Commentary: Citizens assembly would seek consensus on climate

State legislators want to call on residents to gather, learn and craft solutions to climate change.

By Jake Fey, Joe Fitzgibbon, Zack Hudgins, Steve Kirby and Cindy Ryu / For The Herald

As representatives in the Washington state House, our job is to offer and enact policy solutions for our state. It is a rewarding, but difficult task; especially when it comes to an issue such as climate change.

Climate change is the most threatening and perhaps the most divisive problem our state has ever faced. Risk mitigation, resilience and appropriate response all require consideration of nearly every other facets of our lives. For any significant policy changes, active public participation is not just important; it’s foundational. That’s why we’re calling for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate in Washington State to be held online this summer. We want ordinary Washingtonians, with their diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, to help us on this issue.

We have worked for many years to pass ambitious climate policies through the state Legislature and into law. While in some areas we have seen successes, such as by requiring 100 percent clean electricity, passing the nation’s first commercial building energy efficiency requirement, and phasing out super-polluting refrigerants, we have seen less success in reducing emissions from the transportation sector or in putting a price on carbon pollution.

One fact that has become clear is that the polarized nature of this debate harms us all. This issue cannot be another “us versus them” issue, because it affects us all. Too often in Olympia, the debate around our response to climate change devolves into environmentalists versus big businesses, urban versus rural, Democrat versus Republican. It would help us all to bring more voices to the table to understand deeply held concerns, concerns about the status quo as well as concerns about the policies proposed to fight climate change.

Citizens assemblies, a relatively new democratic tool, are a variation of a deliberative civic engagement process, the citizens jury, which was invented here in the United States in the 1970s. Processes like these have succeeded in finding solutions to diverse issues, including artificial intelligence, ballot initiatives and climate change. Right now, France and the United Kingdom are in the final stages of their historic, nationwide climate assemblies, which in light of COVID-19 are transitioning to online deliberation.

Citizens assemblies are independent, non-partisan efforts that invite residents at random from all walks of life to come together, in person or online, to help a government solve an issue. Of those that accept, roughly 100 are selected in a way that reflects demographics, neighborhood and political affiliation. Over the course of several weekends, the assembly members learn from science and policy experts, deliberate together on paths forward, and finally recommend policies to lawmakers.

We believe it’s time to bring this democratic innovation to the United States.

We are always open to and welcome input from our constituents. We believe a citizens assembly will amplify the voices of those whose views aren’t always present in Olympia. The people who participate will mirror our state in terms of age, ideological background, citizenship status and education levels. This diverse group will come into this proven process without preconceived ideas or biases on policy ideas. They will learn together, foster a community together and recommend policy ideas, together.

The fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak has been unprecedented and devastating. We have been and are still working to fight this public health crisis. The courage and care for one another, which we have witnessed from Washingtonians everywhere, have been awe-inspiring. This pandemic has shown that when we work together, we can address bigger challenges than we ever thought possible.

We can rebuild a safer, healthier economy and environment with the informed input of Washingtonians at every level. As the chairs of our respective committees in the Washington State House of Representatives, we look forward to the findings of a Washington Citizens Assembly on Climate, a collaborative and truly representative way to reveal the informed will of Washingtonians.

Let’s come up with solutions together. Let’s protect our state and each other. Together.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, represents the 27th Legislative District; Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, 34th; Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, 11th; Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, 29th; and Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, 32nd.

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