Citizens' assembly "from below" makes climate policy proposals

07. July 2021

A citizens' assembly initiated by the population has developed recommendations on climate policy in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg. How can a joint approach to the great challenge of the climate crisis succeed in Vorarlberg? Where does politics need us? Where do we need politics? These were the questions discussed in the assembly on 2/3 July 2021.

21 randomly selected citizens from all over Vorarlberg had come together for 1.5 days to work out jointly supported recommendations to politics. The assembly was already the twelfth state-wide citizens' assembly and the third initiated by the population. More than 1,000 people had signed a petition calling for the convening of this citizens' assembly. The number of signatures required to convene a citizens' assembly of 1,000 had thus been reached.

Public presentation of results at the Citizens' Café

On 6 July, a citizens' café was held in the Vorarlberg Museum in Bregenz to present the results of the consultation. Here the participants also had the opportunity to discuss the results once again. Initial feedback from the politicians was also part of the event. After the presentation, there was lively discussion, recommendations were reiterated and important points were added.

The Citizens' Assembly dealt with the following topics

  •     Raising Awareness / Sensitisation / Education
  •     Reward & Incentive
  •     Dealing with resources
  •     Mobility
  •     Global framework
  •     Role of politics & participation

The participants drawn for the Citizens' Council noted that the population is still not sufficiently aware of the climate crisis. Therefore, they said, there is a need to raise awareness with regard to the impacts of climate change. "In order to reach all social groups, social (economic) inequality must be reduced in general - because at the moment climate protection is an issue of privileged groups," the citizens' assembly said.

Information campaigns recommended

The members therefore recommend information campaigns in the media that are tailored to specific target groups. The information must also be carried into schools and training companies. It is also important to set an example in environmental, consumption and travel behaviour. Products and producers from the region should be promoted. In kindergartens and schools, more space should be created for climate protection as well as nature and environmental issues.

The citizens' assembly also recommends rewarding climate-friendly actions. For a skiing trip, for example, this could be done by offering cheaper ski tickets when travelling by public transport. Renewable energy and energy self-sufficient buildings and communities should be supported and the sealing of more land should be reduced. In addition, the country's agricultural policy should be reconsidered.

"Radical expansion" of public transport

The citizens' assembly also wants people without cars to be able to live uncomplicated everyday lives. It therefore proposes a "radical expansion" of public transport. Cities should become car-free. Cycling networks should be expanded, as should charging stations for electric vehicles.

Climate protection should also play a role in relations with other countries. The citizens' assembly proposes that the country's own problems, such as waste disposal, should not be shifted to other countries, for example through waste exports. "Modern colonialism" through the exploitation of the "Third World" should be stopped. The UN's 17 sustainability goals should be made better known.

Transparency and citizen participation

In order for citizens to be able to understand climate policy decisions, the citizens' assembly calls for transparent information on how they were made. Politicians should implement sensible measures even if these measures could cost parties votes from the affected sector.

In addition, opportunities for co-determination should be offered in order to include the views of the population. For example, an authority or citizens' assembly with decision-making power, e.g. as a nature conservation advocate, or an independent climate council with citizens and qualified actors with party status in procedures could be established.

Process documentation and discussion

Over the summer, a comprehensive process documentation was prepared. All contents from all process steps flew into this report, which were handed over to the Vorarlberg state government. On 12 October 2021, the elaborated ideas were discussed by the provincial government. Some of the proposed measures could be well integrated into existing activities, according to Governor Markus Wallner. In a comprehensive report, the state government has responded to the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly.

An evaluation report on the Citizens' Assembly published on 17 March 2022 shows both strengths and potential for improvement of the instrument. The evaluation has shown that the Citizens' Assembly is a suitable tool in several respects to strengthen the will to shape policy and the general engagement of citizens. In addition, they increase civic activity in two ways: on the one hand, through direct participation in the format, and on the other hand, through the possibility of initiating a citizens' assemblies themselves.

Citizens' Assembly strengthens will to get involved

Other positive effects are the strengthening of the will to get involved that has already been initiated and the promotion of cooperation with others. The participants also developed a better understanding of other people's ways of thinking about the climate crisis during those two days. This ability is considered a necessary prerequisite for a democratic society to make common, broadly supported decisions across social boundaries.

Positive tendencies can also be seen among the participants with regard to the topic of Climate Future Vorarlberg. A large part of the respondents stated that after participating in the Climate Assembly they would now become active in climate protection themselves or with others. Furthermore, it is recognisable that participation in the Citizens' Assembly facilitates the change of personal attitudes with regard to the topic of the climate crisis. Furthermore, it has been shown that the participants have now developed a better understanding regarding measures to counteract climate-damaging developments.

Weak point: lack of representativeness

A weak point, according to a central result of the evaluation by Drin. Tamara Ehs and Katharina Toth, MSc, is the lack of representativeness. The group of participants was very homogeneous in terms of social status, age and educational or migration background and did not represent "Little Vorarlberg". The selection procedure as well as the recruitment process of the participants were centrally responsible for this. In particular, young and socially weaker people were missing from this citizens' assembly process.

The Office for Voluntary Engagement and Participation is tasked with addressing these weaknesses and further developing the method. Thus, in 2022, the previously single-tier sortition procedure was already replaced by a two-tier sortition procedure, which guarantees a higher diversity of the mini publics by composing citizens' assemblies according to the criteria of age, gender, education, place of residence, employment, monthly net income and mother tongue.

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