The Cop26 process is not known for its transparency or accountability. Throughout the event, world leaders will publicly agree to deals they’ve already negotiated in private, politicians will express their concern at the speed of climate breakdown while doing little practically to address it, and global corporations will spend millions on TV adverts telling us they are doing their bit to save the planet. Edinburgh may host the Fringe but, this year at least, the best acting will be seen on the Glasgow stage.
If we really want to avert climate breakdown we also need to transform our democracy, so that the voices of everyday people are heard in the great debates that shape all our lives.
Just think of the basic maths behind the problem. A little over 100 world leaders will gather at Cop26 for 14 days. During that time, they are meant to strike a deal to neutralise the gravest threat humanity has ever faced and do so in a way that is effective, equitable and just.
This is why the 25 previous conferences have failed. We cannot expect a small and unrepresentative group to deal with a crisis as all-encompassing as climate change. Building a future that is safe, stable and sustainable will require the insight, ingenuity and commitment of us all.
That should start with climate assemblies. Decarbonising the UK will involve changing things that have a direct impact on our everyday lives, such as energy supply, transport networks and food sources. We – the people whose lives are being affected – must be empowered to co-create those changes, and climate assemblies offer an inspiring democratic forum through which to do that. They give individuals the opportunity to be part of collective action against a threat that often feels amorphous and overwhelming.
Climate assemblies aren’t new, either. The UK’s first Climate Assembly took place in 2019. Launched by Sir David Attenborough, it asked 108 people, chosen via sortition from across the UK, to help produce the Climate Change Committee’s Path To Net Zero report. The report was perfectly placed to feed into last week’s Net Zero Strategy, but ideas popular with the assembly, like taxing frequent fliers more or subsidising public transport, didn’t make the cut.
Zero Hour’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill, currently making its way through parliament, could change that. It would not only enshrine the UK’s international climate and nature commitments in law but create a climate and nature assembly to democratise, enliven and accelerate our fight against climate breakdown.
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At a time when the whole world seems to be in flux, we need more democracy in our lives, not less. When our politicians fail to face down climate change, we need to elect leaders with the courage and will to do so. That isn’t possible under our outdated first past the post electoral system which disenfranchises millions, distorts election results and entrenches the status quo.
A new, proportional system would give people the right and the opportunity to elect politicians committed to fighting climate change, and to design and propose the policies necessary to achieve that goal. Open Britain, with the support of allies like Zero Hour and others in the pro-democracy sector, is committed to delivering a proportional voting system that would ensure parliament finally represents the will of the public – a public that routinely shows itself to be more ambitious on the issue of climate change than those who lead us.
Climate change means total change, to our politics, economy and society. We must recognise that the leadership and action we need is not going to be forthcoming from those who have so much invested in maintaining the status quo. Cop26 will be a platform for warm words and soft sentiments, but we need more action, not more acting. It’s time we seized the initiative – our lives and our futures depend on it.
Mark Kieran is CEO of Open Britain, and Casper Horton-Kitchlew is communications coordinator at the Zero Hour campaign
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