In support of Julia Gillard’s Citizens' Assembly on Climate

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010 17:48 by Ad astra
I suppose we should not be surprised that most journalists have sneeringly dismissed the proposal by Julia Gillard to convene a ‘Citizen’s Assembly on Climate’ as just another ‘talkfest’ or more derisively a ‘gobfest’, or just a cynical ‘stunt’ to make us believe she is doing something about climate change, or to enable her to coast to the election without a proper policy. Some journalists have called it a ‘massive failure of leadership’, and ‘an excuse for inaction’. Miranda Devine’s PM’s so sure Bob’s your uncle wrote one of the more acerbic pieces about it.  As one would expect, Lenore Taylor wrote a more balanced piece: Gillard seeks citizens' group on ETS policy.  

Of course Coalition members have joined in the chorus, but so have several niche columnists and bloggers, some of whom I respect as writers. Mungo MacCallum says: “Gillard’s idea of a people’s assembly to achieve consensus under the guidance of a commission of experts is the silliest and most pusillanimous proposal to date…”. Grog of Grog’s Gamut talks about “…her mind numbingly stupid climate change policy, I think this is proof that whoever advised her to adopt the citizen’s panel should be taken out back and shot…” – pretty strong sentiments that reflect annoyance and disbelief.

Even nine out of ten in an online poll, for what it’s worth, thinks the idea is ‘a lot of hot air’, having selected the option that canvassed that answer.

But is this onslaught of negativity based on knowledge of such forums, or experience in educational settings, or an understanding of how public opinion is formed and can be influenced? Or does the idea just seem daft and therefore something to be flicked away like an annoying cattle fly?

Writing in the National Times, Carolyn Hendricks, political scientist at the Crawford school of economics and government at the Australian National University, is not so negative, although you might not think so from the title of her piece: Citizens' assembly on climate may turn the heat on Gillard.  In The Australian Mike Steketee writes positively in Academic sees merit in citizens' assemblies.  

Education the answer

Those of you that have a background in education will be less skeptical than most in the media, most of whom are trained as journalists not as educators or in public relations. You will remember the work of Kurt Lewin who pioneered social psychology, group dynamics and action research. You may recall the way he used groups to persuade housewives to use offal in place of better animal protein during wartime shortages. He tried traditional ‘instruction’ with almost no resultant change in their behaviour; it was only when he involved the women in group discussions about how THEY might use offal, and how THEY ACTUALLY HAD used it, that a substantial change towards the use of offal in their kitchens resulted. It was the discussion that did the trick – the women reached conclusions themselves; it was that which changed their behaviour. Since then group process has been used extensively in education, health care, science, the arts, business and commerce to effect behaviour change. It works.

If this group process is what Julia has in mind, it stands a good chance of meeting her aim – to facilitate a new and deep consensus in the community about the need for action about climate change, the options for action, and the consequences of those actions.

So let’s not join the knockers without giving it a go, condemning it out of hand just because it doesn’t ring a positive bell. It’s the knockers who need to ask themselves: ’Why am I knocking this idea?’ and ‘What is the evidence I have to support a negative attitude to it?’ If they come up short, they might care to read on.

Unlike journalists who fume about the idea but offer no reason why ‘it won’t work’, my support for the idea will be accompanied by an account about how it might produce the results Julia seeks.

What is needed?

First let’s be clear about the skeleton of what’s proposed. The Citizens' Assembly is to be informed by an independent commission of experts whose task is to explain the science behind climate change and report on international action. This body will include climate scientists and credible, with the emphasis on ‘credible’, skeptics. There would be little point in including rabid deniers who cannot support their stance with scientifically verifiable facts and figures, and who have no intention of being persuaded from their viewpoint.

So the first point to make is that the Citizens' Assembly will not be required to collect its own scientific information; instead it will be presented with this by the independent commission and asked to appraise it in the context of what the nation ought to do.

So if one had the responsibility for fashioning such a Citizens' Assembly, what approach might work?

First, the aim of the exercise

It seems that the ultimate aim is to restore the resolve of the Australian electorate to pursue climate change actions that have the possibility of slowing, halting, and perhaps even reversing the adverse effects of climate change and global warming, and mitigating its immediate cause, carbon pollution.The more immediate aim seems to be to use the citizens’ group to create a narrative about the need for climate change action that is plausible, understandable and appealing, even although it might include elements that are discomforting, such as increased costs of energy and products and services that depend heavily on energy. The narrative would then be used to influence thinking in the community towards rational and timely action on climate change.

Some argue that the public already supports action on climate change and that the Government, having been given a mandate to act at the last election, should ‘show leadership’ and ‘just get on with it’. But since then, with the Coalition’s negative ‘Great Big New Tax on Everything’ mantra perpetrated with vigour by Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce, support has fallen. Look at the graph on Pollytics: Lowy Poll – climate change and public hypocrisy which shows a fall from 68% in 2006 to 46% in 2010 among those who want immediate action, and the rise in those who want something done, but at low cost and with little urgency from 24% to 40%, while the real deniers have moved from 7% to 13%. Moreover in 2010, 33% are not prepared to pay anything extra for electricity, whereas in 2008 it was 21%. Only one in five are prepared to pay $21 a week or more extra for electricity to tackle climate change.

This is why Julia is seeking ‘a deep community consensus on climate change’. There is NOT a strong enough consensus now, yet such a strong and deep consensus IS needed to support the radical changes to the economy and the lifestyle and budget of ordinary citizens that action on climate change entails.

Parliament not the answer

Some, including Abbott himself, says that the nation already has a 150-member forum to reach consensus on what to do about climate change, - it’s called parliament. That he could have the effrontery to say this is breathtaking. It was in parliament that he led the push to destroy consensus after the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull had reached agreement with the Government to pass the ETS. It was HE who ensured that parliament could not be the forum where consensus was reached, a consensus that would have brought the country along in its train. No, destruction of consensus was Abbott’s intent, and he succeeded.

So how could this Citizens' Assembly work?

Choosing the citizens

First, the 150 citizens need to be chosen. To represent the Australian community they need to reflect the demography of the country, the age and gender mix, the geographic distribution and the mix of occupations. The Bureau of Statistics would be capable of randomly selecting a group that reflected these parameters from its census data. No, it would not stick a pin into a telephone book as Greg Hunt suggested. It would need to select many more than the 150 required as many would not be able or willing to participate; perhaps a thousand would be needed initially.

The next step would be to whittle this larger group to the 150 required. This could be done by communicating with them asking if they are interested and willing to be involved. If they were, they would then be asked to answer questions about their country of origin, ethnicity, educational achievement, past and present occupation, their status in the community, their beliefs about Australian society and their aspirations for it, and their beliefs about climate change and what ought to be done. Attention to these details would allow a spread of people to be selected that represented the wide variety of opinion that exists in our community.

Once the 150 had been identified an educational process would be needed to ensure that all had a similar understanding of the scientific evidence for global warming, the consequences of doing nothing about it, the action that could be taken to mitigate it, the costs and implications of taking suitable action, and the likely sources and nature of opposition to action. This educational process could begin with written material prepared by experienced educators that explained all this in a simple, understandable and convincing narrative, attractively laid out with check lists, diagrams, illustrations, graphs and photos, complete with references, particularly those available online, for those who wish to delve more. The information upon which this would be based would be derived from the independent commission of experts on climate change mentioned above, which would provide the facts, figures and pros and cons of the climate change debate.

The first meeting of the citizens

The next step would be a preliminary meeting of the 150 to ensure that the written material had been understood and assimilated, and that the task for the group is explained and agree with the participants.

The task would be to digest the material, clarify with the independent commission of experts anything that is not clear or is incomplete, and discuss the veracity of the arguments for and against global warming and taking action to mitigate it.

Then the group would tackle the question: “How can we convince the Australian community about climate change, what we need to do about it, the cost and expected outcomes, and the cost and consequences of doing nothing, or doing less than is required?” and “How can we achieve consensus in the community?”

Small groups of around ten to twelve would discuss all this in the security of a small forum with group facilitators to assist, and experts available on request to answer questions. Different groups might be assigned different aspects of the matter to discuss. Plenary sessions, where the small groups gathered together, would share the output from these groups. An iterative process would be followed until some concrete proposals for informing, educating and convincing the wider community emerged. These would be consolidated into statements that might be useful in community settings. This process would be commenced at the meeting and got into usable form by the facilitators.

Initially, a two day meeting, where most participants could fly in on day one and home on day two, would be the most economical.

Community consultations

The next step would be asking the participants, armed with the output of the first meeting, to discuss the material at a local level among friends, workmates, community groups and any other interested forum to gauge reaction, seek feedback, solicit changes that might improve the impact of the material, and elicit support. The outcome of these ‘community consultations’ would be fed back to the facilitators of the 150-strong Assembly for consolidation.

Meeting two – message consolidation

Then it would be time for a second meeting – a message consolidation exercise. At this face-to-face meeting, participants would share their experiences at a community level. Messages that resonated positively would be confirmed as useful, while those that didn’t would be discarded or modified. Responses from the community would be shared, analysed and examined to determine how best to respond to them. Some would be negative and need counterbalancing messages. Geographical and demographic variations in community opinion about climate change might emerge which would need to be accommodated. Some would signal areas not to be traversed. By the end of this two-day meeting the aim would be to have consolidated messages that worked, and to have modified those that needed further field trial. 

Second community consultation

After the second meeting the next task would be to field-test any new or modified messages. This time the testing would be more extensive, with community meetings being organized by the local Labor member and in Coalition-held electorates by a Labor official. The messages would be subject to scrutiny by as wide a variety of citizens as possible where feedback would be welcomed and advice solicited about how to improve them. Several local meetings might be held; the more the better will be the outcome. Group process would be used in these larger forums.

Meeting three – message finalization

The third meeting of the Citizens' Assembly would examine the outcome of this second community consultation and the same iterative process would occur with the aim of fashioning a set of convincing messages that could be used in a community-wide information programme.

At this meeting graphic designers would create and present near-final mock-ups of promotional material: fact sheets, graphic representations of the facts, pros and cons of action and non-action, an argument for action, the expected outcome of action and the time frame, and the cost of action in dollars, living expenses, changes to industry and commerce and to our way of life. Formats would include letters, pamphlets, posters, newspaper and online articles, videos and TV pieces, audio clips for radio, and the usual T-shirts and other attention-grabbing devices.

This stage might require further time for completion of the material by educationalists and designers. When ready, the material would be sent to the Citizens Assembly members for final comment and approval. Another meeting might be needed if further work was needed.

When all is ready, a large-scale promotional campaign would be needed to saturate the media.

After this, polling companies would need to be commissioned to determine if public opinion had moved. The polling would need to be extensive so that the margin of error in the results was low. Only then would it be apparent if a strong consensus had been accomplished.

One more thing

Let’s be clear about one more thing. The Citizens' Assembly is NOT to determine Government policy, despite the insistence of some that Julia had abdicated decision making about climate to the citizenry. She has no intention of doing so and has said so clearly. But some journalists just don’t listen, or want to hear anything other than their own preconceived notion of what they want to hear. The aim of the Assembly is to assist in the development of understandable and memorable information about climate change and what needs to be done, such that would bring about a solid consensus in the community.

So there is an outline of how a Citizens’ Assembly might be fashioned and how it might work. Skeptics might dismiss it as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘unworkable’ or just plain ‘’stupid’. So be it.

Could it work?

Of course it could. Will it work? If given a fair chance and community approval, it probably will. But if the adverse forces that have been pitted against timely and effective action on climate change have their way it may not. If the likes of Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Nick Minchin are let loose, they may have the same destructive effect as they have had on climate change debate to date. We should never dismiss or minimize the destruction that skeptics and obstructionists can wreak.

So all you skeptics and knockers out there, comment here and tell us what you think. But please don’t insult our intelligence by knocking it without cogent reasons for doing so. Any idiot can do that. Tell us why it won’t or may not work, and if you have any inclination to have it work, tell us how to do it better.

Please tell us what you think.