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Community Engagement Steps Up Participation in Climate Action

With the unpredictable acceleration of climate chaos, increased community engagement kick-starts urgently needed steps to climate action.

Heatwaves. Hurricanes. Droughts. Floods. Fires. Temperatures pushed to record heights globally. January 2019 was Australia’s hottest month ever, and one of three hottest summer months on record, reaching almost 50 degrees Celsius in some locations. Through higher mean temperatures and extreme shifts in rainfall patterns, anthropogenic or human-caused climate change, without doubt, is a primary driver in the upward trend in catastrophic climate events. While fires currently ablaze eastern states of Australia (one of the developed countries most exposed to climate change), climate chaos is accountable for the deadliest and most destructive fires in Californian history as well as fuelling Europe’s fires. And it is accelerating at an unprecedented pace. Current warnings by the United Nations (UN) estimate climate crisis disasters at a rate of one per week. In addition, a UN report, released in September 2019, lists climate change among major drivers pushing upwards of a million species to extinction in coming years. Couple catastrophic changes in biodiversity and climate catastrophe and societal collapse is inevitable.

Radical warnings

But doubts about the veracity of carbon emissions are not new. The goal of reducing carbon emissions has been manifest for over thirty years. Despite efforts of the UN’s series of international agreements, there seems little progress in reaching it. In fact, emissions rose 2.7% in 2018. Yet, climate scientist James Hansen warned in 2006, there was only a ten-year window to stem “dangerous” climate change and “to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global green-house emissions.” Fast forward to October 2018. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report Global Warming of 1.5 °C, reducing the current two-degree target. Its unequivocal findings warn of almost 400 million affected by water scarcity; almost 300 per cent population increase in tropical and sub-tropical margins; and, unprecedented extinction with gravely disrupted ecosystems. This against a backdrop of a rapidly rising population (with predictions of 10 billion by 2050) exponentially increasing demands on food, water and energy.

Far from exaggerating its threat, in an article in Scientific American in September 2019, climate scientists warn the crisis is accelerating at an unpredicted pace and severity. 11000 scientists from 153 nations signed a scientific paper published in the journal BioScience to coincide with the first world climate conference held in Geneva, declaring a climate emergency that warns of “untold suffering due to climate crisis.” The domino effect of climate chain reactions will create irreversible tipping points, where large-scale disruption to ecosystems, societies and economies would make large swathes of earth uninhabitable. As writer and critic James Bradley lucidly writes: “If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilisation of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

What’s the hold up? The “false balance debate”

Debating the possible impacts of climate chaos – the “what if” – fails to acknowledge how much is already “baked” in. As Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, “We are living in the climate of the past, but we’ve already determined the climate’s future.”[1] Presenting climate chaos as a future, theoretical possibility also feeds into a “false balance debate”. Coined by Dr Martin Rice, CEO of Australian Climate Council, to put it loosely, this journalistic device frames climate change as a debate between ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ that inures the very catastrophe of climate crisis. That is, that the very notion of the legitimacy of climate change is up for debate creates a problem for how any discussion of action or engagement with climate change can be communicated to the community. (Indeed, as I write this, in Australia – which as David Attenborough vehemently attests “is already facing some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change” – the Deputy Prime Minister calls climate change believers “raving inner-city lunatics“, effectively ignoring warnings, where other political leaders claim climate change is an irrefutable fact of the catastrophic fires.) The “false balance” debate not only obfuscates the link between climate change and “catastrophic” danger but sidelines the veritable effects to health, transport, water, energy and emergency services facing communities.

This extends to uneven government action globally. While the New Zealand government’s recent landmark climate legislation – passing zero-carbon emissions by 2050 – is at the avante-garde of Federal governments who commit to transitioning to zero-carbon emission, others, including some of the biggest carbon emitters, have turned their back on international climate agreements and undermined global action.

Pitfalls of public participation in climate change

“The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction.” Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker

Indeed, engaging in climate action in countries that have the highest carbon footprint has been identified by global public opinion research consultancy GlobeScan as one of three major pitfalls of public engagement on climate change. That is, the public is least engaged in countries where climate action needed most. (Or as The Economist recently put it, “the unpalatable notion that ¾ emissions come from just 12 economies.”) Citing Pew Research Center, GlobeScan demonstrates that “people in countries with high per-capita levels of carbon emissions are less intensely concerned about climate change.”

The other major pitfalls are the “view of urgency” and a “strong attitude-behaviour gap”. The former sees climate chaos as a distant problem and less serious issue compared to more tangible issues. The latter refers to the fact that, while believing in climate chaos, people shy away from vocalising their commitment, perpetuating what is called a climate change “spiral of silence”.

To be sure, when the threat of climate chaos is perceived as being at arms-length, psychologically, we fail to take action. Its complexity is so abstract that thinking about it is immensely difficult, undermining the urgency of doing something about it. But, following Elizabeth Kolbert, Bradley points up that one of the challenges of climate crisis is the overlapping of geological and human time, “the conflict between the delayed impact of past emissions, the narrowness of the window for action, and the much slower processes of social and economic change…once we pass a certain threshold, the climate may change rapidly and uncontrollably no matter what we do.”

The inadmission of urgency, then, while evident at a policy level occurs, in part, through our awareness that we are part of the problem. After all, it is anthropogenic, or human activity that has caused climate change. Urgency, then, becomes a problem of communication. (In this way, The Guardian, has gone to lengths in its recent public announcement of changes to their style guide, where reports climate chaos will now overtly recognise the severity and clearly communicate urgency.)

Community not carbon

Recent scientific research – if not scientists themselves – seems to support protestors across the globe in their demands to radically animate governments to ecological emergency. This 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, continues in the international social movement, Extinction Rebellion, emerging in the UK in 2018 with local chapters around the world.

But, research is also emerging into the impact of community-led solutions. The contribution of community-based sustainability initiatives (CBSIs) to a transition towards a low-carbon society includes community gardens, solidarity purchasing groups, community-supported agriculture, alternative food networks, recycling, sustainable mobility, and renewable energy, to name the most prominent. These grassroots innovations and transition initiatives serve to address large-scale policy changes as well as bottom-up social practices and behaviour.

To be sure, these initiatives might be attributed to community dissatisfaction with outcomes of international climate agreements. Especially when, as mentioned above, the largest emitters are amongst those not adhering to agreements. Yet, research around European-based community initiatives finds that locally-led initiatives can make a significant contribution to reduction and encourage wider change. Not only does this show that community-based transition towards sustainability is possible. But it increases community resilience and social cohesion.

Increasing participation

Augmenting citizen-led transitions is community engagement’s increasing participation in climate action. Indeed, 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, where building resilient infrastructure and encouraging sustainable consumption receives much attention, for instance, in C40 City initiatives, the pivotal intersection of climate action and community engagement has fared less exposure. There is a core rationale for increasing the role of community engagement in climate action. Sure, it has its challenges. Particularly around how values-based approach 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 can communities and governments do at a local level?

Looking at the pitfalls of public participation mentioned above – to rephrase, engage the un-engaged, communicate urgency and the close the “attitude-behaviour gap” – it can be argued that through community engagement activities, local governments effectively engage the public around climate action, overriding the seemingly insurmountable barriers around silence and urgency. It also acts as an antidote to ideas of low-level participation in countries of the biggest polluters and government disregard for international climate agreements.

In the USA, the US Port of San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Programe 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) 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.)

Alternately, 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.

In addition, 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 (CCAP), 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.

Across the globe, in NSW, Australia, 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 (GHG) 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.

Cause and effect

While it cuts through the swathe of inaction at a federal level, community engagement at a local level can also articulate the cause and effect relationship between climate change and issues such as air, water and other natural resources. Given that air and water quality are listed as of most concern to communities, community engagement can communicate irreversible risks that climate chaos poses in a tangible way. This can impact the at ‘arms-length’ thinking that obfuscates the urgency of climate chaos competing with seemingly more immediate issues.

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

Alternately, the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Borough of Kingston upon Thames (also discussed 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.

Citizen’s Assemblies, deliberation and climate action

In the UK, Citizen Assemblies are gathering pace as a solution to the climate crisis – which places 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 Citizens’ Assembly on combatting climate change to achieve the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions.

Citizen’s 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’s 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, differing points of view and critical thinking skills to arrive at a considered and agreed-upon recommendation. By exposing participants to information which is wide-reaching and deeply informed, deliberation enables citizens to better engage with policy issues at hand. (Recently demonstrated in recent citizens’ assemblies by the Irish parliament to address abortion laws.)

Although questions remain around any legislative power citizen’s assemblies might hold, what these assemblies achieve in climate action is a responsiveness to citizens hopes and values that is grounded 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’s 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.[2]  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 citizens’ assembly to tackle air quality will be held over four days in November and December this year. Here, 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. It 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

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.

As an example, Inner West Council New South Wales, Australia, asked for community submissions to inform their Climate Change Plan, a ten-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.

The City of Longmont passed their 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 thirty 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

It is irrefutable that 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. That is, 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”.

The 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] CO2 released into the atmosphere in the past decade is equal to that released in the first 200 years, half of which have taken place since 1991 with the last four years being the hottest on record.

[2] Supported by the UK Government’s Innovation in Democracy Program; activities were delivered by the Sortition Foundation and the Involve Foundation.