On Friday the Australian Prime Minister announced a Citizens Assembly on Climate Change ("Moving forward together on Climate Change") . About 150 people will be selected from the census and electoral rolls to spend a year examining what to do about climate change.
It would be easy to see this as a cynical political trick to put off unpopular decisions until after an election. However, as the the conference "Democratizing Climate Governance Conference" I attended last week at the Australian National University in Canberra detailed, simply stating there is a problem does not necessarily produce the required action. This week the Democrats decided they did not have sufficient votes in the US Senate to introduce a cap-and-trade carbon reduction scheme. Providing more facts on climate science is unlikely to change the situation. As well as taking the advice of climate scientists on global warming, we also need advice from economists, social and political scientists on how to act on that advice. The Prime Minister's proposal may be one way to do that.
There are limitations to the prime minister's proposal: The ALP government has to be re-elected next month for the scheme to be implemented and it does not have the support of the opposition, nor the Greens Party (which is likely to hold the balance of power).
There is no provision for such an assembly in the Australian Constitution. This body will have now formal power, apart from the limited advisory role provided for in specific legislation introduced to create it.
The assembly will be limited to considering the government's market-based approach to carbon emissions, which has already been rejected by Parliament. The assembly will not be permitted to consider alternatives, such as a tax on carbon, or energy saving incentives. An example of such alternatives would be a 5% reduction in emissions through better use of ICT (including use of the National Broadband Network), as I teach in Green ICT.
There is no mention in the proposal of the use of technology for making the assembly more efficient, representative or open to the wider community. It seems likely the assembly will use a similar process to the cumbersome processes used by the Australian Parliament and used for the 2020 Summit held by the former Rudd government. With these the representatives travel to one location (usually Canberra) for a few days of verbal, face-to-face discussions and then leave again. Only one person can talk at a time and less than 200 can be accommodated in one forum. Due to the limited communications only one proposal can be considered at a time.
One option would be to provide Internet based technology to enhance the operation of the assembly. There could still be face to face meetings, but between and during these, online forums could be provided. Many more citizens could then follow and take part in the discussion online. Many more proposals could be considered simultaneously. Rather than having most of the time taken up with set peace speeches, presentations could be pre-recorded and Podcast.
Some of these techniques were used with the "Public Sphere" Internet assisted process. We have learnt a lot about how to run such blended events since I helped run the first Public Sphere at the Australian National University in 2009.
My colleagues at the ANU Engineering 'Hubs and Spokes' Project have been working on technology for teaching in a "blended" mode: this combines podcasts and discussions online, with face to face discussions, which can also be enhanced by using technology such as "clickers" (wireless hand held devices to quickly get audience input). This technology could be applied to a citizens consultation process.