Interview with Rebecca Willis: The democratic deficit

1st June 2020


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Rebecca Willis talks to Chris Seekings about politicians' failure to tackle the climate crisis, and why we need to redesign democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how radical political and economic choices can be made in times of crisis. Entire industries have come to a standstill, with flights grounded, social distancing enforced, the homeless housed and trillions pumped into economies worldwide. Scientists have long argued that drastic measures are needed to tackle climate change, too. However, many politicians have been reluctant to look beyond the status quo.

Author and Lancaster University professor in practice Rebecca Willis has been investigating the relationship between politicians and climate change for many years, looking at why MPs struggle to translate growing public concern for the environment into meaningful action. She believes that fundamental problems within the political system create barriers to progress, and that a democratic deficit must be overcome to ensure citizens' concerns are heard in the corridors of power.

“Processes like citizens assemblies need to be implemented alongside a reformed representative democracy“

Political conditioning

In 2009, Willis founded the Green Alliance's Climate Leadership Programme, which provided training for politicians to help them better understand issues surrounding climate change. Although more than 100 MPs took part, she was left feeling disappointed. “They just carried on as usual,“ she says. “The question stuck with me: what did they do with that knowledge?“

After conducting interviews with politicians from all parties, Willis uncovered three factors that affect the way MPs operate. “One is their idea of what they can and can't do in their job, so the feasibility question,“ she says. “The second is the extent to which acting on climate change fits with their identity, and the third is whether they think it is in the best interest of the people they represent.“

Willis says many are worried about appearing radical, citing Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon as an example of a leader who argues for strong climate action but is bogged down by the feasibility question. “When she is asked about oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, she has said that 'we can't just close it down overnight'. She closes down the question because it's not a debate she believes is economically or culturally feasible now, despite what scientists say..

Identity, feasibility and perception of public opinion can cause climate change to slip down an MP's list of priorities. “You could look at it another way, and say that if you can address those three things, then they are more likely to act.“

Ending the stand-off

The public's perception of politics also hinders progress, with Willis explaining that many people are sceptical over whether MPs care about their interests. “You see rising public concern about climate, but you also see cynicism about the ability of politicians to take action, so people don't ask their MPs to act ¬≠– and then politicians don't believe their constituents want them to.“

Willis says that politicians consistently underestimate the public's support for climate action, with lack of engagement largely to blame. Grid decarbonisation, the shift in industry, and various other achievements of the past 20 years have all been delivered without the public's input, but policies for the next 20 years will require their approval, she believes. “Up to now, ministers have been trying to do things almost without people noticing,“ she says. “They are always trying to work out what consumers – they are always called consumers, never citizens – are willing to accept, using that kind of language. But if you look at what we need to do over the next couple of decades, such as home heating upgrades and transport changes, they go to the heart of people's lives.“

The UK government has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, and although Willis believes it's important for politicians to lead, she thinks public engagement will be critical in delivering the necessary policies. “We have the Climate Change Act in law, but how we get there is wide open for debate,“ she says. “There are loads of social choices involved in how we get to net-zero, and the best way to answer those questions is to ask people what they value, what kind of changes they would embrace, and what they find most difficult.“

“The only way to have a sustained and meaningful response to climate change is by making the case with citizens about why this something they should vote for“

Acquiring consent

Willis is an expert lead for the UK's first citizens' assembly on climate change, commissioned by six select committees to advise the government on how best to deliver net-zero emissions. Although the assembly has moved online due to COVID-19, more than 100 members of the public will continue to deliberate, and their recommendations are still due in the summer. “It's amazing to see how seriously people take their job, and how they can have sensible discussions about complex issues – it confirms my faith in these processes.“

These citizens' assemblies could be used to answer various questions at both local and national level, but several key ingredients are required. “You need a representative group of citizens and you need to ask the right question. You also need to give people the time and space to learn, deliberate and recommend.“

She does, however, have two concerns about the Climate Assembly UK. The first is that members have been discussing transport, food, farming, domestic emissions and other issues that could each warrant their own assembly. The second is that parliament may not implement the recommendations. “Extinction Rebellion wants the findings to be binding, so whatever citizens decide becomes law,“ she says. “I find that problematic because that's what representative democracy is for, and despite the huge flaws in the system, it's still the least worst option we've got.“

She wants a “really clear mechanism“ for how recommendations from citizens' assemblies are fed into decision-making, but is still confident that the government will listen to what is published in the summer. “Deliberative processes like citizens assemblies ideally need to be implemented alongside a reformed representative democracy, which itself does a better job of representation.“

Suspending democracy

Brexit has revealed just how divisive referendums and direct democracy can be, but Willis says that this does not have to be true of citizens' assemblies. “I don't think citizens assemblies are divisive. But what we do on climate change isn't a binary choice, and these assemblies are just one example of deliberation between citizens and politicians.“

Some experts believe deliberation and drawn-out debates are not a satisfactory response. James Lovelock (below) has likened the challenge to a war that requires drastic action and a possible suspension of personal freedoms, arguing that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while“.

Willis believes that more democracy is the only sustainable answer. “I think a lot of people in the climate community feel that if we could just do what needs to be done, that would be better than getting people to vote for it,“ she says. “But a benign dictatorship has never existed, and who calls the shots? Scientists are the experts on science, but they are not experts on the impacts on society. I believe that the only way to have a sustained and meaningful response to climate change is by making the case with citizens about why this something they should vote for.“Swedish professor Johan Rockstr√∂m has called for 'planetary stewardship', with political decisions made within boundaries set by scientists. “It solves the problem on paper, but it raises so many questions about whether the approach is fair and who decides if it's fair – as soon as you start to unpack it you get political,“ Willis says. “It would be brilliant if politicians around the world decided to follow a planetary boundaries framework, but you would still need to do the complicated social and political negotiations within each country.“

New possibilities

It seems that politics and climate change can never be disentangled. “But that's a good thing,“ Willis argues. “Politics shouldn't be seen as a barrier, but a really important part of the process.“ Although coronavirus has brought suffering to thousands of people, she believes it has opened the public's eyes. “It's really shaken up our ideas and thrown a lot of assumptions out the window,“ she says. “It has helped open up the question about what the government is there for and what markets can and can't solve.“

Willis admits that climate change has taken a backseat during the pandemic as both individuals and government have “limited bandwidth“ but believes that a green recovery should be led by consent. “I have no time for people saying, 'oh look how lovely it is that the roads are clear and you can hear the birds singing',“ she says. “Although I would be in favour of curbing road transport, I want that to be for positive reasons, rather than because we are all trapped at home. The crunch will come when we talk about the long-term recovery and resilience, and we need to ask the public why we should be spending their money on high-carbon projects when there are good low-carbon alternatives.“

Rebecca Willis is the author of Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change

Picture credit: Getty | Fabio de Paola PA Wiire |

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