Climate activists must change their tactics

Member of North Norfolk Green Party and author, Alicia Hull, argues that in the face of Government failure to urgently tackle climate change, we need citizen assemblies and an alternative government of national unity to address the crisis.

Climate protest hero
Alicia Hull

The Government has failed to address carbon emissions or protect the environment for decades. It is clear, from its reliance on so-called ‘market forces’, that this Government will not address the environmental crisis effectively. How much more evidence do we need? By continuing to ask the Government to make changes, we are in effect giving it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, wasting our own time and energy. 

Similarly, we cannot expect any other political party to make changes in time. Their aims may be excellent but the timetable of party political change takes years. It’s totally irrelevant in an emergency. Anyone hoping for a party political solution, or satisfied with incremental changes, is denying the scale of the problem and urgency. Only large-scale system change can avert or limit the disaster now.

In an emergency when normal processes fail, we must turn to other resources – in this case, the experts who have been warning of disaster and proposing solutions for decades now; and the campaign groups and members of the public who support their views. In other words: civil society.

To do this, first of all, the countless campaign groups must come together.  We must recognise that the root causes of all our problems, whether social, economic or environmental, are the same – capitalist exploitation and top-down control. And the solutions are the same – environmental protection and social justice. By campaigning separately, we have divided our cause and weakened it. Together we will be much stronger and can develop and share a vision for a sustainable future.

Civil society has the power and knowledge to take emergency action; expertise in every aspect of life as well as down-to-earth experience in countless workplaces and homes. We have the will.  Informed opposition to government policies has been widespread for decades. As well as campaign groups, this includes the professionals who argued against ‘austerity’ as well as those so badly let down by it; the 48 per cent against Brexit and those failed in the Covid-19 crisis. We are the many. An informed majority is well aware of the urgent need for reform and of many potential solutions. Indeed, this huge task is only possible because most of the problems and solutions have been obvious for years. 

We have a duty to act. Our task is to set up an alternative National Government of Unity, the only system which can be installed quickly enough. This is a system appropriate in war, and now as the threats facing us are greater than those of war.

Bottom-up control is essential as top-down control has proved devastating. Policies must be directed by Citizens’ Assemblies to ensure that, while informed by experts, they are assessed by the people who will be affected by them. Only when people suffer the consequences of their own policies are they careful to make sensible ones and learn quickly from mistakes.

Decentralisation and ‘subsidiarity’ – making decisions at the lowest level possible – should be an integral part of this new grassroots system, with Citizens’ Assemblies for every level. In our fast changing and very specialised modern world, only grassroots involvement will provide enough information – in contrast to the narrow views and interests of out-of-touch politicians. As well as this, an informed public will make us far less likely to be fooled by false myths and slogans. By participating we should become the informed public needed in any democracy, and even more essential in this age. 

Right now civil society must build a shared vision of the future, explain it to those not yet engaged, and work with experts and communities to set up Citizens’ Assemblies to direct an alternative National Government of Unity. Major institutions – universities, large charities, campaigning and social groups, local councils, churches – should provide experts and organise Citizens’ Assemblies.  

The assemblies should produce a manifesto for a National Government of Unity as soon as possible. The manifesto needs to present some basic policy changes, future aims and the principles to be used in deciding policy. This should be possible in a matter of weeks or months. We should not wait to be disappointed by COP26. 

Crowdfunding could help and social media spread the message. We cannot rely on the main media.

To be credible and gain people’s confidence the manifesto must be very explicit. It must explain what to reform, why, and critically how to carry this out in exact detail.  

I suggest to achieve this as quickly as possible, separate citizens’ assemblies should be set to answer a few priority topics.

  • why it is vital to cut carbon now and how to do it.
  • why it is vital to protect nature now and how to do it.
  • why it is vital to support people economically through the changes and how to do it.
  • why it is important to develop a sustainable way of life and how to do it – the principles, taxes and regulations needed.
  • with a promise before the end of the parliament to consider why we need constitutional reform and how to do it.

Clearly much more will need to be done to address many failings in domestic and foreign policy, with the eventual aim of restoring truly democratic party political governments.  

We should be confident to act because, as Greta Thunberg has reminded us, ‘real power belongs to the people’. Without our consent, governments could not function. Workers could bring things to a stop almost immediately. But it is imperative that a manifesto for a national government is agreed first, both to give people the confidence to act and to ensure an orderly transition.

Whether you believe, as I do, that the Government is unwilling and incapable of sufficient action, or whether you believe they are doing their best and may succeed, surely no-one could object to civil society helping them by putting in the effort to describe the best solutions and using citizens assemblies to find the acceptable policies?

We have to put the work in, lots of it and fast.

Alicia Hull is a member of the Green Party and author of ‘It’s All Up To Us Now: The ABC of democratic failure in the UK and what civil society can do about it'. A discounted version is available through the email shopwisely4climate@myphone.coop.