Nicolas and the Citizens’ Convention offer France a way to agree on climate action.
Nicolas has had a strange year at school – and not just because of the corona virus lockdown. Seven times since October, he’s skipped classes on a Friday to spend a long weekend away in Paris.
He’s only 17 but he’s been working, he says, to change the world. Fast.
So what’s Nicolas been up to? Secret agent? Science genius?
Well, no, mainly he’s just been talking. Saying how he thinks he would like the world to be when he’s older. A cleaner place. Fairer and safer.
Last weekend, Nicolas decided what he wanted to change. And do you know what? The president of France now promises to try and do what Nicolas wants.
Experiment for democracy
You see, Nicolas has been part of an experiment. He’s one of 150 French people, aged from 16 to 80, who were picked in a kind of lottery to join what’s called the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate.
Half are women and half men. They come from all over the country, from cities and villages. Some are rich, others poor. Altogether, they look like a picture of all the French people.
Their job? To agree on ways to stop global warming.
Since October, Nicolas and his 149 new friends in the Convention have been listening to experts and discussing what they should do. They’ve taken time to talk and to listen, so that they find solutions which most of them can agree to.
The trouble with making the big changes we need to help planet Earth is that things that seem the best solution to one person can be really bad for another.
You might say, let’s stop using cars and go everywhere by bike. Problem solved! But what about people who have to go a long way? Or who are old or not able to cycle?
You might say, let’s stop eating meat! But what about the farmers who would lose their jobs and all their money if they stopped rearing cows?
Talking, not shouting
Now, you might say, isn’t solving those disagreements the job of the president and MPs in parliament? Adults in France can all vote. That’s democracy. Isn’t that how the French decide what to do? So who are these 150 people to tell the others what to do? Nicolas isn’t even old enough to vote! (You have to be 18 in France.)
Well, in the end, new laws will be agreed by parliament. But the problem with climate change is that it’s been really difficult to find fair ways to change the way we live. There’s been a lot of shouting over the years, and not much action.
Nicolas says what’s been great about the Convention is that they have all realised how important it is to act fast. By sitting down with each other and listening, they understand why what seems easy for one person is hard for another.
And they’ve used their seven long weekends in Paris to come up with lots of fair solutions.
Rebuild houses, bike more…
Among 149 proposals they have now agreed are things like making everyone who owns a house or a building do work to make sure it doesn’t waste heat – many will need new windows, new roofs. That’s a lot of work!
They also want to make it safer to cycle in French towns, to build more railways, to slow cars down on motorways (to burn less fuel) and to make sure we preserve unspoiled countryside.
Now President Macron will say what he wants to do. Two years ago, he made fuel more expensive to try to help the planet. But millions of French people, who have to use cars to get around in the countryside, demonstrated in the streets. That’s why he asked Nicolas and the 150 to come up with ideas that most people can accept.
Nicolas says he was “shocked” when he first arrived in Paris to join the Convention.
“I really wasn’t expecting all the journalists, the cameras, the nonstop interviews, » he said. “In the head of a lad of 17, I can tell you, all the time you’re going ‘why me?’!”
Now he thinks the Convention has come up with something that really can tell people a story about how the world can be better if we take better care of the planet – something that will be “quick and effective” after years of “going round in circles” about what to do about climate change.
Listening to youth
For the teenagers in the room like himself, it was a thrill to be listened to on a subject that is so important to them and their future. “We’ve been listened to,” Nicolas said. “That’s what’s really important. I think we’re going to have an impact.”
Of course, what happens in France or in any other single country will only make a big difference to the climate if people in other countries also change things. Some are thinking about following the French example.
In Britain, there is a similar experiment, called the Climate Assembly UK. It met over six weekends from January to May and will deliver its ideas to the British parliament over the summer.
We’d love to hear your ideas for helping planet Earth. Do let us know here or ping us on Facebook at @mywowtime !
Fighting global warming means changing our lives in many ways, quickly; many people don’t want change or disagree on what changes to make; arguments go round in circles and waste years.
Citizens assemblies are people who are chosen to represent all the opinions in the country; they discuss issues in detail for a few months, listen to each other and find ways the whole country can agree.
You can find out all the details of the French Citizen’s Convention on its website, in English.
There’s up-to-date news coverage of the Convention here in The Irish Times and on the website of broadcaster France 24.
It’s a complex issue and this piece in Politico explains the pros, cons and pitfalls, of citizens’ assemblies, with reference notably to Ireland, a pioneer of the method.
If you’re interested in the British version, Climate Assembly UK, which will report to Parliament this summer, take a look at its website.
Here’s David Attenborough, the celebrated British wildlife documentary film-maker and environmental campaigner, explaining the Climate Assembly’s ambitions.