Taking Climate Action in Your Community!

by | September 7, 2023

  1. One of the most effective yet overlooked levers that each of us can pull to accelerate climate solutions is being active citizens at the local level.
  2. This is where your vote and advocacy have the most weight. 
  3. It’s the level of government where things can be done the quickest.

    Local policy and investment decisions have the potential to reduce a significant amount of emissions (e.g. roughly 35% of emissions in California).

    And perhaps most importantly, it’s where the majority of your relationships are – aka it’s where you have the most power to organize and make things happen.

    But even though 64% of people globally believe climate change is an emergency, the majority of local governments don’t have a climate action plan yet.

    Local plans, policies, and investments to mitigate and adapt to climate change are super important for the present and future well-being of each and every community on the planet.

    And the only people who can make these positive changes happen in your community are people like you who actually live there.

    We’ll get into guidance on how to be a more active citizen and help get your town or city on the right track, but first, let’s take a step back to revisit the basics of civic engagement and why it matters.

    The Importance of Civic Engagement and Civitas

    Civic engagement may sound boring. But it is ultimately about power. It’s the power to determine which policies and investments will be made in the places we live.

    And for those of us who live in free and self-governing societies (at least to some degree), it’s worth remembering that this power to influence and participate in decision-making is a right that wars have been fought over. It’s a right that people have dedicated their lives to winning for us (think: The Suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and so many more). This is a right that must be cherished, exercised, and protected.

    Benjamin Franklin understood this when he walked out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and Elizabeth Powel asked him, “Well Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarch?”

    Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

    Keeping it and, crucially, improving it so that it someday fulfills its stated ideals for everyone requires effort. It requires citizens to show up and participate in all stages of the civic process. There’s a reason the first three words in the US Constitution are “We the people”.

    Too many of us take our ability to influence and participate in decision-making for granted today. We do not use our power. And when we don’t use our power, we give it up to others (often corporate interests).

    “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

    Or as Eric Liu puts it:

    “Power is never static. It’s always either accumulating or decaying in the civic arena. So if you aren’t taking action, you’re being acted upon.”

    To solve big problems in a dysfunctional system, we need to reclaim and build our power. And, in large part, that looks like more people stepping up to be active citizens and community members in the places they live.

    It means understanding the reality that each of us is part of a much larger whole, that we have the agency to make choices that improve our community in the present and future, and that it is our responsibility to do so.

    Given the dominant beliefs, norms, culture, and systems of 2023 (which lead to fairly low civic engagement in the US at least), I think it’s helpful to look back in time at an Ancient Roman concept: civitas.

    As Alex Steffen describes it in “Civitas and the Future”:

    *Civitas was originally a Roman word, denoting the totality of the citizenry, but also the immaterial entity (of laws and mores) which they craft as a group and which holds them together: it is the civic whole, which ends up greater than the sum of the parts.


    …The closest [English] words we have are the abstractions of “our democracy” or “the republic”—but these words lack a central point, which is that civitas is irreducibly made of its citizens. Together, they make something greater, but that greater thing is still them…This is a tricky, but critical, distinction. Civitas, then, describes the thing citizens are together. It transcends identity and mutual self-interest. It is not the form of a republic, but the soul of a republic.


    Civitas—I’ve come more and more to think—represents the core (perhaps the only) platform on which groups of people, acting as democratic equals, can confront their largest problems. A healthy civitas enables two essential trusts: helping fellow citizens will help me, at least indirectly, and the risks I take and the work I do to benefit the civitas will be rewarded with security and respect. The definition of a civitas (“us”) allows an extension of self to include both one’s individual fellow citizens and the public purpose. In that greater sense of self are forged the bonds that allow people to resist oppression, create public goods, promote equality among citizens, hold accountable their leaders and invest for the future both of today’s citizens and tomorrow’s.


    When the ties are severed between citizens, civitas plummets and civic cohesion is lost: public services collapse, public goods are sold off, corruption spreads, disinvestment ensues. People seek limited, blind self-interest. They short the future. They cheat. Being individually weak, and now disconnected, they become easy to oppress (as Machiavelli notes, tyrants don’t care if they are hated, so long as their subjects do not love one another). Where civitas erodes away, democracy in any meaningful sense becomes impossible.*
    – Alex Steffen

    Civitas, civic engagement, community – the common connection we have to where we live, the people we live there with, and our shared responsibility to that place and each other – these have all been devalued and weakened in recent decades. And it shows.

    I think many of us today take our rights and responsibilities as citizens for granted (e.g. did you know that only ~20% of people vote in local elections in the US?)

    In hyper-individualistic cultures, we don’t think of ourselves as part of a larger, interconnected whole often enough. And we don’t fully exercise the individual and collective power we have to positively shape our future – especially where that power is strongest: in our local communities.

    But this is all changeable.

    It’s not that hard for one person to start increasing their civic engagement. And as more of us do that, because we are such a social species, the ripple effect will multiply our efforts exponentially.

    This increase in civic engagement is fundamental to making positive changes at the scope and scale we need right now.

    With more eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, we, the people, can steer our communities and elected officials with more intention and accountability. We can build places and systems that are safer, healthier, more just, and that work for everyone.

    By doing so, we’ll also increase our well-being in the present by creating more meaningful relationships with people in our community and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

    These relationships will also be critically important in the decades ahead for mutual support when extreme weather or supply chain disruptions make life harder in our communities. This kind of community support isn’t anything new of course. Mutual aid groups have been important, especially within marginalized communities, for centuries. And we saw a recent surge of these local networks when people created tens of thousands of them during the pandemic to meet the needs of their communities. Nurturing these local, pro-social networks and building new ones over time is worth doing for many, many reasons.

    The bottom line is this: re-prioritizing community, civitas, and civic engagement is achievable. It’s one of the best investments of our time and energy that we can make.

    And it starts with people like you and me.

  4. (If this resonates with you and you want to go deeper, I’d highly recommend you check out all of Eric Liu’s TED Talks, especially “The Three Essential Ingredients for Active Citizenship”. As well as the nonprofit Citizens University which trains fellows to host “Civic Saturday” gatherings in communities around the country.)


  5. Getting Started: Tips & Resources for Local Climate Action

  6. There are so many things each one of us can do!
  7. But the most important one is simply to get started. Just one step at a time 🙂
  8. Here are some of the key steps for effective action:
    • Learn a little about where your town/city stands on sustainability and climate action. Is your local government doing anything? Is there a climate action plan yet? (if there is, read it!) Any sustainability commissions? Are any local nonprofits or organizations working on the issue? You can get a sense of what, if anything, is going on by doing some quick searches online for this info. And there may be worthy efforts already underway that you can tap into.
    • Start talking with people in your community – and prioritizing next actions to take! Talk with and listen to your neighbors, friends, and fellow community members. Make space for an ongoing dialogue and collectively decide on what your community’s priorities should be (e.g. what are the specific policy and investment asks or demands that are science-based and justice-centered?). Over time you can reach out to environmental groups, local businesses, chambers of commerce, neighborhood groups, nonprofits, etc. to find common ground and establish relationships to build a coalition. There is strength in numbers!
    • Build relationships with your elected officials and communicate your priorities. Get in touch with your elected officials (it’s their job to represent you, after all) and start building a relationship with them or their staffers. Ask them questions, share your story, and tell them what you’d like them to do (corporations pay lobbyists to get meetings and build these relationships full-time for a reason: it works). Show up to and participate in public meetings so you can influence decision-making. Go to your government’s website and look at their calendar. Show up to the commission meetings and town halls to influence what goes into the budget and what policies are passed. Also, pay attention to your public service commission and tell them your priorities because they regulate your utility company which could be a big lever for change.
  9. Additional tips for influencing legislators:
    • Keep in mind that legislators are people. And it’s important to meet people where they are. Understand what they care about and connect that to the issue you’re working on. Change your messaging depending on who you’re talking to and focus on building relationships.

      “Relationships are the basic currency of changemaking” – Jessyn Farrell

    • Narrative and storytelling are also crucial. Share your personal story of how both the effects of climate change and climate solutions impact your life and why it all matters to you. Yes, make sure the story is fact-based but understand that science and data are less persuasive than authentically communicating your fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams for the future. Organize other people in your community to share their stories with legislators as well (this is what led to Ithaca, NY’s Green New Deal).
    • Show up at the various decision-making points in the political process. And have a specific ask ready for your elected officials. This really makes a difference!

    You really don’t need to be an expert in anything or have experience in advocacy to help make positive changes in your community. You just need to be someone who lives there.

    The above tidbits are from our conversations and events with experts and should be more than enough to help get you started.

    If you want to dive deeper, I recommend you check out some of that past work!


  10. Exciting new resource: detailed emissions data for every county in the US!

  11. Thanks to Crosswalk Labs, there is now atmospherically verified CO2 emissions data broken down by sector for every block, town, city, and state in the US in close to real-time.
  12. Why this mattersTo get your community or state to zero emissions, you need to know when, where, and why emissions are occurring.But right now, most places are effectively flying blind. They don’t know how many tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions they’re emitting into the atmosphere or what the sources of those emissions are.

    And as the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”.

    But even the places that have estimated their greenhouse gas emissions typically under-report them by 18.3% on average.

    So this level of transparent, detailed, and accurate information is hugely helpful for citizens, advocates, elected officials, and journalists. It enables us to make the most effective policy and investment decisions to get to zero emissions and hold responsible parties to account.

    Crosswalk Labs and their resource is fairly new so I’m not sure about all the details in practice. However, I was thrilled to discover them because I’ve been wanting information like this to be available for a long time and believe it could be catalytic for action.

    This is the kind of information you can use to educate, organize, pressure, and prioritize action. It can help advocates and decision-makers alike to more effectively and justly solve our pollution problems.

    So if you are or know an elected official or someone working on sustainability in the government, this resource is absolutely worth taking a look at and/or passing along…actually, it’s probably worth passing along to your elected official even if you’ve never spoken to them before – could be a good way to start building the relationship and providing value!

    Final Thoughts

    Taking action at the local level is extremely powerful.

    As Alex Steffen put it, this level of climate action is “small enough to get things done, but big enough to matter.”

    Not only does it improve and protect the well-being of your community, but it also accelerates systemic change by showing the people and towns around you (and around the world) what is possible.

    Your local community is one of the places you have the most influence. You vote, pay taxes, send your kids to school, grocery shop, and potentially work there. The degrees of separation between you and your local government and institutions are likely pretty small, and your voice can have an outsized impact at this local level.

    Getting more connected with your community and active as a citizen is one of the most powerful actions we can take to simultaneously help solve the climate crisis and strengthen democracy.

    Not to mention that acting with neighbors and friends to improve your community’s present and future has all sorts of mental and emotional benefits for us. When we connect with people in our community, see the tangible results of our collective actions, and experience what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than ourselves that truly makes a difference, we naturally feel more empowered and fulfilled.

    At a time when so many of us are looking for more connection and meaning in this world, community-centric action is a wonderful place to invest our time and energy.

    So let’s get to it 🙂

    All the best,

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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