Dear Policymakers: Community Engagement is Critical for Climate Policy

The climate crisis is worsening. The world’s seven warmest years have occurred since 2014. In 2020, there were 22 disasters in the U.S. alone, costing over $1 billion each, the most on record and over triple the annual average since 1980. Over 93% of the Western U.S. is in drought, which hasn’t happened since record-keeping began 126 years ago. All of the impacts of climate change that we’ve been warned about in the mainstream media — the same impacts communities of color have already been living with for decades — are now undeniably upon us, and it’s only going to get worse. 

So, where do we go from here? If we are to make any sort of progress in the coming years, there’s no question that we’ll need effective and equitable climate policy, but what does that actually mean? “Effective” means the policy should get the job done, and “equitable” means it should do so fairly, and for some reason, we are taught to believe those are separate ideas. However, a truly effective policy must be equitable; if only certain communities benefit from climate resilience funding, or if only certain facilities actually reduce their emissions, then the policy is simply not effective. 

Of course, policy design and implementation is tricky. Fortunately, the issue is less related to how we make policies effective and equitable, but more related to if we’re able and willing to do what’s necessary to make them so. And, at the core of what’s necessary lies a well-known method: meaningful and prolonged community engagement. Community members and on-the-ground advocates are experts in their own lived experiences, yet in most cases, especially for communities of color, their perspectives are entirely disregarded. Engaging communities in identifying their own problems and their own solutions, while also keeping them deeply involved in policy development, implementation, and evaluation processes, is central to ensuring true efficacy and equity in the fight for climate justice. 

What is Community Engagement, Anyway?

For the sake of this article, the term ‘community’ refers to any group of people related by some aspect of identity, often geography or lived experience, including residents as well as all stakeholders involved in businesses, non-profit organizations, or other entities affiliated with the group. Community engagement, however, has no universal definition, but it generally refers to the processes and outcomes related to incorporating the perspectives and ideas of community members in something – in our case, climate policy. While the definition is not clear-cut, there are many aspects the term encapsulates beyond what you might initially think about as relevant to engaging the community. 

  • It means equitable decision-making, which means all community members, especially those who have been historically excluded, have a meaningful opportunity to provide input. This actively shifts power to those on the margins and structures public participation processes to be accessible for all members of the community.
  • It means meaningful relationship-building. The entities organizing the decision-making processes must ensure that they effectively create long-lasting trust and respect in their relationships with community members. Facilitating the creation of solutions is, at its core, meant to help the community itself, and when outside entities bring their own external assumptions of what will and won’t work into the process, they have forgotten whom the solution is meant to serve. Community members must have agency in imagining their own future through policy. 
  • It means sustainable capacity-building. Communities must be provided with any opportunities and tools that they do not currently have access to in order to successfully implement and continue the solutions that are being imagined. Policy should not be reliant on outside entities to solve problems and then leave, perpetuating cycles of failed investments and community mistrust. 
  • It means continuous transparency and accountability. Organizing entities must be clear about their intentions from the start. They must be truthful about their progress during the process, and they must follow up on promises they’ve made. This involves accessible communication with all community stakeholders and firm, official structures to hold everyone involved accountable. 


Why is Community Engagement Important?

Meaningful community engagement is important to any climate policy, not only because communities deserve to have their perspectives incorporated into policies that will affect their futures, but also because it actually makes policies and programs more effective and sustainable over the long-term. Governmental entities that are able to actively engage their residents in every phase of climate policy will be able to tap into the wide range of experiences and perspectives that will help elucidate exactly where and how policies may succeed or fail. Both the climate and the policy arena are rapidly evolving, so continuously engaging communities throughout the process allows for communities to have a constant flow of updated information, and it also enables governmental entities to identify where and when they might need to adapt their plans as soon as possible. Resident input from a variety of geographic and socioeconomic identities allows policies and programs to be tailored to all the needs of each type of community member. Additionally, meaningful avenues for community input create a sense of agency and accountability, feelings that many community members do not currently feel, incentivizing increased public participation in all aspects of civic life and securing trust between communities and their governing bodies. 

Countless organizations have found that their policies and programs required an effective and equitable community engagement process to ensure their success. An assessment of how to ensure equitable green investments in low-income communities found that key concerns of community groups, such as displacement and gentrification, were misunderstood by many environmental agencies and met with skepticism by others. Bringing communities to the table with external stakeholders from the start helps ensure that all partners are operating with a similar understanding of the barriers to success. Strong community involvement in the planning process also helps to ensure successful implementation and continuity across electoral cycles, especially through including various mechanisms for community engagement, strong equity-focused committees, and the explicit inclusion of equity goals and processes. 

This Sounds Great, but is it Actually Feasible?

These efforts may seem like lofty requirements, but many examples demonstrate their feasibility, such as in climate governance plans, state funding programs, and environmental justice legislation.

The Sustainable D.C. 2.0 Plan utilized a 20-month community engagement process, reaching over 4,000 residents through used focus groups, interviews, surveys, pop-up “community conversations,” polling, and community meetings in their consultation process. They also created an Equity Impact Committee and an Equity Impact Assessment Tool to oversee and track the implementation of their equity components. In their 2021 Progress Report, they provided detailed information on their goals and progress, including not only where they were successful but also where little to moderate progress was made, allowing for transparency and accountability. 

Similarly, the Baltimore Sustainability Plan makes large commitments to transparency, collaboration, and accountability, explicitly detailing goals to share power with historically excluded communities, think differently about the status quo for city planning, actively seek feedback and engagement, and communicate in accessible ways, among others. Their engagement process surveyed 1,200 residents, engaged over 500 people in community meetings and interviews, and received over 1,000 comments during their open period, the results from which they shared in their 2019 report. Their plan also includes guidance on equitable implementation, not just development, including for project planning, data gathering, and analysis of equity impacts. Continuing equitable processes beyond the development phase, into implementation and evaluation, is essential. 

Many state-level funding programs have also operationalized equity through robust community engagement, oftentimes required through the legislation that created it. In California, there are many examples of this, such as the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program — a grant program for communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution through comprehensive funding plans. AB 2722, the bill establishing TCC, outlines specific community engagement guidelines for the Strategic Growth Council, the state-level cabinet committee administering the program. The Council must consider comments from local governments, regional agencies, and other stakeholders in creating and adopting funding guidelines and selection criteria, explicitly requiring that they conduct outreach to disadvantaged communities to encourage their comments. The bill also states that the Council must award grants for projects that specifically “demonstrate community engagement in all phases,” and TCC allocates at least five to eight percent of communities’ awarded funds to community outreach and engagement. This not only incentivizes but requires community engagement throughout the program, helping to build a more equitable funding and implementation process. 

California’s SB 5, a $4 billion bond measure creating grants for parks, groundwater cleanup, flood protection, and clean drinking water, also focuses on equity through community outreach and engagement. State agencies receiving SB 5 funding to administer these grants must conduct three public meetings in geographically diverse regions across the state to collect public comment. The bill also includes specific requirements for equitable outreach, including language surrounding active outreach in minority, low-income, and disabled populations and tribal communities, and surrounding the use of multilingual and culturally appropriate communication materials and strategies. This focus on accessibility and diversity allows for a much broader set of perspectives to be included in the development of the program. 

Washington’s recently passed SB 5141, or the HEAL Act, requires outcome-based environmental justice plans and assessments for state agencies, including those regarding community engagement. It also requires that all covered agencies, including the Departments of Health, Transportation, Natural Resources, and others, to develop a community engagement plan. The plan must specify how agencies will engage with overburdened communities and vulnerable populations when evaluating new and existing programs, and it must also detail how it will facilitate equitable participation and meaningful, direct involvement with such communities and populations. The Act specifies categories necessary for the plan, including best management practices, use of screening tools to evaluate community needs, and methods for community outreach and communication. This explicit requirement to plan every aspect of community engagement across departments creates a more unified focus on equity in many spheres of state-level policy implementation. 

The Takeaway

Community engagement is clearly necessary for effective climate policy, and it’s also doable at all levels of governance. Without meaningfully centering equity in our policies, plans, and programs through the direct involvement of those impacted, we cannot create sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. 

So, to all policymakers, agency bureaucrats, and advocates: read this and know that effective policy is equitable policy. There cannot be one without the other, and we need these solutions now.

For further information on operationalizing equity in climate policy through community engagement, review these resources:

Featured Image: Photo by John Cameron