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Engaging the Public on Climate Action

By Chris Adams, CEO of Balancing Act, a creator of simulation-based online engagement tools.

With the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (which is really more about climate than inflation) this is an important moment for local governments to take advantage of the opportunities of the day to preserve clean air and water for generations to come. In order to do this, they will be best served by getting citizen input in a variety of ways.

The last few years have illustrated, on issues ranging from mask policies to housing, the power of a small number of energized but vocal participants to sway policy. The new challenge is to encourage participation so that anyone with a few minutes to learn and provide input can become part of the decision-making process. Broad, informed participation creates an environment that will support strong actions.

My education about this critical topic began in 2014, when the City of Denver hired me to plan and facilitate community input sessions on the city’s proposed climate action plan update. Denver had produced a plan in 2007 and wanted to update it based on new data as well as to gauge public sentiment on setting more ambitious goals. Many of the lessons learned back then still apply and reflecting on my experiences eight years ago up through today, I’ve developed four essential recommendations which will help local governments that want to get public engagement while firmly establishing climate action as a priority.

Four Paths To Change

Set a goal: Extremely broad goals without specifics (like eliminate poverty) may be estimable, but they’re generally not conducive to making positive change. If a state or local government doesn’t have one already, this is the time to take that step. An ambitious but achievable goal provides a rallying point that anyone can understand.

Governments don’t need to start from scratch. They can learn from the work done by others. The Paris Climate Agreement, for example, has committed to limiting global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius. Organizations such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – are helping to adapt that goal for local governments.

Describe Mitigation Actions: Once you have a goal, share the actions that can help to achieve it, including how much each strategy can contribute to success. I recently had a conversation with a city climate action planner who told me that one of her frustrations was that many residents interested in climate action were almost solely focused on citywide composting and community gardening. By assigning numbers to each action, residents can see what contributes most to achieving the goal, and though community gardening is a great idea it may not be the most effective at stemming climate change.

Back in 2014 when I was first introduced to local government climate plans, I learned that actions that move the needle most are transportation, buildings and efficiency of the electric grid.

Get the number of participants up: In the community input sessions I facilitated for Denver, we had two meetings held in neighborhood recreation centers. The city made good efforts to publicize the sessions and genuinely wanted the public to come. However, for both meetings there was a combined total of 18 participants.

For an issue like climate change, public meetings will likely never generate the numbers needed to firmly plant goals into the public’s consciousness. One positive thing we learned during COVID is that it is possible to involve thousands of people in quality online engagement with the right tools and strategies.

Give residents the information they need: Input is generally the most useful when the people providing it have information about the benefits of the choices they prefer. Community gardeners love gardening, and they think it is good for the environment (and they are right!). But when they find out that a composting program reduces greenhouse gas emissions by a paltry 100 tons over ten years and infrastructure to provide charging for electric vehicles has an impact of 20,000 tons, they get it.

But Who’ll Pay the Bill?

While these suggestions will help inspire useful citizen participation in decision making, things get trickier when it comes to the question of paying for the solutions for which people may advocate.

I participated in a webinar earlier this year with a dozen cities that are in various stages of creating or updating a climate plan. When it came to how to address the issue of the cost of mitigation strategies, the group was split right down the middle. Some adamantly said that cost should be up front when strategies are discussed; cost should be as prominent as the projected reduction in pollutants. They argued that not including it doomed it to never being implemented.

Equally as strong were climate action planners who said cost should not be included because if it were, the plan would never get off the ground.

My view: Since cost is critical to implementing many of the strategies it should be included upfront. However, especially in certain venues, cost could be added as a second phase once the community understands the value of the potential mitigation steps.

We are at an important time in history for climate action and the Inflation Reduction Act can help to accelerate and multiply the good work done by individuals and communities. Many local governments have been on board with this for decades and have helped get us to this point. Now is the time to press on, with the broadest and deepest public support possible.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the authors and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.


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