Citizens’ Assemblies and the International Response on Climate Displacement

By Magdalena Smieszek

In this op-ed, Magdalena Smieszek explains how citizens’ assemblies on the national level promote inclusive discourse because of their bottom-up approach; the variety of transnational and global citizens’ assemblies focused on climate change; and what impact these assemblies might have on climate change action.

Dr. Magdalena Smieszek is a human rights practitioner, scholar with an SJD from CEU, and author of The Evolving Psyche of Law in Europe (Springer, 2021). 

Dilemmas of Climate Displacement

In advance of the UN’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021, a series of climate activist-led initiatives took place. Panelists in the Doha Debates, for example, met specifically on the subject of ‘climate refugees’ and made the point that although the majority of persons displaced by climate change are in the most impoverished parts of the world, the grassroots advocates from these countries are underrepresented in the intergovernmental discussions and national responses. Such gaps are also present within the policy-making of the European Union, on which groups like Citizens Take Over Europe (CTOE) have provided critiques regarding the process of deliberations concerning climate change and migration.  

There are also numerous dilemmas specifically around the framing of climate refugees. One of the issues is that a legal category of climate refugees is not formally recognized. Recent decisions from the UN Human Rights Committee and the French appeals court, a 2020 policy document from UNHCR, as well as a broader recognition by UN bodies of a right to a healthy environment could make way for more consistent recognition of climate-based refugee status. The US government also released a report in October 2021 on ‘Climate Change and Migration’ adding more nationally-led substance to the discourse. Australian refugee law scholar Jane McAdam has commented that the recommendations in the report ‘offer a principled, orderly framework’ to protect persons displaced by disasters and environmental degradation, and that this could be a model for other countries as well as a turning point for climate justice more broadly.

The proposals come amidst fears from all sides of the political spectrum about the imminent effects of climate change. At the COP26 climate summit itself, references to a ‘conflict’, ‘chaos’, ‘breakdown’, ‘a migration crisis’ and ‘massive flows of displaced people’ were used as tactics to mobilize government action. The effect of this rhetoric is that

citizens are potentially fed skewed information, their feelings and experiences are not adequately accounted for, and in the process, they become distrustful of the sources and the governments’ climate policies.

Meanwhile, climate change continues to create socio-economic disparities that contribute to forced migration. The distinction between refugee and migrant, a binary based primarily on economic reasons for movement as the key difference between the migrant categories, carries on as an obstacle concerning states’ recognition of their responsibility towards environmental displacement.

Citizens’ Assemblies for Inclusive Discourse

Solutions can be found in the dialogues and collective intelligence coming from citizens around the world in the form of participatory and deliberative democracy. The activism of civil society gave significant responses to climate injustices. In particular, citizens’ assemblies at the national and transnational levels could hold the key to ensuring that climate action plans are implemented. In this ‘bottom-up’ approach, a select number of participants from the public become informed about specific issues – they are presented with facts, studies, and recommendations.

A key feature of citizens’ assemblies is that they are inclusive, ensuring in the selection process that there is an equal participation and inclusion of persons of various backgrounds, done through a random selection within defined criteria considering equal representation and cost-effectiveness.

The size of the assemblies is usually small, with only a few hundred participants with members remunerated for their time and expenses. Citizens’ assemblies can be initiated by the states, or they can be citizen-led in organizing, which involves campaigning for public funds to support the process.

In Europe, two climate-focused assemblies at the national level have been initiated in 2019 and 2020. The first was the French Citizens’ Convention on ecological transition, called by the French government, and the second was the UK Climate Assembly organized by MPs with funding from the UK parliament, the European climate foundation, among other sources. In the UK’s climate assembly, the talks were introduced by experts on climate change and then went online because of Covid lockdowns. A final report of the deliberations was produced in September 2020 with recommendations ‘on the path to net zero’ showing that most things that need to change require the involvement of the public. Importantly, each of the measures showed the level of support that it received from the assembly and how the advantages and disadvantages were perceived. Initiatives like the Centre for Climate Assemblies, based in Poland, aims for the approach of citizen assemblies to become a standard in all countries worldwide, and a tool for making binding decisions.

Transnational Citizens’ Assemblies in Europe

The concept of national citizens’ assemblies, both on climate and migration, is being taken to the transnational levels. One prominent example is the Conference on the Future of Europe (‘Conference’), organized by the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the EU Council. Among the topics is ‘climate change and the environment’ with ‘migration’ as a separate theme linked with ‘EU in the world’ that includes discussions around climate displacement. The Conference, finalizing its one year of events on May 9, 2022, has been described as the first experimental space for transnational citizens’ assemblies.

In response to the initial delays in getting the Conference off the ground and the disconnect between institutions and citizens, the CTOE coalition, composed of civil society actors from around Europe, came about during the first wave of Covid in 2020. One of the key priorities of CTOE is climate change and environmental degradation in its grassroots strategy, and a focus on legal recognition and protection of climate refugees. On migrant and refugee rights specifically, the focus is on border controls from an outside of the EU perspective, with the broader goal of ending the distinction between EU citizenship and nationality. CTOE’s goal is to broaden the space of democracy within the European Union governance, establishing a European citizens’ assembly as a regular and permanent body for policy deliberation.

CTOE co-created guidelines based on national and local citizens’ assemblies across Europe, aiming to feed this into the Conference. The overarching themes emphasize the use of participatory instruments for diversity and inclusion before and during the deliberations. The transnational exercise has to be made appropriate to culture and language that reflects European diversity. The use of media is encouraged, especially digital platforms, to ensure accessibility and public visibility to reach across Europe. An emphasis is also placed on ‘impactful outcomes’ – that is, a commitment from the EU institutions for an effective mechanism for the implementation of the resolutions that the assembly adopts, so that this is not simply a consultative and symbolic process, but the one that has actual policy and legislative follow-up. The CTOE guidelines call for continuity of a permanent body within the European system that is properly resourced to ensure accountability by the EU institutions on decisions in line with citizens’ assembly recommendations.

In October 2021, a transnational climate change assembly was held in Palermo, Italy, organized by European Alternatives in cooperation with the European Parliament. The prelude to this consisted of 20 local assemblies in 10 countries across the EU held throughout 2021 – ‘Assemblies of Solidarity’ – that were citizens-led and aimed at connecting groups that are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Citizen representatives from those local assemblies joined residents for a Transnational Assembly of Solidarity to discuss the recommendations of the independent citizen-led discussion on how to prevent environmental catastrophe. This citizens’ assembly produced a Transnational Citizens Palermo Declaration on Climate Change. Among the provisions of the declaration is the statement that ‘everyone should have the right to choose their place of home, and climate asylum should be recognized.’

As part of the process, civil society representatives have committed themselves to follow up on the provisions and campaign on the recommendations of the citizens. For now, such a declaration has advocacy as its objective, and has been shared with media and at European conferences as a positive example of citizen assembly outcomes. The advocates appeal that the results of the dialogues and the will of citizens are taken into account, even if they oppose views held by legislators and policy-makers. Many international laws start with declarations, and citizens’ assemblies reinforce a bottom-up approach. In the long run, citizens’ assemblies can be more systematically incorporated directly into law-making mechanisms, and proposals for such are coming from CTOE. A statement from CTOE in March 2022 called for a revival of the European Constitution as a follow up to the Conference on the Future of Europe, in which citizens, based on the assembly formats, would participate directly in (re)drafting of European legislation.

A Global Citizens’ Assembly

The concept of transnational citizens’ assemblies on climate change has also extended to the global level. The newly-established citizen-led Global Assembly, described as a new operating system for global governance, is made up of more than 150 organizations from over 50 countries around the world. In advance of the COP26 talks, the Global Assembly has chosen by lottery 1,000 citizens from different parts of the globe for a virtual convention to address the climate crisis. A 100-person ‘core assembly’ is intended to represent the current global population, the participants are evenly split between men and women, sixty from Asia, seventeen percent from Africa, and seventy percent of members have incomes of $10 per day or less. An international team of experts, scientists and indigenous wisdom keepers support their work. Community assemblies are organized in different regions, with ‘distributed events’ held in local communities around the world that can be run by anyone. Like the European transnational assembly, the intention is for the Global Assembly to be placed permanently within the consultative process of the United Nations. In fact, the Global Assembly has come up with the People’s Declaration for the Sustainable Future of Planet Earth that was presented at COP 26, stating in the preamble that it unites and rallies citizens to ‘build consensus to generate community-level solutions and become decision-makers.’

The People’s Declaration emphasizes collaboration, shared responsibility and education, among individual citizens, grassroots mechanisms, governments and corporations. This includes a focus on fairness so as to take account of historical and ongoing inequities, ensuring the newly recognized human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as the rights of nature. Notably, climate displacement is mentioned in the declaration as the effect of the undermining of human rights by climate change and ecological crisis.

Local assemblies that are connected to the Global Assembly continue to meet at the community level all around the world. Individuals otherwise unengaged and disconnected from global governance are actively participating, learning, and contributing to the discourse. At the same time, politicians are taking note. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, expressed in a speech that there is a need for a global citizens’ assembly, stating that since the impact of climate change is felt by people all over the world, ‘people must be able to bring not just their views but also their lived experiences directly to the table…not as outsiders, but as participants and equals.’ She added that ‘the concept of fairness and justice was at the heart of Scotland’s climate assembly, grounded in legislation.’

Notably, the citizens’ Global Assembly follows similar initiatives, for example, a mock COP26 summit organized by youth activists from 142 countries. In December 2020, the summit came up with a treaty consisting of 18 policies for world leaders to consider on topics such as climate education, climate justice, climate resilient livelihoods, physical and mental health, nationally determined contributions, and protecting biodiversity. The declaration report includes first-hand testimonies from numerous countries where the consultations outlined climate displacement, and refers specifically to the protection risks of climate refugees.  

More on the Horizon

To what extent will the citizens’ assemblies on climate change and migration influence legislative changes? Can they be more than consultations for policy recommendations? Could the treaties and declarations that emerge in the process have the force of law? These questions still remain open. Moreover, while some assemblies on climate change have been initiated, the topic of climate displacement is not always a priority, and the deliberations of issues are not always adequately informed.

On a global scale, climate displacement has often been discussed in the context of migrants from the global South to the North, even though internal displacement is much more prevalent worldwide. This means that part of the discussions from citizens must be on contingency planning in response to climate disasters – not in situations where there is a ‘crisis’ and an atmosphere of fear but one of understanding that while reduction in emissions is a priority, there also is an inevitability that the climate will continue to change and contribute to displacement, and that must be mitigated. Citizens in countries of origin and destination, everywhere, need to have the discourse and be part of the contingency planning dialogues and policy recommendations. The March 2022 Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that ‘inclusive governance that prioritizes equity and justice in adaptation planning and implementation leads to more effective sustainable adaptation outcomes.’

Importantly, citizens’ assemblies respond to the SDG Goal 13 to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact — which is a responsibility of both governments and citizens. They can be a wider and more comprehensive response to climate change, thereby affecting the policies and response to climate displacement. Climate action demands considering the political debates and policies on recognition of climate refugees, while making greater efforts for citizens’ assemblies to contribute to the discourse. In this sense,

citizens can mobilize greater action from their governments and make policy recommendations on what to highlight, and also to address some of the polarized positions that keep policy action stalled.

Politicians respond to citizen sentiments, and citizen sentiments can change and become more informed through the deliberative process of the assemblies, thereby further informing the political and policy actions. These assemblies are intended to respond to loss of trust and limited deliberation in the national legislative processes. Through their inclusive approaches, they also have the potential to contribute to undoing the knotted distinctions between refugees and migrants that present themselves in discourse on climate refugees, and can make a meaningful contribution towards national and international policy impacts.

In collaboration with Katarzyna Krzyżanowska

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