WHAT could have been a fantastic opportunity for us all is rolling out of sight. What was it? The chance to make a meaningful response to the climate emergency and to upgrade the state of our democracy at the same time.

We’re all starting to become more familiar with the climate emergency. Every day brings us further evidence of it: wildfires from Australia to California, melting ice caps, and closer to home, the extreme weather which resulted in flooding, landslides and loss of life on the railway outside Stonehaven.

We’re also starting to appreciate that some of the causes of this emergency are so deep rooted in our economic system and way of life that it’s going to take something major to put us on the road to recovery: a bit less car use and a bit more recycling aren’t going to be enough.

We’re also quite familiar with the challenges of our political system. Most of our elected representatives are hard-working, dedicated individuals who will do all they can if a constituent has a problem. But if you’ve been in touch with your councillor, MSP or MP on a more general issue or an upcoming vote, our experience is that you tend to get a response firstly that they’re overstretched and will get back to you, and then when they do, it’s along the lines of explaining why what you’re asking for can’t be done, not when and how it can.

READ MORE: Extinction Rebellion quit Scottish Government’s Citizens' Assembly on climate

And this especially happens on issues related to climate. Independent researcher Rebecca Willis has documented how MPs fear being seen as zealots and so tone down what they know about the likely impact of climate change, hence becoming part of the almost unstoppable force of business as usual. Everyone is tip-toeing around the core dilemma. On the one hand, the evidence from physics is that we need action now if we are to avoid unleashing catastrophic ecological unravelling, the early symptoms of which we are already seeing. On the other, the kinds of disruption this implies for our daily lives are things that politicians can’t contemplate talking about.

Some fear their chances of re-election would go straight out of the window. Others are so beholden to the very industries – particularly fossil fuels – that are creating this emergency that they can’t stop the roundabout and seek to get off.

Into this mess, came a golden opportunity with the Climate Act of 2019. It provided for Scotland to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on the climate emergency. This would bring together about 100 people chosen randomly to be representative of Scotland as a whole – by age, gender, income, level of education, geography, disability, and prior attitude to climate change.

They were to be given the chance to explore the issues in depth and to come to their own conclusions about what needed to be done.

Brett Hennig (of the Sortition Foundation, which carried out member selection for this Assembly) said: “It’s the fact that it’s random that means you break the link with vested interests ... If you choose people who aren’t the usual suspects, who aren’t typically politically engaged, what we find is people are aware of their own lack of information and take their role very seriously. They’re really willing and open to change their minds and change their opinions.”

It’s a brilliant idea – breaking the connection between decision-makers and vested interests, and putting trust in people to act like a jury and look unflinchingly at the evidence of the climate emergency and decide what we must do to respond to this existential crisis.

It’s a process that has worked amazingly in other places. In Ireland it was used to break the stranglehold of the church over government, in terms of thinking about same-sex marriage and abortion, liberating ordinary people to scrutinise the evidence, make up their own minds, and make recommendations then endorsed by referendum. The citizens assembly process is widely recognised as having broken a log-jam and played a huge role in contributing to making the vibrant democracy that Ireland has today.

The planning for Scotland’s Climate Assembly started well. A stewarding group is charged with shaping it. It’s drawn from all political parties, from business, academia and civil society.

The XR reps proposed holding a workshop to decide the question the assembly would consider, and this arrived at a good one: “How should Scotland change to tackle the climate emergency in a fair and effective way?”

Sadly, however, as vested interests steadily took over, the chances of letting citizens really discuss the critical issues have become vanishingly small.

THE civil servants organising the stewarding group and the Assembly itself have a strong incentive not to rock the boat. Meanwhile, their outsourcing model is to contract a company to facilitate the Assembly whose incentives are all about responding to the piper who is calling the tune – not to respond genuinely and comprehensively to the climate emergency.

READ MORE: Mark Ruskell: If Scotland has a green future ahead it must address inequality

The experts who have been allowed to decide what materials Assembly members are provided with as the basis of their deliberations have been largely chosen by the civil servants. Rather than enabling a full spectrum of opinions to be heard, so people can come to their own conclusions, and make their own assessment of the value of current policy and targets, business as usual has been allowed to creep in and then take over. Deliberations won’t be allowed to start until people have fully understood the difference between adaptation and mitigation responses, and the different government policy frameworks at a national and international level.

Those of us who have been talking about climate in different communities for years know very well this background understanding is not only not necessary – there’s a huge risk of disengagement from the very people we need to hear from.

People need to understand enough of the science, especially in terms of real-world impacts, but then need to judge for themselves the effectiveness or otherwise of our response so far: have the powerful’s many fine words led to any changes on the ground? If not, what needs to happen to compel those with power to make the changes we all need?

We should all be angry about this. We could have made a massive step forward towards strengthening our climate response and our democracy. Instead the chances of doing so are diminishing out of sight. Our only hope is that Assembly members themselves decide to take its power into their own hands, demand to see the evidence they need to see, and do the job that so badly needs doing.