Washingtonians are worried about climate change. Elected officials and advocates have tried to answer their call with statewide climate action. Governor Jay Inslee pushed for the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act that would have limited pollution and reinvested auction revenue in the state, but lawmakers shot it down. Grassroots activists put Initiative 732 on the ballot in 2016 to tax climate pollution and return the revenues to people and businesses, but voters said no. Environmental, labor, and racial justice groups came together to put Initiative 1631 on the ballot in 2018 to tax climate pollution and invest the revenues in clean energy projects; again, voters said no.
Could randomly selected Washingtonians from all walks of life come up with something better?
That’s what the Washington Climate Assembly is hoping to find out. By bringing together a group of regular people and asking them to help solve a tricky policy problem, citizens’ assemblies around the world have charted ways forward. The Washington Climate Assembly kicked off in January and will take these steps:
- Select 80 people who reflect the broader Washington population in terms of age, race and ethnicity, education, geography, and climate views. These are regular Washingtonians who aren’t influenced by lobbyists or special interests and, as a group, aren’t biased in any particular direction.
- Give them information about climate change and possible policy solutions, including access to experts.
- Get together for learning and discussions. Usually, assemblies would meet in person, but during the pandemic, Assembly participants will get to know each other online.
- Together, they will make recommendations to the State Legislature this month.
Citizens’ assemblies have a history of moving countries past seemingly intractable issues that daunted elected politicians. In Ireland, Citizens’ Assemblies transcended traditional Catholic constraints and recommended recognizing same-sex marriage and repealing a ban on abortion. The Assembly cut through the standard partisan rhetoric and helped move voters to enact the changes via referendum. In Belgium, some local governments are giving limited lawmaking authority to bodies of representative regular people rather than elected politicians.
Citizens’ assemblies hold potential for solving problems that have stumped elected lawmakers, like climate change. Last year, assemblies in both France and the United Kingdom went through a process and agreed on climate solutions, and a climate assembly is currently in process in Scotland. Several of the French citizens’ recommendations have already been implemented. The United Kingdom report may spur action.
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Now, this process has come to Washington State. (Note that, in Washington, the Assembly is of Washington residents at least 16 years old, not strictly citizens.) Some Washington legislators hope that “ordinary Washingtonians, with their diversity of backgrounds and perspectives” could help break the deadlock on climate action. More lawmakers are endorsing the idea as they learn about it. Supportive legislators note that the Assembly members “will come into this proven process without preconceived ideas or biases on policy ideas. They will learn together, foster a community together and recommend policy ideas, together.”
The Climate Assembly, funded and initiated by People’s Voice on Climate, under the fiscal sponsorship of the Public Sphere Project, a 501(c)(3) organization, asks participants: “How can Washington State equitably design and implement climate mitigation strategies while strengthening communities disproportionately impacted by climate change across the State?”
From January 12 through February 6, the Assembly members participated in seven learning sessions in which scientists and policy experts were to provide background information about climate change, economic issues, technology, and politics. Members then had a chance to discuss, deliberate, and come up with recommendations. An oversight team monitored the sessions to ensure that the Assembly follows the rules. This diverse team includes three designees from the Washington State Executive branch, three designees from the Washington Legislature, six representatives of Tribal perspectives, two academics (one from University of Washington and one from Washington State University), two organizers of the Assembly, and up to 12 seats for non-governmental representatives.
What do Washingtonians want to do about climate? We’ll find out soon.