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The climate crisis is here

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Perhaps it is time to hold citizens assemblies to arrive at a consensus on how to tackle the climate crisis in Malaysia, writes Sonia Randhawa.

On the interwebs, maps have been circulating showing the flooding that scientists predict may happen by 2050.

Science doesn’t deal with certainties, but with probabilities. They’ve given the flooding a 50-50 chance of happening – a one in two chance that we will lose Port Klang, Teluk Intan, Malacca….

Yet, as I keep saying, the scientists are being conservative. Change is happening far quicker than they anticipated. Climate crisis isn’t about our grandchildren. It is not about our children. It is here, and it’s having an impact on lives across the globe right now.

I write this from Australia, where rainforests over a thousand years old are burning. In the 1970s environmentalists fought to prevent the logging of these forests. They were considered vital ecosystems, national treasures. What was saved from the logging companies has been lost to bushfires.

Those who aren’t actively burying their heads in the sand, quickening beneath them, know the scale of the problem.

The solutions, however, are also available, but we need to act with urgency – and democracy. Planting trees, regenerative seaweed, restoring mangroves: natural solutions provide the best solution for drawing down carbon if coupled with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

In Malaysia, this is comparatively easy, we can start by requiring all shopping malls to install solar panels on their roofs, and that would almost instantly cut coal-powered electricity by a tenth.

The question really is how do we ensure that the transition is just and involves everyone. A too rapid, undemocratic transition, especially given our racial tinderbox, could result in governance problems and widespread unrest, which may have far-reaching, unhappy repercussions.

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There is a way out of this conundrum, which could also help us address the other issues that are currently proving so divisive in Malaysia. Let’s ask Malaysians what they want in facilitated, in-depth discussions such as through a citizens’ assembly.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used to help legislatures address thorny, divisive issues in a way that increases public participation and produces outcomes that have strong legitimacy among the citizenship. They can help politicians break out of a political deadlock. They are a form of deliberative democracy and are undergoing a renaissance across the world.

The most comprehensive of these assemblies are those which have taken place in Ireland, on abortion, aged care and the climate crisis. The Irish assemblies were led by a former judge, respected by all political parties, and consisted of 99 other randomly selected people.

These people were briefed on how to be ‘truth detectives’ and given reading material. They listened to expert testimonials and had thousands of public submissions to go through. Then, in small, facilitated groups, they sorted through the information and discussed the implications for policy.

Each group came up with recommendations, which were then voted for in a plenary session. In the case of abortion, the option with the most votes was presented to legislators, who put it to a referendum, necessary as it entailed a change to the Constitution. The general populace – to the surprise of the politicians – supported radical reform.

The assemblies, therefore, overcame decades of political deadlock. The process was inclusive and even those who disagreed with the outcome supported the process and thus accepted the result.

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This acceptance is the ultimate test of legitimacy – do you believe enough in the process to accept a decision that is antithetical to your beliefs and identity? On abortion in a largely Catholic nation, that is the level of change that took place, with widespread acceptance by society at large.

Deliberative democratic processes, with citizens’ assemblies as the gold standard, are being tried as both occasional and standing bodies in countries as diverse as Brazil, Canada, Belgium and Myanmar.

Perhaps we need to try them in Malaysia, not just to tackle the climate crisis, but to build a Malaysian citizenry that sees beyond political division to the common goals we all share.

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Sonia recently completed a PhD on Malaysian media history and works on deepening democratic participation, working with the UK-based Sortition Foundation and the Australia-based Coalition of Everyone. She is a director of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia and has been active in Malaysian civil society for over two decades
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