think it was sensible, as it makes rate-setting more technocratic and less of a capital-P political decision. In theory, it gives the markets more confidence that British monetary policy isn’t going to go completely crazy on the whims of the politicians in Westminster3.
And sometimes there are particularly sticky policy areas where the government of the day will kick particularly contentious decisions to outside or cross-party commissions or committees that produce reports and recommendations. This can be a useful way to build a political consensus on a tricky issue: The other team can’t easily go for cheap point-scoring and criticise the unpopular-but-necessary thing like, say, building a third runway at Heathrow, if their fingerprints are on the knife too4.
So it is conceivable that holding a Citizens’ Assembly could be another tool in the political toolkit. If there’s an issue that is particularly contentious or “deadlocked”, then politicians can leave the decision to the Assembly.
But following the above logic of depoliticising the issue, could a Citizens’ Assembly be a useful mechanism for solving the problem of climate change?
No. It’s still an absolutely terrible idea.
A citizens assembly can’t solve climate change
I’m not completely opposed to the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies. I think they could be useful in arriving at a broad consensus on the principles of something. For example, Ireland held a Citizens’ Assembly in order to determine the proposed abortion time limits, before putting it to a referendum5.
But what to do about climate change is very different because the principles have already been decided: Since Theresa May committed the UK to Net Zero in June 2019, all of the major parties have, on paper at least, supported Net Zero by 2050. And all early signs are that Liz Truss intends to maintain the Net Zero commitment (contrary it has to be said, to my expectations, even if I do think the broader conclusions of that piece still stand)6.
So the ‘problem’ with climate change is that the debate is no longer about principles. Everyone other than a handful of irrelevant cranks thinks that climate change is bad and that we should do something about it.
You can understand why, after years of campaigning to raise awareness, and arguing that Something Must Be Done, it is hard to get their heads around but, climate activists have already won. Basically everyone agrees with them. So climate is now a technical problem of delivery. And this is an unavoidable capital-P political challenge that requires a capital-P political answer.
And this is where the problem with hoping we can figure out what to do with a Citizens’ Assembly falls apart.
Parliament is never going to vote for something called The Solve Climate Change Act, where this one piece of legislation sets in motion a bunch of measures that will immediately get us to Net Zero. And likewise, nor could a Citizens’ Assembly hold some sort of binding vote and set the course of the British state for the next 30 years.
In reality, tackling climate change is going to require a much broader range of policy interventions for the next three decades, as we as a society have to answer questions like: What energy mix do we want to have in 2050? Should the government increase taxes to fund the installation of insulation on millions of homes and workplaces? How can planning rules be changed to expedite the roll-out of renewables?
So climate mitigations need to be a core part of almost everything the government does for the next three decades. And as we chip away at the problem, it requires us as a society to make constant, shifting, political choices about the trade-offs. Which is very much the job of politicians who are accountable to voters.
Part of the problem is complexity. It’s very different from the example of Ireland’s abortion debate where, essentially, once the new law has been passed, the politicians didn’t need to continue scrutinising abortion legislation, raising taxes or making any decisions in an on-going way7.
So the idea that a Citizens’ Assembly - one hundred, randomly-selected people can and should be tasked with setting the direction of basically the entire British state for a generation is obviously ludicrous and unworkable.
I think the real tell that XR’s approach isn’t serious goes back to how it describes the “deadlock” with our existing political institutions: The lobbying, the vested interests and so on.
I think all of these things can be, and are, a problem and something we should worry about. That’s why I’m a totally rad punk, after all. But I also think we can over-index on conspiracy-adjacent explanations8 because “so and so is bad and corrupt” is a much neater story to tell than “this is a really complex issue with no clear correct answers”9.
So I’m also not convinced the only thing stopping more aggressive climate action is mega-donors to political parties – I think there’s a significant element of genuine trade-offs that we have to wrestle with.
In fact, we’ve seen this play out over recent months on both sides of the Atlantic during the energy crisis, as increasing fossil fuel production has become politically palatable again, in order to reduce energy prices and increase energy supply.
And this is a genuinely difficult - and political - question. How can we decide how to weigh these competing priorities against each other? Who gets to choose whether it is right that granny has to be a bit colder this winter, because of the greater good of reducing emissions? Or who decides that we have no choice but to burn more fossil fuels, because of all of the other negative consequences of high prices and short supply?
Luckily, we already have a place to do this. It’s an “assembly” of “citizens” that already exists, called Parliament.
A coalition of the willing
What XR do get right is they recognise that Britain is seriously hobbled by short-term thinking. We have lots of annoying long term problems. Not just climate, but in areas like housing, infrastructure, and social care. All would be better served if our politicians could think beyond the next election.
But the solution isn’t to invent some sort of new cheat-code institution founded on the basis of questionable democratic legitimacy. Solving these problems is going to require politicians of all stripes to buy into whatever solutions we choose over the longer term.
The only viable means of mitigating climate change then, whether we like it or not, is to build a political coalition of climate solution supporters that can survive multiple general elections to see projects through to completion.
This is much harder to do than holding a Citizens’ Assembly once, and hoping for the best. But it does have the advantage that it might actually work.
To be clear, I am not proposing some fantasy-world politics where a new climate-party emerges or anything like that. What I am saying is that the goal of climate activists should be to build a broad cross-party consensus, so that climate measures will survive inevitable changes in government.
I don’t think it is impossible, but it does require thinking about the problem in the right way, and acknowledging the fact that any climate coalition is going to have to bring some Tories along with it, as frustratingly the Conservative Party have a pretty good track record at winning elections.
This is why for ages I have been banging the drum for taking climate change actually seriously by not indulging in fantasies about de-growth, or doing mad stuff like using climate as a cudgel for unrelated lefty ideological concerns.
I think a durable pro-climate coalition is more likely to emerge with a promise of green growth and productivity and not hectoring the people you need the votes of for their personal choices when the problems are structural.
Because if climate advocates can present something with a chance of commanding popular support, the pro-climate consensus can persist no matter who is in charge next time around. And that means we can at least then be confident that when there is a general election we don’t need to be afraid of democracy. Instead we’ll be happy to let the people decide.
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I think I’m actually in favour of this.
A steel-man argument, is the opposite of a straw-man argument, where you try to imagine the strongest possible version of your opponent’s argument, to help you better identify its flaws.
I’m sure it works out well for Chancellors too, as they can avoid painting a target on their backs.
The real smart move is to appoint a respected figure from the opposing party to lead it.
It’s hard to imagine thinking through how the consequences of a referendum might work before it happens, but that’s what they did.
It’s worth point out that despite the concerns about Jacob Rees Mogg in BEIS, Truss has also appointed fairly serious green Tory Graham Stuart as Climate Change Minister, and he’ll be attending cabinet. Remember we’re not in America and the Tories are not the Republican party on this.
I’m sure someone better versed in Irish politics could tell me how this isn’t strictly correct, that they then had to fund abortion clinics or change healthcare laws or something. But you know what I mean.
Unrelated but I think a very striking example of how the internet has turned us all into conspiracy theorists is to look at the comments on any local newspaper story on Facebook that’s about building houses. About half the comments are suggestions that the councillors must have received brown envelopes from the developers, even though we’re one of the least corrupt countries in the world.
I also wonder if a lot of the stuff worrying about lobbyists and big money is imported from America, given there is so much less money sloshing about in British politics.