What Happens When Members of the Public Are Asked to Solve the Climate Crisis?

A new film follows seven assembly members as they grapple with the big question.

The People Vs Climate Change

Picture Zero

Not long after Extinction Rebellion shut down London, the British government declared a climate emergency. As we know, however, declaring a climate emergency and then actually doing something about it are very different things.

There are plenty of non-green things the British government continues to do, but one particular aspect of their response is profoundly interesting to me: They convened a Citizens’ Assembly on climate. 

Consisting of 108 ordinary citizens—drawn from a random pool and selected to create a representative sample of the population at large—the assembly brought to Birmingham, in the Midlands, for a series of four weekends. Their mission? To learn the science behind climate change (including a visit from special guest Sir David Attenborough), the potential technological and social responses available, and then generate a set of recommendations about what the country chooses to do.

It’s really quite a radical concept. And a new film called "The People Vs. Climate Change" from Picture Zero Productions follows seven assembly members as they grapple with the big questions at hand.

The film is deeply moving. As someone who spends a lot of time surrounded by fellow climate-concerned individuals, it’s always fascinating to me to explore how we engage a broader subset of the population. And the assembly certainly does that. 

Here’s the description of the "cast," which definitely reaches beyond the usual tree-hugging bubble: 

Sue, an ex-fishmonger from Bath, is shocked to learn the science of climate change and when floods hit the UK - and the South West in particular - she begins to understand how close to home these issues can be and resolves to make personal changes. British Gas employee Marc, from Newcastle, is enthusiastic about taking part in the Assembly, but is worried about losing his job in the transition to green energy, while 27-year-old postal-worker Amy is unsettled when she learns the environmental impact of the coal fire she heats her home with. We also meet retired printer and ardent Brexiteer Richard, who is sceptical about climate change and reluctant to accept many of the proposals put forward in the Assembly. But when his own health deteriorates, he is forced to re-examine the impact of dirty air on all our lives. 

Whether it’s climate or the pandemic, we’ve seen in recent times how deeply polarized public debate can be—and how hard it is to even find a shared set of facts to make policy decisions from—but it does appear that the Citizens’ Climate Assembly managed to generate real, reflective debate, even among people who are deeply skeptical about climate change at the outset. 

We see the aforementioned "Brexiteer" Richard, for example, acknowledge the alarming speed at which the climate is warming, even as he resists the idea of feeling guilty about his gas-guzzling motor home. And we see gas worker Marc discuss in detail the need to lean into a transition, even as he grapples with the fear of losing his job. 

It’s respectfully done. And it’s a reminder that opponents of climate action may have legitimate grievances and fears—even if those fears are exploited by powerful forces that are invested in the status quo. 

Ultimately, as you would expect, the Assembly members had a wide variety of views and didn’t exactly agree on everything. They did, however, publish a report that included a wide range of sometimes far-reaching policy recommendations that included:

  • An early shift to electric vehicles and improvement of public transport to make it cheaper, reliable, and more accessible. 
  • Taxes or fees on air travel that increase based on how much you fly. 
  • Large investments in offshore wind, onshore wind, solar power, and other green technologies. 
  • On diet, the focus was more on support for farmers and voluntary measures, incentives, and education for a shift to more plant-based food choices.

Throughout the recommendations, there are repeated themes of fairness, education, freedom of choice, and strong leadership from the government—all things it would be hard to argue with. While there will obviously be some disagreement about what each of these principles means in practice, they do provide a reminder that we cannot just focus on technologies or policies without thinking through how we actually get community-wide buy-in. 

From floods to wildfires to drought and rising sea levels, all of us are seeing an increase in climate-related impacts in our lives. And the film follows exactly how similar events shift the perspective of assembly members as floods and storms hit hard. A project like the Citizens’ Assembly provides a really powerful model for how we can turn anxiety, despair, or apathy into action.
"The People Vs. Climate Change" is available to rent or buy via Vimeo. I cannot recommend it highly enough.