"We just got started"
Germany's first inter-communal climate assembly began in the Freiburg region on 17 May 2022. The topic: "100 % renewable energies". In this interview, Kira Hoffmann, one of the initiators, tells us how it all began.
Question: The Climate Assembly started in the Freiburg region on 17 May. On five dates from May to July 2022, a total of 91 randomly selected citizens from the region will meet. They will make recommendations to politicians on how the city of Freiburg, as well as communities in the districts of Emmendingen and Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald, can become a 100% renewable energy region. Let's start at the beginning. What motivated you to initiate this project? Why a climate assembly?
Kira Hoffmann: First of all, maybe about the format of the citizens' assembly: from the very beginning, we were enthusiastic about the fact that all citizens get an equal chance to get involved politically. In most citizen participation processes, only a certain section of society takes part - usually those with more time resources and a certain level of education. It is then said "THE citizens were involved in a decision-making process" and "THE citizens want this and that". But it is not "THE" citizens, but only a certain group that is heard.
The stratified random selection as one of the central elements of a citizens' assembly aims to reflect the composition of society as well as possible in the end. The citizens selected by lot are graded according to the characteristics of gender, age, migration background and level of education, and are adjusted to the respective current distribution of inhabitants in the region. In this way, a kind of "Freiburg region in miniature" is created in our case.
Participants develop recommendations
The participants then work together in a moderated process to develop concrete recommendations on a predefined question. In addition, they are comprehensively informed by experts. Thus, schoolchildren sit next to pensioners in the citizens' assembly, immigrants to Germany next to people who have been rooted in the region for a long time. The professor talks to the farmer, the apprentice to the master tailor. The participants also receive an expense allowance. Not everyone can afford to participate in politics, neither financially nor in terms of time.
Of course, the main goal is to ensure that society is represented as well as possible in the citizens' assembly. I think we have to call it "as good as possible", because it will never be possible to achieve one hundred percent representativeness. But just the attempt counts. Just the fact that people from different social groups come to the table and discuss is important. People who might otherwise never meet meet each other. People who are "far away from politics" should also be included.
"Finding innovative solutions"
The diversity of participants helps to find innovative and public-spirited solutions to complex and pressing problems. In this way, politics can be supported, especially in difficult decisions. - An ideal tool, therefore, to tackle the mega issue of climate change in a concrete way! Climate protection concerns everyone. Recommendations should be developed by everyone for everyone. That is what the Citizens' Assembly is working towards.
Question: The Citizens' Assembly is made up of citizens not only from one city, but from 16 municipalities. What is that all about? Why so many?
Hoffmann: Environmental problems do not stop at municipal borders. But they are often treated that way. We came to this realisation through Dr. Christian Ante, the mayor of the Freiburg suburb of Merzhausen, who has been part of our initiative almost from the beginning.
As he is most familiar with the political structures at the municipal level, he suggested to us that climate protection urgently needs solutions in inter-municipal cooperation. For example, although the city of Freiburg is the most important municipality in the region, Freiburg is dependent on cooperation with the surrounding area in many issues of public services.
"Cooperating regionally for more climate protection"
The Freiburg region is already a political union of the city of Freiburg with the municipalities of the districts of Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald and Emmendingen. Public transport, for example, is organised in this region. For more climate protection, we need to work together regionally.
The Climate Assembly for the Freiburg region is intended to make regional decisions that are supported by a cross-section of the population. People come together and are empowered to develop solutions for the climate crisis in a joint exchange - according to the motto: think globally, act locally. At the end, the Citizens' Assembly gives concrete recommendations to politicians, which can support them in their decisions.
Question: How did you know exactly how you wanted to initiate the Climate Assembly? How do you get started?
Hoffmann: I don't think there is any question of knowing. There is no fixed procedure for establishing such a citizens' assembly, so we have always taken it one step at a time. The citizens' assembly itself is also a learning system. I would say that the same is true for working towards the citizens' assembly. We simply got going and seized opportunities when they arose.
When the first members of the initiative came together in November 2019, the first thing we did was to think long and hard about how we could go about this to create a citizens' assembly here locally. It's crazy to think that in the beginning we were a handful of people and now there are more than a hundred people involved in the Climate Assembly. And it's getting more and more. This feeling cannot be put into words.
Talks in Freiburg
The first regular minutes of our initiative are from 2 April 2020, shortly after the first COVID-19 lockdown. Since then, we have been meeting almost every week via video conference. The initiative was founded by Dr Gabriele Michel, a publicist from Freiburg who has been involved in climate protection for several years.
In 2020, talks gradually took place with the Freiburg Green Party. Then also with the head of Freiburg's environmental protection office. I joined them at the end of 2020. We thought about how we could make our cause better known and presented our initiative at an event organised by BUND in December 2020. We then organised a digital open meeting for February 2021, where we presented the citizens' assembly as a format and then discussed in small groups what such a citizens' assembly could look like for the region and what opportunities and challenges the format would bring.
"Open meeting an important milestone"
We invited local politicians and climate protection initiatives from the region to the event. In total, more than 70 people attended. Dr von Zahn, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency was also there. I would say that the open meeting was an important milestone, because afterwards things really got going.
There was a discussion with Freiburg's Lord Mayor Martin Horn and a fellow campaigner of our initiative, Mayor Dr. Christian Ante. In June, we were allowed to present our idea at the Freiburg Region Association Meeting. Among others, the mayors from the region were present. In the summer of 2021, we also held many networking meetings, both with other democracy and climate protection initiatives and to search for funding.
Help from Mehr Demokratie
What also helped us a lot were various online events organised by Mehr Demokratie. We learned from other examples of citizens' assemblies at local and national level and learned how best to approach the sortition procedure. The right way to approach politicians was also discussed in these events. This was particularly helpful.
In autumn and winter 2021/2022, we went to the municipal councils of the Emmendingen and Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald districts and presented the idea of the inter-municipal Climate Assembly there. Not all municipalities invited us, but the majority of those who came to talk to us eventually voted in favour of participating in the citizens' assembly. Of course, we were very pleased about this and I would say that we were able to learn a lot ourselves through the visits to the municipal councils.
4,000 citizens invited
Then we had a few discussions with the Freiburg Environmental Protection Agency and the mayors of the municipalities that had voted to participate. Together we worked out an initial schedule for the Climate Assembly, appointed the advisory board as an accompanying body of experts, and put together a supervisory board to oversee the Citizens' Assembly. Then, in February, a call for tenders was published to find a suitable implementing participation company. The "Alliance for Value-Oriented Democracy" (AllWeDo) was awarded the contract.
After conceptualising the Climate Assembly in the first third of 2022, AllWeDo e.V. then wrote to more than 4,000 people from the Freiburg region in April and invited them to participate in the Citizens' Assembly. From the responses, around 90 people were selected for the Citizens' Assembly in such a way that they were as representative as possible of the populationa, ccording to age, gender, educational and migration background. On 17 May, these people met for the first time and on 21 May the first expert presentations and small group phases took place.
Question: Where do we go from here? What are the next steps?
Hoffmann: The Climate Assembly meets a total of five times. The next meetings will take place on 25 June, 9 and 23 July. After the summer break, the participants will then hand over the recommendations directly to the politicians. And then the real work begins.
The politicians take a position on the recommendations, explain why they are implementing some and others not. It is important that this is done transparently. The participants in the Citizens' Assembly have a right to know how their recommendations will be dealt with.
Citizens' Assembly meetings planned
To ensure that as many recommendations as possible are implemented, it is important to initiate discussions within the participating municipalities as early as possible. Therefore, the initiative is currently planning to hold so-called "Citizens' Assembly Talks". These should take place from August onwards. For this purpose, we want to go back to the participating municipalities and talk to the local citizens and politicians about the Citizens' Assembly format as well as about the recommendations.
The recommendations of the first inter-communal climate assembly should by no means be left in a drawer, but should support the climate policy of the Freiburg region in achieving the goal of a "100% renewable energy region" as quickly and fairly as possible.