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Can we follow the French out of gridlock on climate?

Not since the war has an Australian government mobilised so comprehensively: $260 billion, or 13 per cent of the country’s GDP, is a whopping big number. It was only six months ago that Australia was tested by bushfires and floods, but those calamities have now been overtaken by another emergency. As in 2007, when Kevin Rudd pronounced on “the great moral challenge of our generation”, the global financial crisis surfaced and pushed that pronouncement into touch. Now CVOID’s driving the game plan.

French President Emmanuel Macron has accepted the recommendations of a Citizen's Assembly on climate.

French President Emmanuel Macron has accepted the recommendations of a Citizen’s Assembly on climate.Credit:EPA

COVID is causing enormous upheaval in Australia – as elsewhere – with thousands of deaths and millions of livelihoods messed up. The national cabinet organised itself and, for once in living memory, left politics at the door. The months of quarantine have provoked a spectrum of consequences: unwelcome for some, devastating for others. Nevertheless, a recent Ipsos poll conducted in 14 countries found that two-thirds of citizens consider the climate crisis to be as serious as COVID, and want their governments to prioritise climate action in the economic recovery. The lockdown has caused many to reflect on what’s important. For the first time in living memory, the whole world slowed down: cars, planes, people. Much of the rushing around seems unnecessary. We had a glimpse of a better world: quieter, cleaner and greener.

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Last week, in France, President Macron announced a $24 billion program in response to a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change. One hundred and fifty people deliberated for six months on environmental issues. The Assembly was selected by contacting 255,000 randomly generated telephone numbers – 85 pe cent mobile and 15 per cent landlines – with this message:
“The Citizens’ Convention on Climate announced by President Emmanuel Macron is organised by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council. The objective of this Convention is to go further and faster in the fight against climate change, and to give more space to citizen participation in public decisionmaking. For better representation, it was decided that the participants be chosen by drawing lots. Your telephone number is one of those drawn at random, and we give you the opportunity to participate. In principle, do you agree to participate in this Citizens’ Convention on Climate?”

For the pool who agreed to participate, in order to reflect the French population, a demographic cross check was made for the draw of the 150: gender – 50/50 men, women; age – proportional from 16 years upwards; level of education and socioeconomic – welfare recipients, those without qualifications, blue and white collar employees, and managers; residency and geography – major urban centres, outer suburbs and rural municipalities.

Among the proposals put to the government last week were a reduction of solo car rides, and air travel – transportation produces 30 per cent of greenhouse gases. The citizens also said that they were prepared to tax products with high carbon footprint and low nutritional benefit – and to cut their consumption of cheese and meat – a notable sense of sacrifice for the French.

At the end of the presentations, the President told the Assembly: “You have shown that it is possible – on even the most difficult and flammable subject – to create consensus.” Everyday people, deliberating together – beyond the gridlock of everyday politics – can show the way for a sustainable future. Could we do it here, too?

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