UK Climate Assembly

United Kingdom


The UK Climate Assembly, initiated by the House of Commons’ Select Committees on Environmental Audit and Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, was facilitated in collaboration with the Involve participatory organisation. Running from January to September 2020, this initiative engaged more than 100 randomly selectedRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance. citizens across the UK, guided by the Sortition Foundation, a non-profit organisation specialising in deliberative democracyDeliberative democracy is a form of democracy in which decision-making is based on deliberation rather than mere voting. In this approach, citizens engage in discussions, debates, and dialogue to consider various viewpoints and information before making decisions. It emphasises the importance of reasoned argument, informed participation, and consensus-building in shaping public policy. Deliberative democracy aims to improve the quality and legitimacy of democratic decisions by involving citizens directly in the policymaking process. and participation. Participants, reflecting diverse demographics, were brought together to deliberate on climate change issues. Under expert guidance and through structured sessions, these citizens deliberated on climate-related policies, including those pertaining to transportation, energy, agriculture, and consumption patterns. The assemblyA citizens’ assembly is a representative group of citizens chosen to deliberate on specific issues and make recommendations. It reflects the broader population’s demographic diversity and aims to enhance democratic decision-making by incorporating public input. culminated in a comprehensive set of recommendations, reflecting the well-informed perspectives and collective wisdom of the participants, which were subsequently presented to policymakers for potential integration into national climate policy decisions.

In recent years, citizens’ assemblies have gained prominence in the UK and Ireland, witnessing a surge in interest across Europe. These participatory tools have attracted attention from politicians and academics aiming to understand their impact. Extinction Rebellion notably advocated for climate assembliesA citizens’ assembly brings together people from all walks of life to discuss important issues – in this case climate change. At the assembly, assembly members learn about the issue, take time to discuss it with one another, and then make recommendations about what should happen., pressuring for their establishment at both local and national levels. This, and further efforts led to around 20 locally organized climate assemblies. At a broader scale, five parliamentary committees allocated funds to launch a nationwide participatory approach to address climate concerns. However, despite bipartisan support, the Johnson Government did not endorse this initiative, hence it was launched by the legislature not the executive. Involve and Sortition Foundation secured the bid to conduct the participatory process, including provisions for additional funding secured by Involve as part of the bid terms.

Recent years in the UK have witnessed a notable increase in deliberative processes, mirroring trends observed across Europe. These processes have gained traction through endorsements from governmental, quasi-governmental organisations, and non-governmental organisations. The Environmental Agency, for instance, has orchestrated close to 10 local assemblies, delving into diverse topics like natural resources, whale conservation, and river health. NGOs frequently leverage participation as a component of their public relations strategy. Notably, the People’s Plans for Nature initiative, organised by three NGOs, utilised deliberative democracy events to garner backing and credibility for their initiatives and objectives.

However, upon examining the impact of these deliberative processes, a different pattern emerges as the majority function merely as advisory bodies for governments. These platforms primarily provide suggestions that authorities may choose to adopt or disregard. Consequently, despite the abundance of participatory events, their direct influence on national or local-level policy remains restricted.

The organisers appointed by the committees sought funding from foundations and secured a substantial amount. Government committees allocated around £100,000, while foundations contributed between £300,000 to £400,000.

The participant recruitment processRecruitment of participants involves identifying and engaging individuals to take part in activities, studies, or projects. This process is crucial for gathering diverse inputs, ensuring representativeness, and enhancing the validity of outcomes. It typically includes strategies like outreach, advertising, and incentivization to attract and enroll suitable candidates. followed a two-step approach. Initially, individuals received invitations, and subsequently, final participants were selected from those who replied, correcting demographic skewing. This process began with the dispatch of 30,000 letters to randomly selectedRandom selection is a form of sampling where a representative group of research participants is selected from a larger group by chance. addresses obtained from the National Postal Database. Approximately 80% of addresses were selected entirely at random, while the remaining 20% were randomly selected from economically disadvantaged areas, intending to offset the lower response rates among individuals with lower incomes.

Upon registration, participants were asked to provide information on their age, gender, location, educational background (as a socio-economic indicator), and their stance on climate change. The resulting pool of registered participants revealed a skew toward university-educated individuals concerned those concerned about climate issues. From this pool, 105 participants were selected. The subsequent step was critical in addressing this bias by aligning with demographic targets based on the mentioned categories, ensuring a more representative selection. While some age-related skewing was present, efforts in the second phase were made to incorporate a diverse range of ages, aiming for representation across various age groups.

Additionally, the participation rates remained relatively low due to the substantial commitment involved—participants were required to dedicate eight weekends to the assembly. To support potential applicants, an information phone line was set up during the recruitment phase, proving effective as approximately 10% of registrations did so through the phone line.

The response rate to the Climate Assembly letters stood at 7%, with over 2,000 individuals responding out of the 30,000 letters sent—an encouraging response rate for the initiative. To facilitate participation, compensation was offered, and additional support was extended for specific demographics facing difficulties attending weekend sessions due to work or family commitments. This support included provisions for child and elderly care, alongside covering expenses for food and transportation for all participants.

However, language barriers persisted as they could not provide translators, limiting participation to English-speaking individuals. To address ethnic diversity, they inquired about the ethnicity of registrants and subsequently selected a diverse and representative sample to participate.

Overcoming socio-economic skewing, which predominantly favored higher-educated and more affluent participants, posed challenges. While in the UK, around 30% of the adult population has not completed secondary school, achieving a matching representation among participants with such educational attainment was hindered by a low number of registrants falling within this category.

The Assembly extended over eight weekends, with intervals of at least two weekends between each session. A major disruption occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly impacting the process. Initially, the Assembly began with several weekends of in-person sessions. However, as a result of the pandemic, there was a subsequent postponement for several months, followed by a shift to online sessions for the remaining gatherings.

The Assembly progressed through three distinctive phases: an information phaseIn citizen assembly processes, an information session serves as a preliminary meeting to educate participants about the assembly’s purpose, structure, and topics of discussion. It provides an overview of the decision-making process, the role of evidence and expert testimony, and the expectations for participant engagement. This session is key to preparing members for informed and constructive participation in the deliberations that follow., a deliberation phaseThe deliberation phase is a critical stage in decision-making processes where participants discuss, debate, and reflect on various options or proposals. It involves thorough examination and consideration of all aspects of the issue at hand, aiming to reach a consensus or informed decision. This phase emphasises open dialogue, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving., and a voting phaseThe voting phase is when participants in a decision-making process cast their votes to finalise choices or decisions. It’s crucial for reflecting collective preferences and can involve methods like secret ballots or electronic voting to ensure fairness and accuracy., organised cyclically. Initially, participants collectively engaged in the information phase. Later, they segmented into specialised subgroups during the deliberation phase, addressing distinct subtopics like transport, infrastructure, and energy production. Each subgroup extensively examined its designated issues before regrouping to synthesize their insights, culminating in a comprehensive report spanning around 500 pages. All subgroups contributed recommendations relevant to their specific topics.

A notable insight revealed the potential of door-to-door engagementAlso known as canvassing. Canvassing is a method used primarily in political campaigns, marketing, and grassroots movements, involving direct engagement with individuals through door-to-door visits or phone calls. The goal is to gather support, solicit opinions, promote candidates or causes, and sometimes to conduct surveys. It’s an effective strategy for personal interaction, aiming to inform, persuade, or mobilise individuals towards a particular action or viewpoint., which could have generated higher response rates given adequate resources. However, due to financial constraints, the adopted approach relied on sending out letters. Despite this limitation, offering compensation for participation and covering associated expenses significantly enhanced the inclusivity and representation of the entire UK population in the Climate Assembly. Challenges persist in engaging specific demographics or accommodating their limited availability for such activities, which are constraints no participatory processes can entirely overcome.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the planned course of the UK Climate Assembly, leading to substantial alterations in its execution. Originally structured for in-person sessions, the assembly encountered unprecedented challenges as the pandemic unfolded. After initiating a few weekends of face-to-face gatherings, safety concerns and government restrictions prompted a prolonged postponement. Consequently, the assembly transitioned its remaining sessions to an online format to accommodate the evolving circumstances. This shift necessitated participants to adapt to a virtual setting for deliberations, discussions, and decision-making, diverging from the initially envisioned collaborativeCollaborative refers to a process or activity involving joint effort among a group of people or organisations to achieve a common goal. It emphasises cooperation, teamwork, and shared decision-making, often leading to more inclusive and comprehensive outcomes by leveraging diverse perspectives and skills., in-person approach. The unexpected transition to an online platform not only reshaped interaction dynamics but also potentially impacted the depth and spontaneity of discussions. Additionally, it introduced new logistical hurdles while endeavoring to uphold the assembly’s objectives within the confines of pandemic-related constraints.

The Climate Assembly highlighted transferable elements adaptable to diverse contexts. Its structured approach, encompassing information dissemination, deliberation, and decision-making, offers a usable framework suitable for collaborative input on various topics. Utilising subgroups to delve into specific subtopics fosters in-depth discussions within constrained time frames, enhancing exploration and understanding. Emphasising inclusivity by providing financial support and compensation proved pivotal in ensuring a more comprehensive representation. Effective adoption of these practices relies on flexibility in engagement, tailored strategies for inclusivity, adaptable methodologies for diverse demographics, and a robust evaluation mechanism to gauge effectiveness and adjust for optimal outcomes in new settings.

The UK Climate Assembly, a noteworthy initiative in the realm of participatory democracy, brought together over 100 citizens across the UK to deliberate on pressing climate change issues. Facilitated by the Involve participatory organization in collaboration with the Sortition Foundation, this assembly aimed to harness the collective wisdom of a diverse group of citizens to inform national climate policies. Running from January to September 2020, the process culminated in a set of recommendations presented to policymakers, reflecting a broad consensus on how the UK should address climate-related challenges. Initiated amidst a growing interest in citizens’ assemblies and under pressure from groups like Extinction Rebellion, the assembly sought to provide a platform for inclusive and informed debate on environmental strategies. Despite lacking formal endorsement from the government, the initiative successfully engaged participants through a meticulous selection process aimed at ensuring demographic diversity. This was achieved through a stratified random selection of addresses, complemented by efforts to include economically disadvantaged areas and to compensate for socio-economic skewing. The assembly’s progression through information, deliberation, and decision phases, despite the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighted the potential of such participatory processes to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Transitioning to online sessions, the assembly maintained its commitment to thorough discussion and collective decision-making. Key outcomes highlighted the importance of providing financial support and covering expenses to ensure broad participation. The experience underlined the challenges of engaging specific demographics and adapting to their availability, but also pointed to the potential for higher response rates through more personalised outreach methods, such as door-to-door outreach. This case study of the UK Climate Assembly underscores the transferability of citizens’ assemblies to other contexts, emphasizing the need for flexible engagement strategies, inclusivity, and a structured approach to deliberation and decision-making. It offers valuable lessons for nurturing informed public participation in policy development, crucial for addressing complex issues like climate change.

Based on an interview conducted with Brett Hennig (, Director of the Sortition Foundation on 6 April 2023.