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The interview: Susan Nakyung Lee

Climate justice

‘I’ve not been seeing the sun much this summer,’ says Susan Nakyung Lee. Speaking to me via online video chat from Seoul, the remarkably chirpy Nakyung Lee is about to start her work day, despite it being 8.00pm there. As part of the core team behind Global Assembly – an ambitious project that hopes to give ordinary people a voice at this year’s UN climate conference – the 20-year-old has taken a semester off her political science and sociology studies in the US, and has been working nights for months to synchronize with her colleagues on Central European and Central African time zones.

Global Assembly has brought together 100 people from all over the world as a ‘snapshot’ of the global population based on age, gender, region educational level and attitude towards climate change. Since the beginning of October, this ‘core assembly’ has been discussing climate change and the ecological crisis through online meetings. They will participate in the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which begins in Glasgow on 31 October – ‘clap back’ to the conference and present their reflections and collectively agreed principles. The assembly will continue to meet beyond the end of COP26 on 12 November, until December.

Assembly participants were chosen to take part using a sortition process, like a lottery which picks candidates at random from a larger pool. First 100 points on the globe were randomly selected using an algorithm weighted for population density (there are a lot of pins in India and China). From these locations participants were recruited via local community organizations like public libraries or sports clubs.

How did you get involved with Global Assemblies?

After I finished high school in the US, I was a little lost about what I wanted to do going forward. I decided to go to Madrid in Spain. A couple of weeks before I went, I hit-up my boss from an internship I had done with a political startup in Seoul. I asked if they knew anyone in Madrid who could take care of me, teach me the ropes of Spanish and maybe who I could make coffee or intern for. Through this connection I met Yago Bermejo Abati [who is also on the Global Assembly core team]. One of the ideas he told me about was a global citizens’ assembly. He sent me a pithy blurb and the first thing that I thought after reading that was: ‘Someone needs to tell this guy, because this thing definitely exists already.’ In no way did it make sense to me that a body of citizens that formed a snapshot of the globe didn’t exist. I remember googling it multiple times to make sure. That was a pivotal moment for me in realizing that something that is so common sense was also groundbreaking. I ended up going to Madrid and being sucked up in this work.

Gen Z is dissatisfied with electoral democracy and democracy that’s outdated and recycled

What are your hopes for the influence the Global Assembly can have on the COP process?

The main thing for me is that people realize that democracy goes beyond the bounds of pulling up to the ballot box every four years. One of the strong points of citizens’ assemblies is that they can unlink democracy from the labels and tethers that we’ve placed on to it. I grew up in Seoul, so to my parents, electoral democracy is the most watershed, powerful thing that they could hope for. They took part in student protests against martial law and I genuinely think that citizens’ assemblies and sortitions could be a similar touchpoint for people in my generation, for many people who are feeling democratic fatigue or feel unable to effect change though the electoral system. We have enough scientists and politicians who are chugging away at these problems, but what we don’t have enough of at the table right now is us – everyday people’s voices.

What does democracy look like to you?

No one person can ever definitively say what democracy is, but growing up I was told about elections and that when you turn 18 you become a ‘political man’ and you can influence politics. That overwhelmingly consumed my understanding of democracy. Now, to me, democracy can be as simple as five people, connecting from five different countries on a Zoom room, co-working on a Miro board [like an online whiteboard] about what they think could be a solution to climate change. It feels much more like democracy than what I was told was democracy my entire life or anything else that I’ve been reading in textbooks. I love it.

Can you tell me more about the long-term vision for the Global Assembly?

The project grew out of the recognition that there’s one glaring missing piece in global governance at the moment, and that’s a platform that is authentically able to centre and amplify citizens’ voices. So, we envisioned this project to, in the long term, be a permanent infrastructure that acts as a sort of node, bringing civic intelligence to these various other nodes that already exist in global governance – like COP.

How did you get inspired to try and do something about climate change? Do you remember a turning point?

I think the moments of realization of ‘oh, there’s a problem’ and ‘here’s what I’m going to do about it’ are actually quite disconnected for me, as I imagine they are for a lot of young people these days. We know all of the facts. You’re told growing up that there might be a problem, but it doesn’t become immediately relevant until you have an affective experience about it.

Citizens’ assemblies could be a touchpoint for people in my generation, for many people who are feeling democratic fatigue or feel unable to effect change though the electoral system

One big watershed moment was a simple conversation I had with my brother. He was telling me about this article he had read about a middle-school art project somewhere in South Korea where the children were asked to draw a picture of the sky. All of the paintings were of yellow skies. My brother said: ‘The days of sky blue are over.’

It wasn’t until a while after that conversation that I could really hone what my response was going to be. We’re talking 2016, there was a lot happening in the world and I was in the US. I was experiencing all of my peers’ fatigue with their own electoral system, which for my entire life as a Korean person was the pinnacle of democratic influence in the world. It was my contact with the idea of citizens’ assemblies and sortition that blew the windows open for me. It impressed on me that my friends weren’t necessarily cynical about democracy as a whole. Gen Z is dissatisfied with electoral democracy and democracy that’s outdated and recycled, but if you cut those bounds open and try to expand what democracy actually is, then Gen Z is all for that. And it presents a whole other set of pathways that we can use to approach some of the problems that are going to be part of our own futures.

Find out more about the Global Assembly at globalassembly.org – including downloading an open source toolkit so you can run a community assembly where you are, and feed into the Global Assembly process.

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