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A comment from a participant in the Net Zero Diaries initiative sums up the mood of many: “Debating and making pledges is one thing. Are they going to act?” Net Zero Diaries, which we set up with the research agency Britain Thinks last year, brings together a diverse and representative group of UK citizens to debate climate issues as they arise. It provides a perspective which, until recently, has been missing from the climate debate: the voice of ordinary people.

Levels of concern about climate change are very high, and consistent across different socioeconomic groups. Contrary to media portrayals, research by Climate Outreach shows that there is no left-right split, and certainly no culture war, over climate issues in the UK. These high levels of concern are, however, accompanied by a sense of confusion about what should happen next, and frustration about perceived government inaction.

This confusion and frustration shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the past decades, governments in the UK and elsewhere have done very little to reach out to people, and to involve them in vital decisions about the future of our planet. As a result, people are worried. They see mounting climate impacts like wildfires and floods, they hear David Attenborough’s pleas, and yet they don’t see government leading a confident response. Boris Johnson has championed climate on the global stage, but has not initiated a public debate about what this means for our lives.

It’s not just government that’s reluctant to talk to people. I’ve worked in this area for many years, and I’ve seen first-hand the tendency for climate experts to draw up what they see as the perfect roadmap or strategy for action. They often forget something crucial: in a democracy, quite rightly, experts don’t get the final say. An issue as crucial and far-reaching as climate needs the consent, and active participation, of citizens.

This is the urgent task for government now: to articulate a positive, practical agenda which sets out how government and citizens can work together to tackle the climate crisis. A task given more urgency by energy price rises, which elements of the Conservative Party are wrongly blaming on green levies. Climate policies aren’t to blame for sky-high prices, which are actually caused by global market pressures, but they could be a big part of the solution, in the medium-term. Well-insulated houses cost less to heat; home-grown renewables shelter us from global energy price volatility. Yet the Government is currently on the back foot, reeling from the blows of the so-called Net Zero Scrutiny Group, because it hasn’t articulated a positive vision.

Climate Assembly UK, which I advised, was commissioned by six select committees in Parliament, and brought together a representative group of 108 citizens. Over a series of weekends, they listened to expert evidence, discussed their own views and experience, and then developed a set of recommendations. Many local areas, too, including Leeds, Oxford, and Devon, have now run similar processes. They have shown that, when asked to contribute to decision-making, and when provided with evidence and the time to talk through with their peers, people devise sensible ideas, informed by their own lived experience – a far cry from the Punch and Judy politics of the culture wars.

Citizens’ assemblies and juries can justifiably be criticised because they involve relatively small numbers of people. Those involved may develop a better understanding, but millions remain untouched. This can be overcome, though, if politicians champion the process. Imagine if ministers set out their proposals, and then said that they were acting on the advice, not just of scientists and experts, but ordinary people too. Research has shown that people trust decisions if it can be demonstrated that they are supported by ‘people like them’ – much in the same way that we trust juries in law courts.

Making decisions in this way is not an alternative to representative democracy. It is an enhancement of it. It provides politicians with the information they need to govern in the best interests of their electorate. It is a way of managing the social contract between citizens and state, allowing citizens to articulate what they need from government, and vice versa. A proper response to the Net Zero Scrutiny Group would be to lean into exactly that role: scrutiny.

We should encourage a broad societal debate about the ways in which climate impacts and solutions will affect our lives and futures. To be clear what opportunities there are in this agenda, including better homes, cleaner air and jobs in green industries; and also to be honest about the changes we’ll need to make, as a country and as individuals. The message from citizens, that they want to see action on climate, is coming through loud and clear. It’s a shame that the Government’s response, so far, has been quiet and confused.

Rebecca Willis is a Professor in Energy and Climate Governance at Lancaster University and was an Expert Lead for Climate Assembly UK. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Luca Flario]