The politics of climate change and the Danish Climate Citizens' Assembly

29 August 2022
How can citizens effectively drive change? We hear from Visiting Doctoral Fellow Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen from the University of Copenhagen on her research into democratic theory and public engagement in Denmark.

By Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen and Emma Holland

Emma Holland: Can you please tell us more about your research interests for your PhD?

Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen: In the beginning of my master’s degree, I enrolled in a course on the Anthropocene. There were only a few students enrolled in the class and the subject felt new and foreign in the field of political theory. The course syllabus consisted of authors such as Jane Bennett, Donna J Haraway and Anna Tsing. It was challenging to comprehend these ideas and new approaches, and I remember leaving each class inspired but also deeply puzzled. This introduction to a more multidisciplinary and embodied approach to political theory inspired me to think of political theory in ways that are more creative. This is where my research interest for my PhD really started.

Combining this research interest with the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly was to some extent a matter of being at the right place in the right moment. When I was finishing my master’s degree in 2019, we had a national election in Denmark that was centred on climate policies. The newly elected government, decided, as part of the strategy on involving citizens’ in the green transition of Danish society, to create a Climate Citizens’ Assembly that would advise the Danish government on climate policies. When I was asked if I was interested in applying for a PhD in a research group on the topic, I had no doubts about it. The empirical point of departure in the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly allowed me to combine contemporary democratic theory with the politics of climate change in ways that still interest and puzzle me.

In my research, I have followed and interviewed the citizens participating in the assembly. My research interest in focusing on the citizens’ experience, emotions and affects grew out of observing their perplexing experience in navigating what was expected of them from government.

What have you learned from your time working with the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly about how citizens can drive change?

First, I think it is important that we bury the assumption that the citizenry is disengaged. The citizens participating in the assembly showed that, when given the chance and resources, citizens are more than capable to formulate recommendations on complex issues such as climate change policies. Interestingly, many of the recommendations suggested by the assembly were even more forward-thinking than current policies.

The Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly presented their recommendations for government and parliament in April, so whether they will actually drive concrete policy change is still too early to trace. Judging by the attention from media and politicians, nothing indicates that the recommendations are inspiring new political action. However, I want to suggest that it may not be so important.

In the introduction to the recommendations from the assembly the citizens write that if we take the climate crisis seriously the future is painted with dark strokes, but the future cannot just be about crisis; it also needs to contain hope. This is another thing I have learned from my research. We need to be careful not to judge these initiatives only by the merit of the value prescribed by politicians. On local levels, many municipalities are currently organising citizens’ assemblies, and civil society in Denmark is now demanding a new assembly with a stronger mandate.

What attracted to you spend time at the Sydney Environment Institute as a visiting PhD student?

I was particularly attracted by the multidisciplinary approach to environmental research, which I find so immensely important. Coming from a political science department there is a tendency to ask what political scientist can do, instead of asking how we can collaborate with others to create more creative or inspiring research. Furthermore, the SEI’s emphasis of collaborations not just across disciplines and universities, but also beyond the walls of the university was something that attracted me.

Very early in my PhD project, someone mentioned to me that I might be interested in visiting SEI as part of my research. At the time, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Sydney were partnership universities. This meant that we had some collaborative research meetings, where I had the chance to meet some of the members of the SEI in a Zoom meeting. I remember thinking that everyone I met from the SEI was involved in interesting, creative and inspiring research. This impression has only been reinforced since my arrival.

Finally, what have you enjoyed most about your time in Sydney so far?

I have only been in Sydney for three weeks, so I am still getting to know the city. One of the things I really enjoy is the food scene in Sydney, which is so different then Copenhagen. The food scene in Sydney seems so much more diverse, and the quality is so high. Last weekend, my partner and I went to the Blue Mountains, which was absolutely breathtaking. I was impressed that such landscape exists only two hours by train from Sydney.

Before leaving Copenhagen, I read an article that suggested people from Sydney are difficult to get to know or can appear introverted. So far, this warning seems to be groundless. We have met so many welcoming people, which have made it so easy to visit and enjoy Sydney.

Ingrid Helene Brandt Jensen is a PhD fellow in Political Theory at the Department of Political Science at University of Copenhagen working on democratic theory, new materialism and affect theory within the research initiative Democratic Innovations in a Green Transition led by Professor Lars Tønder.

The PhD project explores the impact of the Danish Climate Citizens’ Assembly on the green transition, and how the encounter with the climate citizens’ assemblies in a European context encourages us to rethink the idea of democracy. The Danish Climate Citizens Assembly consist of 99 randomly elected citizens. The assembly was organised in two phases. Each phase lasted approximately six months, consisting of both evening and weekend meetings. The citizens had large autonomy in choosing which climate policies they wanted to create recommendations on, and the organisers made sure that citizens were presented with relevant experts and stakeholders on the different subjects.

Header image: Nyhavn, København, Denmark by Max Adulyanukosol via Unsplash.