Climate Action is for Everyone

April 27, 2023
Landscape Architecture Sustainability Community & Regional Planning Parks & Open Space DEI

Three ways individuals can advocate for change in their local community.

At the time I began writing this article, it was Earth Week 2023. This year’s theme “Invest in Our Planet,” highlighted the importance of dedicating our time, resources and energy to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

It’s a timely theme.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, net emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities increased worldwide by 43% from 1990 to 2015; likewise, the emission of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about three-fourths of total emissions, increased by 51% over this period. As in the United States, most of the world’s emissions result from transportation, electricity generation and other forms of energy production use. According to Jim Skea, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change), limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes. “Unprecedented change?” That feels like an extremely, and sometimes insurmountably, tall order. 

It’s been five years since the Paris Agreement was signed and the United Nations has encouraged officials at all levels of government, especially local leaders, to take stock of their progress and adapt their plans for implementation by 2030. Some U.S. communities have developed a comprehensive climate action plan; others have only recently come around to using the term climate change. Regardless of where a community stands in terms of readiness, the scientific evidence is clear: the time for action is now.

How can we as individuals advocate for change in our local communities?

Look for Existing Opportunities

As part of RDG’s Parks & Open Space team, I work with many localities on many environmental initiatives. It’s clear that not every community is ready for a full-blown climate action plan, but that doesn’t mean conversations around environmental stewardship and efforts to enact change can’t happen or aren’t already taking place. Perhaps a community might be ready to update a comprehensive plan; they might be looking for a long-range vision and action plan; they might be interested in downtown revitalization or economic development incentives for new businesses. Within each of these plans and programs, there’s room for sustainability initiatives, SMART goals and opportunities to protect the integrity of the natural environment.

RDG Des Moines employees at an Earth Day 2023 stream cleanup, part of the Metro Waste Authority’s Adopt-A-Stream Program.

Even in cities where there isn’t a formal climate action plan, there are likely ways climate action is already showing up and might look like:

  • Citizen-led task forces that might be researching what has worked in towns and cities across the country and are volunteering their time to bring these ideas in front of decision-makers. 

  • The application of LEED or WELL certifications in the local built environment. LEED is the world’s most widely used green building rating system and provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. WELL takes it a step further and applies the science of physical and social environments to benefit the health, well-being and performance of people by considering the topics of mind, community, movement, water, air, light, thermal comfort, nourishment, sound and materials. Each of these certifications signals a commitment by local design and planning firms to address climate change.

  • Active building performance benchmarking, which track’s a building’s energy and water use over time. Benchmarking is the first step towards improving building efficiency and allows current performance to be measured against both past performance and the performance of similar buildings.

  • Waste diversion programs, which focus on minimizing solid waste generation through source reduction, recycling, reuse or composting and can also reduce disposal costs and the burden on landfills.

  • Addressing food insecurity through various modes including expanding food pantries and food rescue, community gardens and cooking classes, centralizing services and emergency aid.

  • Regional planning efforts that combine resources to support transportation and stormwater plans and services.  

While these efforts may seem disjointed or indirectly related, they are in fact addressing climate change and its various impacts and can be a good foundation for making the case that the work has already begun – and that it can and should evolve into a formalized, cohesive form.

Learn from Community and Regional Planning Efforts

Climate change is an enormous problem, and it can feel overwhelming to get started with a plan. Even if a community has support at the local level (enthusiastic city council members, a mayor who’s fully on board), state and national politics and corporate lobbying can impede efforts. Given these challenges, it’s best to start from common ground, to meet people where they are and help them take one step forward. One way we can do this is the act of community and regional planning.

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with planners in helping my hometown, Des Moines, Iowa, with its first-ever Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP). As I worked through the process, I saw that it was not so different from my other experiences. In fact, the CAAP development process shared many of the same elements of other community-based plans: equity-centered public engagement; ongoing communication strategies with both online and in-person materials; data collection and existing conditions.

Children’s drawings from engagement activities during an Omaha Affordable Housing Action Plan community open house.

In going through the CAAP process, I realized our planners do this work every day through strategic planning, comprehensive planning, downtown plans, housing studies, watershed planning and transportation planning. They’ve taken on projects that serve the public interest for decades. Leveraging their experience and learning from their success in helping communities “grow green” can offer a path for incorporating environmentally responsible practices into community plans and encourage risk-averse folks to wade into uncharted waters.

Share Stories and Empathize

Early in the CAAP development, we worked with the City and local leaders to establish a technical advisory group made up of people with experience and expertise in the seven key areas the plan would address. These individuals were a mix of college professors, nonprofit leaders, equipment installers, building managers and developers, landfill operators – the people doing work relevant to our effort every day. Though we saw these people as authoritative in their various technical fields, when asked to participate in the advisory group, many said they did not see themselves this way. This gets to a challenge inherent in climate action: many of us feel unqualified to advocate for or participate in efforts to develop solutions.

We aren’t all climate change experts, but we are all experts in our own lived experiences, and those lived experiences can compel us to speak up and act. Take, for example, the perspectives of students from my Global, Natural and Social Systems class at Drake University, who shared their thoughts about addressing climate change and how it made them feel. These reflections encompassed a range of emotions from anger and frustration to despair and even embarrassment, and while justified in the context of our crisis, can be difficult to share in the public sphere. Some felt they would be shunned for their perspective; others felt a sense of learned helplessness – that despite an inherent desire to enact change, nothing they would do could truly make a difference.

Children’s drawings from engagement activities during an Omaha Affordable Housing Action Plan community open house.

We must see how this very real problem is affecting community members, not just physically but also mentally, and that we offer a safe space for people to share their fears and perspectives as we work to find common ground. When we understand the risks and vulnerabilities of the people and neighborhoods in our communities, we can address them. It’s essential that people have their basic needs met first if we hope to engage with them and eventually help them to become more resilient. All of this can empower people within local communities to become comfortable actively participating in efforts for change.

Tackling climate change is a big job, and the reality is, it’s going to take all of us participating if we’re going to achieve the goals needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the increase in global temperature. Today, tomorrow and the day after that we can do something that helps all of us have a more adaptable and resilient future. So, let’s get started. Let’s take one step forward, together.

Written by Molly Hanson, Conservation and Community Outreach Specialist