How community engagement can bring together citizens and policymakers to urgently address climate change

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Sally Hussey shows with case studies how local government engagement of the public around ecological action can override the seemingly insurmountable barriers of silence and urgency when it comes to climate change.

Recent scientific research seems to support protestors across the globe in their demands to radically animate governments to ecological emergency. It is writ large by the global strike on Friday 20 September this year — the largest demonstration for climate action in history — mobilised by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in August 2018 and continuing in the international social movement Extinction Rebellion, emerging in the UK in 2018 and now with local chapters around the world.

Research is also emerging into the impact of community-led solutions to the climate emergency. Community-based sustainability initiatives for transitioning into low-carbon societies include community gardens, solidarity purchasing groups, community-supported agriculture, alternative food networks, recycling, sustainable mobility, and renewable energy. Research around European-based community initiatives finds confirms these grassroots innovations and transition initiatives serve to address large-scale policy changes as well as bottom-up social practices and behaviour.

Increasing participation

Community engagement at a local level is critically important to climate action. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development embeds public participation in its sustainable development goals. But while the building of resilient infrastructure and the encouragement of sustainable consumption has received much attention — such as the  C40 City initiatives — the pivotal intersection of climate action and community engagement has had less exposure.

Sure, increasing the role of community engagement in climate action has its challenges, particularly around how values-based approaches can undermine its purpose, but little is known of what stems from effective frameworks for discussion and community-driven actions towards transitioning to a non-carbon future.

What communities and governments can do at local levels

It can be argued that through community engagement activities, local governments’ effective engagement of the public around climate action can override the seemingly insurmountable barriers around silence and urgency.

Here are a few examples from around the world.

Port of San Francisco, US

In the US, the Port of San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Program envisions collaborative priorities for better preparedness and responsiveness to climate-crisis-related risks and challenges around seismic events, flooding, rising sea levels, and shoreline erosion. The adaptive planning framework enables community members to participate in the management and resilience-building for the 7.5 miles of bayside shoreline, which houses the region’s popular public spaces, a national historic district, businesses, and maritime, industrial, and residential communities. While the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Port have collaborated to examine flood risk along the shoreline areas of Bayview/Islais Creek, Mission Bay/Mission Creek, and Embarcadero, the scope, goals, and milestones are, in part, shaped by the community.  (The Waterfront Assets Mapping Exercise invites participants to identify up to three assets on the waterfront on a map and underline their prioritisation; the Historic Pier Rehabilitation Program Survey asks for community input on shaping new public spaces, while the Embarcadero Seawall Program Goals are open for community comment and feedback.)

County of San Mateo, US

In the County of San Mateo, the Climate Ready SMC collaborative works with community to unpack challenges and risks, develop policies and programs, activate and support community-driven pathways, facilitate community conversations and leadership, and promote dialogue, coordination, and leadership on collaborative action and adaptation. The county invites community ideation for climate change preparedness and provides a mapping exercise to locate vulnerable areas for extreme weather events and related hazards. Participants can also share stories, ideas for events, and apply to partner with the collaborative on engagement activities.

City of Mississuaga, Canada

Canada’s sixth-largest city, Mississuaga, sought community input in The Climate Change Project. Precipitated by the city’s youth-led declaration of climate change emergency in June this year, the project engaged community views around greenhouse reduction strategy bylaws and policies, climate-change-resilient infrastructure, and new building technologies. The city is also reviewing pilot projects such as home energy audits and rain garden installations for managing stormwater. Introducing Canada’s first comprehensive Climate Change Action Plan, following initial research, the city looked at land use, infrastructure vulnerability, clean tech, energy, GHG emissions, and community risk assessments. Here, community outreach delivered over 60 events and engaged over 10,000 community members.

Central Coast Council, NSW, Australia

In NSW, Central Coast Council sought community input into its Climate Change Policy, endorsed earlier this year. Following a preliminary survey in 2018, the council held a public exhibition and community workshops, with outcomes integrated within wider policy. The draft policy addressed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, Paris Agreement, community initiatives, renewable energy, and the impact of climate change on emergency management around extreme weather events including bushfires, rising sea levels, and impacts on biodiversity.

Newhaven, Victoria, Australia

A local government engagement showing the effect of climate crisis and water in Newhaven in Victoria is using community-centred decision making to explore emission reduction and asset adaptation. Westernport Water’s Climate Change Strategy initial consultations on the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Strategy explored emissions reduction and asset adaptation. Following consultations, the council addressed renewable energy options at the local, regional, and state levels, looking at efficiency, targets, and the goal of state net zero emissions by 2050, resulting in a Draft Strategy and Climate Change Pledge.

Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Borough of Kingston upon Thames, UK

The Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Borough of Kingston upon Thames (discussed further, below) have shown the benefits of action (and risks of inaction) in looking at how to tackle congestion and improve air quality. This shows that climate-action messaging can talk more about the concrete risks of inaction — and the benefits of action — rather than continue to discuss climate chaos in the abstract with future consequences.

Case study: citizen assemblies, deliberation, and climate action

In the UK, citizen assemblies are gathering pace as a solution to the climate crisis — placing democratic ideas that buttress community engagement at the centre of climate-crisis solution. The government announced plans for six select committees of the House of Commons to hold citizen assemblies on combating climate change to achieve the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions.

Citizen assemblies enable inclusive and deliberative decision-making that empowers citizens with decision-making around climate, providing potential for meaningful change. (Indeed, for international social movement Extinction Rebellion, the potential for governments to be led by decisions of citizen assemblies sits equally alongside rapid decarbonisation and governments’ communicating urgency around climate crisis — particularly if they become legally binding.)

Bringing together random samples of citizens in moderated groups — where numbers vary from a dozen to one hundred — citizen assemblies, or mini-publics, provide people with access to balanced information, competing experts and differing points of view, and critical-thinking skills to arrive at a considered and agreed-upon recommendation. By exposing participants to information that is wide-reaching and deeply informed, deliberation enables citizens to better engage with policy issues at hand. (Recently demonstrated in recent citizen assemblies by the Irish parliament to address abortion laws.)

Although questions remain around any legislative power citizens’ assemblies might hold, what these assemblies achieve in climate action is responsiveness to citizens’ hopes and values and grounding in tangible concerns. They also help fill the gap between distrusted political elites and cut through the political deadlock of the “false balance debate”. This short-circuits polarisation and spiralling into paralysing battles over climate chaos legitimacy — the “what if” or “when”. As Professor Graham Smith says, “citizen assemblies could well help governments kick-start the tough but urgently needed steps to safeguard a healthy and stable world … If successful, it may well give rise to the type of empowered citizens’ assemblies that bring the wisdom of citizens fully to bear on the climate and ecological emergency.”

Climate action assemblies are similarly gathering pace at a local level. Greater Cambridge citizen assembly, Consult Cambs, brought together a team of independent experts supporting ways to address air quality, congestion, and public transport over a series of presentations and panels streamed live on the organisation’s social media channels and dedicated online engagement space.1 Currently under review, the assembly’s community-engaged findings will report on how to tackle congestion, improve air quality and provide better public transport in Greater Cambridge. In a similar vein, The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames/Kingston Council citizen assembly to tackle air quality will be held over four days in November and December this year. Councillor Hilary Gander provides context for the consultation and touches on suggestions for countering poor air quality, personal impact and contribution, and better support for bikes. She also provides a report on the Kingston Air Quality Forum of July 2019, which identified community priorities and mapped air quality suggestions.

Digital engagement in climate action – an Australian example

Community engagement platforms can show what climate action means to communities and help local governments strategise and direct policy interventions to ensure robust and citizen-centric urban planning, solid waste management, transportation and energy consumption.

For example, Inner West Council NSW asked for community submissions to inform its Climate Change Plan, a 10-year vision for the organisation’s operations, services, and responsibilities to the community. Here, digital engagement worked to illustrate the difference between “adaptation” and “mitigation” strategies, and outline risks to the community addressed by the plan. It also introduced thermal hotspot and social vulnerability mapping, which will be taken up to understand priorities for green infrastructure to tackle extreme heat events.

Canada’s City of Longmont passed its Climate Emergency Resolution on October 8, 2019, setting out intent for action in response to climate change. Online engagement on the resolution asks the community to stay informed on climate action and issues initiated by the city and invites suggestions on what further can be done. (In addition, community members can apply to join the Climate Task Force, a working group comprised of city staff, residents and experts to deliberate on how the city could address climate change, carbon reduction, and sustainability, with the intention of producing a report within four months of the resolution.) Through an online platform, participants are also invited to submit stories around their personal experiences of climate change and related efforts.

Indeed, including personal efforts to decrease emissions forms part of digital engagement in Halifax Regional Municipality, Canada. Halifax Regional Municipality — which has introduced a strategy for electric cars and an award-winning Solar City Program — envisions collaborative action on climate change for the next 30 years. And, while the initiative HalifACT 2050: Acting on Climate Together uses digital engagement to map hazards and provide climate action surveys, community members can also contribute ideas on their personal efforts to decrease emissions.

Positive shared experience

Irrefutably, the impending dislocations of climate chaos intersect with the already existing crisis around inequality. With 7.7 billion people on earth, a figure that has increased threefold since the 1950s, improving affordability for vulnerable populations becomes a priority as equity-seeking residents and communities will be the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Bill McKibben puts it “The poorest and most vulnerable will pay the highest price.” Where local organisations optimise online engagement in housing affordability, climate-action initiatives often target groups with capacity to adopt to new solutions: affluent communities. Making engagement around climate action inclusive is, then, imperative.

But the battle against climate chaos is at once complex and urgent. This is compounded by the fact that, while the goal to reduce GHG emissions might seem definable within a ceiling target of two degrees, emission pathways are not. As Jonathan Franzen put it in the New Yorker, “the climate apocalypse is messy”.

A recent editorial in the Economist’s ‘Climate Issue’ suggests that while we cannot adapt away the effects of climate change: “The further change goes, the less adaptation will be able to offset it … The damage that climate change will end up doing depends on the human response over the next few decades.”

Locally-led initiatives and community engagement, then, can identify the need for people to find a way to connect to climate action — connecting not only ideas but habitation and the way we live. Community engagement has the opportunity to enable communities and policy-makers to better understand urgent climate action on a macro level and how to relate to its impact on an individual community scale.


  1. Supported by the UK Government’s Innovation in Democracy Program; activities were delivered by the Sortition Foundationand the Involve Foundation.

This is an extract of a longer article that can be found at Bang the Table.

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