Bringing Citizens’ Assemblies to NYC

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On February 25, 2020, Archie Kinnane and Richard Reiss of City Atlas gave testimony to the NYC Council on two new bills intended to strengthen the City’s carbon emissions reporting and management. Archie’s live testimony is below, on video, with written proposal below that, and Richard’s testimony is posted here.

My name is Archie Kinnane. I’m 23 years old and I live in Brooklyn. I work with Richard on City Atlas, and I am also involved with Extinction Rebellion NYC, but today, I am here representing myself. First, I want to say that I appreciate everything this committee has done and is doing. The buildings law was fantastic, thank you for getting that through, and the bills today are great as well, and I fully and enthusiastically support them.

I’m here to talk about Citizens’ Assemblies. This is a concept that is starting to be adopted all over the world, and I bring it up today because I think it’s a powerful idea that might help the city do even more to decarbonize and prepare New Yorkers for the future, and could help New York City become a model for re-engaging people with the democratic process and restoring faith in government. 

A Citizens’ Assembly is a type of democratic process that brings together people from all walks of life into one room to learn, discuss, and deliberate on a topic, usually during several weekend sessions, and then provide recommendations to their government. I’ll briefly describe what’s going on in the UK right now to provide a picture for how something like this might work here in New York. Climate Assembly UK was convened by six Parliamentary Committees in June of last year. A group of 110 people was chosen by civic lottery so that they represent the wider population. This group is being brought together for eight sessions across four weekends to learn from a balanced group of experts about climate change and how the UK can address it, take time to discuss this with one another, and then make recommendations about what should happen. These recommendations will be submitted to Parliament to form the basis of how the public wants to address the climate crisis and end emissions. There are also over a dozen municipalities hosting their own local assemblies, and France is having a national Citizens’ Assembly on climate as well. 

Through the organizations I mentioned, I’ve gotten to have contact with the people running many of these Citizens’ Assemblies and learned a lot about them, and they seem like a really good idea to try. I’ll first talk about why I think so, in a practical sense.

Assemblies have revealed a much, much broader appetite for aggressive climate action than usually assumed by conventional political mental models.

First, a Citizens’ Assembly lets us know exactly what people want, don’t want, and would prefer, without policy makers having to guess for them. Decarbonization is about choices, and about how much we are willing to change, and how quickly. Science tells us we must act fast, and yet, we have little idea what policies might enjoy support from the majority of the population. Assemblies have revealed a much, much broader appetite for aggressive climate action than usually assumed by conventional political mental models. When you let people sit with this information and ask them what we should do, almost invariably, they want their government to do more. I can pass along the reports, articles, and interviews with participants that show this.

Second, people are more likely to trust a program or process that has been developed with citizen involvement. Citizen participation gives legitimacy to the solutions offered.

Third, in any program that involves large changes to society, as decarbonization must, active public consent is critical. We must act now to embed it into bureaucratic processes. Prioritizing community involvement speeds up the process of implementing environmental policies, from building solar farms and transmission lines, to creating more resilient coastline. 

I’ve said a little bit about how Citizens’ Assemblies can be practical tools for effective governance, but I also want to talk about why I consider opening up more citizen involvement to be a moral issue. Just this week, news broke that JP Morgan analysts are warning their clients that there exists the threat of the collapse of civilization and the “end of human life as we know it.” And that’s just the latest example of what sounds like hyperbole coming from very serious sources. I fear that I’m seeing people I care about be set up for failure because we are pretending that things will fundamentally stay the same when we know that they won’t. And I’m fully aware that I am also one of the lucky ones. No matter what, the future is going to be very different, and as our city continues and accelerates the task of mitigating emissions while increasing resiliency, we need to amplify the voices of communities who have borne the brunt of climate impacts and ensure equitable involvement in the political process for all. As impacts worsen, cooperation will not get easier. We need to invest in community involvement now.

I know that several councilmembers have championed Participatory Budgeting, which I think is fantastic—I think that a Citizens’ Assembly could be the next step in making a government that works for all. We are in touch with people running these, they want to help us get started, and I’d love to connect you with them if you’d like to explore the idea further.

Thank you very much for your time, and thank you again for all that you do.

Photo: Benton Bainbridge