Business as Usual is a Failure for our Climate Emergency
An emergency requires an emergency response: the Scottish Government’s Response to the Climate Citizens Assembly’s recommendations is ‘Business as usual’ , by Kate Dyer, Justin Kenrick & Eva Schonveld (Extinction Rebellion and Grassroots to Global) and Scott Herret & Mim Black (Grassroots to Global).
The Scottish Climate Citizens Assembly will gather for its final weekend on 4th to 6th February 2022, to consider the Scottish Government’s response to the Assembly’s 81 recommendations.
The Government is generally comfortable with the Assembly’s recommendations. This apparent alignment hides the fact that Assembly members were generally only allowed to think within a business-as-usual model that prioritises profits over a healthy planet, and financiers over key workers.
The Government has treated the Assembly as a glorified and very expensive focus group to test and tweak the acceptability of existing policies, rather than enabling it to democratically mandate the urgent action needed to deal with the climate emergency.
Whether it’s done well or badly, we have been able to transform society overnight in the face of emergencies before – whether re-orientating much of the national economy in response to Covid or moving onto a war footing against fascism. Having declared an emergency in response to the climate crisis, this Government has failed to act as if it is an emergency.
Perhaps out of fear of rocking the boat, the civil servants guiding the process insisted – in effect – that the Assembly take the Government’s 2045 net zero target as their aim. Assembly members were not given the chance to assess whether the current response is adequate, nor to assess the depth of the crisis and its root causes, nor were they enabled to develop their own picture of a joined up transformative response to the crisis.
The Government supports, partially supports, or approves in principle 69 of the 81 (86%) Assembly recommendations largely because they don’t challenge business as usual. Instead the Government’s response is to highlight climate change as an opportunity to “grow our economy” and to support “businesses to innovate and change to realise these economic opportunities.” (Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Kate Forbes MSP). This is exactly the business as usual mindset that has caused and continues to deepen the crisis.
The Government supports, or partially supports, 52 of the recommendations (64%). This tends to be when recommendations are vague (e.g. ‘to make our towns, cities and neighbourhoods safer and more appealing to walk and cycle in’), or where the Government is already active (e.g. ‘the carbon sink potential of the marine environment’) or where recommendations relate to behaviour change rather than structural change.
The Government states it ‘supports in principle’ a further 17 (21%). This response effectively means ‘not now’ or ‘you don’t understand the issue’. This is when existing corporate interests are challenged by a recommendation, or when recommendations come with a specific target date. Finally, it responds to a further 10 recommendations (12%) by saying it is unable to act due to reserved powers or it needs to act in concert with other parts of the UK, rather than by promising to lead the way.
Where Assembly members have made some effective, challenging and timebound recommendations the Government’s response is to kick the can down the road.
For example, the Assembly made a very clear and effective recommendation on building quality (buildings produce 20% of Scotland’s emissions through heating). This was to ‘Update building standards to ensure that, within the next 5 years, all new housing is built to Passivhaus standards’, and ‘retrofitting of all existing homes by 2030 to be net zero’. This was agreed by 97% of the Assembly members (one of the highest levels of agreement). This would not only help reduce carbon emissions drastically, but would reduce the cost of infrastructure, bring homes out of fuel poverty, create thousands of jobs and reduce the burden on our NHS by improving the living conditions for hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland. Instead the Government’s response was – in effect – to ignore the urgency of the issue, dismiss the recommendation, and refer to ongoing consultation, meaning many people will continue to suffer ongoing damp and mould problems in their homes up until 2040.
Likewise with transport, the biggest single emitter of emissions in Scotland, the Assembly recommended we ‘Make public transport cheaper, or free, by reviewing tender processes to focus government subsidies into nationalised public/private partnerships or not for profit public transport providers.’ The Scottish Government response shows zero appetite for structural change, but instead disregard the Assembly’s deliberations, promising only ongoing generalised reviews of fares rather than making public transport free or removing the profit motive from public transport.
An emergency situation requires an emergency response not business as usual.
This is obviously not a criticism of Assembly members, who worked really hard to arrive at some very good specific targets and recommendations. The Stewarding Group came up with an astute question, but the very weak process then put in place inevitably produced results that do not match for the scale, severity and urgency brought by the climate crisis.
Extinction Rebellion Scotland left the Climate Assembly Stewarding Group before the Assembly had begun. Despite our best efforts it had become obvious that this process was not being designed to be balanced, proportionate and effective.
The Assembly seems to have been training assembly members to speak the language of Government, rather than enabling them to find their own language and understanding based on fully assessing a wide and deep enough range of evidence.
As a country we have been badly served by this process.
The Government has in effect co-opted the concept of an emergency and used a weak Citizens Assembly process as inclusion theatre, to make it seem as though everyone agrees that all we can do is continue with the business as usual that is causing the emergency.
The Assembly proposals and Government response takes us a few steps in the right direction on an escalator that is fast moving us the other way towards ecological disaster.
Will a weak outcome from this Citizens Assembly undermine confidence in deliberative democratic processes? Will it be taken as evidence that Assemblies don’t work?
Such conclusions are mistaken. This Assembly process failed to enable meaningful thinking on the climate emergency because those who shaped it clearly had greater fear of rocking the boat, than of the boat plunging over the waterfall.
Assemblies can be the way to break the business as usual logjam that is paralysing effective action. For that, they need to be given the time and range of expert input to be able to arrive at their own understanding of the level of the emergency, and the transformations needed to address it. They could look at 30 years of failed COPs and rapid global heating, at Government targets that grab low hanging fruit and boast about success, whilst distracting attention from the actual drivers of the crisis – which are rooted in our failing economic model. Assemblies need to have the chance to look at fossil fuel companies’ stranglehold on government and society, including the billions in tax breaks that they receive, and the chance to see that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Designed and facilitated by a group who are not afraid to step up to the challenge, the outcome could have been very different.
The five Extinction Rebellion Scotland activists who were most involved in trying to help the Assembly to succeed have gone on to form Grassroots to Global. We see no point in demanding that the Government create an effective Citizens Assembly – clearly the current system cannot save us from itself: citizens need to create our own people-led Citizens Assembly to democratically achieve what political parties have proved themselves incapable of doing.
Grassroots to Global has been drawing on the experience of Assemblies in places like Chile, Mexico, Spain and India which have enabled deep political transformation – sometimes at regional levels, and sometimes at national levels. We have been working to create collective processes which enable people to really listen to one another and think creatively together as citizens. For us, ‘citizenship’ is not something the State has the right to withhold. It is something all who live here possess. We all have the right and responsibility to decide the future of the community and the country where we live.
The current system is manifestly not working. Politics-as-usual has failed us. We have to stop outsourcing politics to politicians. We need to get skillful at the difficult, messy and creative business of deciding together how we live together. We need a deeper democracy to deal effectively with the root causes – not only of the climate and ecological emergency but also of the many other social and economic emergencies folk in Scotland face every day.
We plan to develop this over the next two years, working with groups and individuals across Scotland to help catalyse and support a range of People’s Assemblies at different levels in Scotland, working towards a people-led Citizens Assembly in 2024 which could decide, for example, on a manifesto for government-by-assembly to run in the Scottish elections in 2026.