There have been two or three dispiriting displays of energy luddite-ism in recent months.  Just when you thought the argument was won for the promotion of green energy – with seemingly most of Spain, Tenerife and California going up in flames – the Uxbridge by election result happened.

The London Mayor’s clumsy expansion of ULEZ green energy taxes produced a visceral reaction amongst voters, returned a disbelieving Conservative candidate to parliament, and sent right wing climate change deniers into an ecstasy of optimism. It also sent the Labour party, who had expected to win Uxbridge, into a screeching U-turn on proposed climate change policies.

Now we have the unlikely situation where polls show that most people (by a huge margin) accept and fear climate change but are not prepared to invest in additional taxes to prevent it happening, living under the mistaken belief that it is someone else’s problem – namely, if India, China and America are the biggest polluters why should I pay £12 to drive my car to the shops on a rainy Saturday?

And so, we reach an impasse.

Governments on both sides of the aisle are not prepared to risk the wrath of the voter to impose climate change levies that help us move to net zero. Therefore, I propose that it may well be time to move out of the confines of the existing political system to reach a consensus in another way. I am not suggesting referendums – these have proved disastrous and are far too binary in outlook to reach a solution on such a complex issue. You only have to look at Brexit to appreciate that this approach is a non-starter.

Instead, I am increasingly coming to the view that citizen’s assemblies may well hold the key to solving the insolvable and bridge the gap between Nimbyism and realism when it comes to advising on government policy concerning reaching net zero. To remind those not familiar, a citizen’s assembly brings together randomly selected groups of people representing different demographic groups across the country – a sort of 300 person jury. They sit down for two or three days with a panel of experts who represent both sides of the argument. They get into the details of the arguments at both a strategic and granular level and are given the time in a less emotionally driven environment to reach a consensus.

This was used very successfully in Ireland regarding the debate over abortion issues and in France they are currently undertaking a CA on assisted suicide. It depoliticises issues and makes it much easier to move toward consensus across parties and communities. I think that an outcome would show that there are definitely challenges ahead in the quest for net zero but it is eminently achievable and does not need to be as expensive as people think. The main thing is that we need to move away from a dialogue of the deaf with a “who can shout loudest” approach.

In my view Just Stop Oil are not helping by engaging in silly stunts which cheapen the whole issue, but climate deniers supported by some of our more right wing media need to be exposed as being totally out of kilter with public opinion who are rightly concerned about a planet that is being impacted by human evolution. Citizen’s assemblies are not new, they have previously been used to great affect and it would be a smart political leader that adopted them to reach a consensus on one of the biggest issues of our time – climate change.

Julian Barlow, Chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

Originally shared to LinkedIn on 6th September 2023