Given the scholarly consensus on the anthropogenic drivers of climate change and the escalating climate crisis, the United Nations, national and local governments, and civil society now encourage climate action in a multitude of forms. Recent representative surveys in the United States and around the globe show that roughly two thirds of the respondents are concerned about climate change. Social movement scholars refer to those with this concern as a sympathy pool with mobilization potential for collective action, in this case, climate action. At the same time, several obstacles remain to convert awareness and alarm over planetary warming into actual public participation to address the climate crisis.
Impediments to civic-based climate action include climate misinformation, apathy, time availability, awareness, lack of resources among vulnerable populations, climate denialism by elected officials and an over-emphasis on technology-based solutions without public input. A fundamental challenge for the 21st century centers on mobilizing institutions and large numbers of people to engage in equitable strategies to reverse global heating by minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Because cities are home to some of the greatest sources of GHG releases (via industrial activity, transportation and land use), many current climate action efforts and programs occur at the municipal level – from Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and Covenant of Mayors to local climate assemblies. For example, California serves as a national model for climate mitigation and adaptation policies. The state allows cities to convert to renewable energy distribution in their municipal power grids, promotes the formulation of climate action plans at the city level, and legislates a plethora of grants and climate policies fostering community participation and environmental justice principles.
In practice, these are positive steps in combatting the climate emergency. However, for climate action programs to reach their full potential in terms of involving a substantial representation of residents in California and elsewhere in the United States and around the world, a greater understanding of the sociology of how civic engagement takes place is vital. Without significant levels of civil society participation in climate action, we will likely not achieve an environmentally just transition to a low carbon economy and we risk reproducing social structures of exclusion and subordination.
Our research in the recent issue of npj Climate Action finds that people are more willing to participate in local meetings about climate change when they are already affiliated with high civic-capacity groups and/or have been involved in civic engagement and collective action in the past. While this may not be surprising for civic engagement in general, it is critical to comprehend how to widen grassroots participation and decision-making in terms of local level climate action. Specifically, we found that membership in labor unions and nonprofit organizations was especially influential in increasing one’s willingness to attend local climate meetings. These “capacity-building” organizations (labor unions and community-based organizations), have experience in training and mobilizing residents for a wide range of civic activities. Civic capacity-building organizations focus on developing the skills of their constituents to participate in local democratic decision-making and train and educate additional groups outside of their mass base.
Such civic skill enhancement includes organizing people for community meetings, workshops on engaging city councils and elected officials, covid outreach, as well as campaigning for immigrant rights and voter registration. Labor unions train their memberships in a variety of political skills, including canvassing door-to-door, tabling at public events, phone banking, role playing public encounters, getting out the vote, meeting with state representatives, and joining in coalitions with community-based organizations over a wide range of issues, including environmental justice and climate change.
Based on the findings of our article, we have one major policy recommendation: States, universities, philanthropic institutions/foundations and international bodies should consider investing heavily in capacity-building organizations to extend participation in climate action by ordinary people and marginalized groups. The time to act is now, as we continue to break monthly records for global surface air temperatures and near the irreversible ecological tipping point of a 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius increase over preindustrial levels.
Labor unions with community alliances and community-based organizations serve as trusted messengers in their respective localities and can move people from concern to active participation and decision making in local climate planning efforts. These organizing and capacity-building efforts go far beyond one-day climate protest events — they are long-term engagements building trust, awareness, skills, and equity in localities over climate mitigation, resiliency and green transition initiatives. The state of California sits on an annual budget of $2.8 billion in cap-and-trade money to invest in climate action. The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has set aside $391 billion in climate spending over the next decade. The United Nations Loss and Damage Fund calls for a minimum of over $100 billion to finance climate resiliency in the global South by 2030 (other assessments put the figure in trillions of dollars needed).
How can these climate funds be most efficiently invested given that we are facing an existential threat? Only by devoting them immediately and directly to the types of organizations that build local capacity at the community level can we hope for a massive increase in climate action participation by civil society and a potential pathway forward.