Climate urgency : the role of Citizens’ assemblies

One of the most striking examples showing the strength of citizens’ assemblies is their application for dealing with climate change. This great issue requires indeed urgent decision-making for the good of all the population. Let yourself get convinced by reading through Martina’s journey of questioning our current democratic system.

My name is Martina, I am 27 years old and I was born in Lucerne. I also am a climate activist and I will explain to you why I have come to believe that citizens’ assemblies are indispensable in Switzerland and that it is urgent to work on their establishment. I will tell you how, after discovering the magnitude of the climate crisis, I became passionately committed to achieving carbon neutrality. I will describe my fight for the  “Glacier Initiative” and why I was ultimately disappointed by this approach… I will then share my experience in a cantonal parliament. It made me realize that our country is not as democratic as I thought:

  • because of the lobbies and their influence on the elected representatives,
  • the overrepresentation of a part of the population in parliaments
  • the election race generated by our representative democracy, which pushes elected officials to take decisions on the short term.

Then, I will share my enthusiasm for citizens’ assemblies! First, because they can trigger important changes much faster than popular initiatives. Second, because the participation of randomly selected citizens can counteract the three problems mentioned of our representative democracy.

Finally, I will propose some reflections on how this could be done in Switzerland. What would be the place of a citizens’ assembly among the existing authorities? How would it work? What effects can we expect from such a political instrument? I look forward to sharing all this with you!

Popular initiatives are not so democratic

At the beginning of 2019 I was deeply touched by the climate marches lead by all these young people fighting for their lives, and I thought to myself: the stakes are too high, we can’t just demonstrate, we have to make sure that this becomes law! And what better way to do that than with our Swiss democratic instruments? I heard about the popular initiative called “Initiative for the Glaciers” and I immediately offered to support the organizing committee. The discussions within the committee were clear : we had to ask for carbon neutrality, i.e. not to emit more CO2 than the Earth can absorb. But when should we ask for it? Taking up the demands of the climate strikers, we are a minority to propose 2030. The majority tells us that it is unrealistic and explains its reasoning.

It is early 2019. It takes a year to file the initiative and build a support network. Then a year to collect the signatures. Then the Federal Council has 3 years to vote on the text – and sometimes it takes even longer. Finally, if the initiative is accepted, there could easily be a 3-year delay before its implementation. Total: 8 years. So we would end up in 2027, the law finally comes into force, and then we would be told that the three-year delay is too short to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Therefore, the 2030 target is impossible. The initiative committee decides to aim for neutrality in 2050: too late! Given the timeframe, we could have targeted 2035 or 2040. What a frustration!

Afterwards, I realized that 89% of the popular initiatives proposed during the last 30 years have been rejected. One of the reasons for this is the enormous communication resources that the big industry lobbies mobilize to counter certain popular initiatives. Let’s take the example of the initiative for responsible multinationals. Seeing that the initiative was well underway, the threatened industries pulled out their wallets. The Economiesuisse lobby alone paid 8 millions francs to influence opinion. The result: popular support dropped from 70% six months before the vote to 50%. The initiative was finally rejected.

Disillusioned with the popular initiative option, I turned to the political parties. Maybe with the green wave of the elections, we could pass laws for carbon neutrality.

Disenchanted with the political parties and the elective system

I got involved in the political parties, with the Greens in Zurich. It was the right time to do it! In March 2019, there is was a green wave and we won 9 seats in the Grand Council of the canton. It was unexpected and I found myself among the 22 people of the party to defend the ecology in the Zurich parliament. I was very excited about such an opportunity and full of hope to make things happen to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible!

I was quickly disillusioned. I discovered that the ecological cause faces huge obstacles in parliaments, really anti-democratic obstacles! I am thinking of two things in particular: lobbying and the race for elections. Thousands of lobbyists stand up every day with a common goal: defend large companies. A friend of mine who sits in the National Council told me how a lobbyist representing Glencore and LafargeHolcim approached her. He offered her favors in exchange for her vote. Asking her to defend one of the most climate-damaging companies!  Fortunately, she refused. But other elected officials are less intransigent on the ecological issue. Hundreds of politicians are directly paid by the lobbies, although this is all very secret. 3/4 of the members of the National Council and the Council of States are not willing to disclose how much they earn from them. The companies that pollute the most are ready to pay a lot of money to postpone carbon neutrality!

In addition to the problem of lobbies, there is the constraint of the electoral rhythm, at all political levels. I could see in the Grand Council that the race for re-election incites to take decisions in a short-term perspective in order not to lose one’s seat. Whereas ecological problems require long-term decisions… at the risk of displeasing.

Through my experiences in the cantonal parliament, added to those of the popular initiatives, I realize that the Swiss political system is blocked – or at least too slow. This lack of efficiency amplifies my feeling of powerlessness facing climate crisis… A threat that is so obvious!

Elections: at the heart of the democratic problem

Why? My research led me to the origins of our representative democracies. Put together, the Greek words dêmos and kràtos mean the “power of the people” That implies that the political decisions in a democratic system are made by the people. After the French and American revolutions, a little more than 200 years ago, the people were indeed able to access power through universal suffrage and political parties. Democracy was proclaimed! But which democracy are we talking about exactly? In the systems we know, democracies are elective. That is to say that people supposed to be the most suitable to govern are selected by election. However, I realized that this type of democracy is biased. Let me explain.

For more democracy, it is necessary that the governing people resemble the governed, in order to be able to represent them at best. It is necessary to avoid that the political “elite” becomes disconnected from the whole population. Unfortunately, with elections, this is systematically the case. I was shocked by the overrepresentation of certain social classes in parliament. How come? When I have to choose between several candidates in an election, I realize that I trust the person based on personal criteria and not on a political program. I am attracted by the person who dominates the debate, who speaks well, who seems superior… Professionals or political professionals clearly have an advantage in this respect. Our representative system based on elections favors the wealthy classes, which are far from me. Worse, by confusing the term “democracy” with “election”, I have long deprived myself of imagining a more democratic alternative!

I keep scratching my head, thinking that there must be ways to rectify this… to allow ordinary citizens to have a say in the decisions that concern them… It seems that the election system is at the heart of the problem.

Deliberative democracy, the solution to the democratic bias of our election-based systems

That’s it! The solution revealed itself to me as my research led me to the ancient Athens. In this cradle of democracy, many of the political leaders were chosen by lot. In particular, the members of the Council of Five Hundred – the political chamber in charge of writing laws – and the Magistracies – the civil servants in charge of executing political decisions.

The drawing of lots is a method of selection that ensures a maximum diversity of participants and an equal distribution of opportunities to exercise political power (well, not in Athens because women and slaves were excluded…). Unlike elections, the goal is that the governors and the governed are as similar as possible. Since antiquity, many regimes have managed to combine legitimacy and efficiency by combining the drawing of lots with election – for example, the republics of Florence and Venice during the Renaissance. This ensured a high degree of citizen involvement while providing competence in the most difficult issues. It made states more stable. The drawing of lots, ignored for 200 years, re-emerged at the end of the 20th century in the West, along with the idea of deliberative democracy. It is a form of exercising political power that involves all the parties concerned in the elaboration of decisions. It therefore solves the problem of the overrepresentation of certain social. In this system, a complementary mechanism is added to voting for politicians: citizens also debate among themselves and with experts and various stakeholders in order to formulate rational and concrete solutions – hence the term deliberative democracy.

Also, the principle of rotation – for example, through a new drawing of lots each year – reinforces the rotation of governors and governed within the bodies of power. This mitigates two other ills of elective systems: political careerism and the power of lobbies. This is why experiments in participatory democracy such as citizen juries, deliberative polls or citizens’ assemblies are destined to be temporary or even dissolved once the problem is solved.

The various experiments with this type of democracy have shown that “ordinary people can become competent citizens, as long as they are given the means to do so” as Van Reybrouck writes (Van Reybrouck, 2016).

A Citizens’ assembly in Switzerland and its operation: the example of the Citizens’ Forum in Geneva

April 2020, I am now in Geneva, observing the deliberations of the Citizen Forum. Despite the pandemic, an arrangement has been found to bring together the 30 citizens drawn by lot and the 20 people who support the event. The deliberations took place in a benevolent atmosphere, sincere and full of curiosity, despite the difficulty of the question: “How do we want to inhabit the territory of Geneva to better live together in the respect of nature and face climate change?” The densification of the canton and border traffic must be combined with the preservation of natural spaces and the limitation of greenhouse gases… A puzzle!

The citizens participate during 4 weekends and are paid for it. The first weekend, they participate in the choice of the experts they want to hear, and get informed on the subject. Each expert is given equal time to present his/her point of view. The citizens form their opinion. Then the deliberation begins. Discussions are facilitated by a person who ensures that everyone has equal access to the floor. The deliberations are in full swing and the tension is mounting! It is not known what the citizens’ recommendations will be or what status they will acquire. We are afraid that these proposals will be ignored by the Geneva State Council, suffering from the shortcomings of parliamentarianism and elective “democracy”. This is the fate that unfortunately seems to befall the laws proposed by the Citizen’s Climate Convention in France…

But other outcomes are possible! Several citizens’ assemblies have really made things happen. In Ireland, the constitution has been modified to legalize abortion. In Poland, a proposal to limit flooding was passed into law. There are more and more examples of this. And, in particular, when the population mobilizes en masse in support of the citizens’ assembly, it creates pressure that can force the government to consider the recommendations.

My quest was long and winding, filled with setbacks, doubts and surprises. Now the path is clear. It is with gratitude and confidence that I move towards the long-awaited breakthrough: the deliberation of equal citizens.

Citizens’ assemblies ≠ People’s assemblies

This form of participation also exists outside of political institutions ! Last week, I attended a town hall meeting near my home. It was organized by people in my neighborhood in collaboration with a local association. People’s or popular assemblies have different objectives and a different scope than citizens’ assemblies.

As we have seen, if I wanted to promote the establishment of a citizens’ assembly, it would be with the aim of meeting for a few months (4 to 9) to work on a specific problem for which it would have received a mandate from the political institutions in place. Since it would have a status similar to that of the parliament and the government (communal, cantonal or federal), its recommendations and decisions would be implemented by the political authorities.

The popular assembly that I am going to talk about took the form of a discussion forum open to any local resident who wished to participate in order to propose ideas, deliberate and make decisions together on issues that concern our daily lives and that have not been taken into account by the political power. This people’s assembly lasted a few hours, the time of an afternoon, but others can last a few days. They can have anywhere from 10 participants to 50 or more. They often lead to the launching of an action, a project, a petition, a referendum, an initiative, or the setting up of a participatory political program, etc.

In this case, at the end of the discussions, the group decided to set up a solidarity canteen every other Sunday lunchtime. This project aims to encourage meetings and moments of sharing between the inhabitants of the district and at the same time to bring a little support to the underprivileged people of the area. And everyone is pitching in! Some people offered to cook, others to spread the word to the population, while some preferred to take care of the musical animation or the organization and the setting up of the place. These assemblies promote social cohesion, collective intelligence and the sharing of ideas and resources. Living together, cooperation, emancipation and the search for solutions by individuals are at the center of the process.

Citizens’ assemblies and people’s assemblies are therefore two complementary solutions to the problems of political careerism, the inertia of popular initiatives, the over-representation of certain social categories within the bodies of power or the influence of lobbies. I am confident that these democratic tools will help us to face the climate crisis!


References :

Van Reybrouck, D. (2016). Against elections: The case for democracy. Random House.

Manin, B. (2012). Principes du gouvernement représentatif. Calmann-Lévy.

Courant, D. (2019). A style of debate for each democracy. Revue Projet, (6), 59-64., a site that lists the lobbies in Switzerland

Citizens’ Democracy

Connecting Swiss deliberative democracy
initiatives & promoting Citizens’ assemblies
Subscribe to our Newsletter
@Citizens' Democracy