Climate Change as a Civic Challenge: Collaborative Models for American Policy and Practice

Back to Spring 2023: Volume 112, Number 1

By Carmen Sirianni, Joel Mills, and Ann Ward

Civic engagement for sustainable, resilient, and just communities is a major component of American climate policy and can be aligned with many other climate tools in the coming decades. We cannot manage our persistent crisis of democracy unless we also engage everyday citizens, communities, and stakeholders in the ongoing work of climate resilience.

This is the conclusion of a two-year research project among academic scholars and practitioners from civic and professional associations and public agencies, who worked as teams across 12 areas of civic innovation and then convened a policy workshop in Washington, DC, in May 2022. Our findings are contained in a 114-page report published in October,  Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models. While long, the report is succinct for each area covered, has helpful tables throughout, and is accessible to community activists, institutional leaders, policy entrepreneurs, and democracy innovators.

Much of the policy debate on climate change in the United States has rightfully centered on public investment for green energy, tax incentives for electric vehicle purchase and home solar upgrades, global climate agreements, and a range of other technological, regulatory, and market innovations. Movement protest, especially among young people, has been vital to stopping destructive pipelines, prompting fossil fuel disinvestment, and bringing climate justice to the forefront.

However, it is also becoming ever more important to engage ordinary citizens in local and regional planning if our cities are to become more sustainable and just, and our coastlines more resilient. Thriving and sustainable landscapes across the West increasingly depend on diverse stakeholders from ranching and logging communities, environmental and conservation groups, and federal and state agencies to develop collaborative ecosystem approaches. Urban and community forestry has become increasingly important to carbon sequestration and healthy communities, and the USDA Forest Service has enabled toolkits and partnerships for civic action across communities large and small. Citizen science has contributed to local, national, and even global knowledge to protect landscapes and species, and digital and geospatial toolkits enable maps and narratives that enrich public conversation and inform public choices. In short, we have civic models, toolkits, and networks, as well as selective policies and programs that can be leveraged for much greater impact.

We thus have approached our work with a deep sense of democratic hope, which is consistent with many recent contributions to climate communication and the limits of models based primarily on fear and facts. We are acutely aware that our climate crisis can further exacerbate our democratic crisis unless we engage ordinary citizens and organized stakeholders across cultural, racial, political, and regional differences in crafting effective climate strategies that make sense in local contexts and generate sufficient democratic legitimacy to sustain us on what is sure to be a long and winding road of climate shocks and uncertainties.

Background to the Report

In May 2022, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) hosted a two-day workshop in Washington, DC, that we helped to organize with Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, AIA’s Center for Communities by Design, and the Kettering Foundation. We issued our report in October. It represents nearly two years of research and rests upon several premises.

First, civic actors have already been at work developing relevant models over the past several decades. We thus reached out to innovative nonprofits, environmental justice leaders, academic scholars, and public officials at various levels of the federal system to help understand how we have been developing appropriate civic capacities in various fields and how we might leverage these lessons for more ambitious and systematic policy design. We developed teams of scholars and practitioners, networked through CivicGreen at Tisch College, to locate relevant books, articles, case studies, toolkits, strategic planning documents, climate action plans, program evaluations, and other relevant documents. We generated research and policy summaries and convened multiple virtual meetings and interviews. Participant biographies and extensive references in our appendices reveal the scope of this work.

We were then able to convene a large subset of over forty participants with the dual charge: help each other understand the dynamics of civic innovation in each of their respective fields and consider how we might leverage these more ambitiously through relevant federal agencies and their partners at all levels of the federal system, as well as through various White House offices.

Second, we were guided by the framework in which policy design can “empower, enlighten, and engage citizens in the process of self-government,” in the words of Helen Ingram and Steven Rathgeb Smith and many scholars across policy fields. Policy design can provide resources, toolkits, templates, incentives, and partners to mobilize community assets, generate local knowledge, nurture civic identities, and cultivate public trust. It can help build capacity for democratic deliberation and collaboration to ensure workable consensus and ongoing co-productive work.

Below we provide an overview of our findings, as well as a short selection of recommendations. We aim to be audacious in vision, yet we present strategies and policies that are eminently feasible in practice. We seek to align community-based work with professional expertise, network resources, and institutional governance in ways that are pragmatic yet transformative. While some of what we recommend is already on the policy agenda, other proposals chart a path that will undoubtedly take considerably more time and refinement, enabled by a design for strategic learning through federal agencies, partner networks, and offices at the White House.

Herein lies an opportunity for presidential leadership and broad public communication to ensure that we address the twin crises of climate and democracy together. We can make the campaign for climate resilience also one of democratic resilience, and we must think strategically about how to build civic capacities for the decades to come.

Arenas of Civic Innovation on Climate

Civic innovation in the environmental arena has been a visible part of the local landscape and federal policy since the late 1980s and early 1990s. The main reason for this has been that the command-and-control regulatory regime put in place by the landmark environmental laws of the early 1970s proved critical but incomplete. The regulatory tools of the Clean Water Act of 1972, for instance, could not completely accommodate complex watershed dynamics and ecosystem science, nor the array of watershed associations and stewardship groups that had begun to emerge in urban streams, river systems, and coastal estuaries to protect through volunteer monitoring and hands-on restoration. In addition, regulatory tools could also not accommodate the upsurge in community action for environmental justice (EJ), where marginalized communities insisted on having a direct voice in decisions that honored their local knowledge and built upon their capacities to convene and co-produce. Within a few years of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, local EJ groups and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council established under President Clinton were crafting collaborative civic approaches and developing policy designs to provide funding and toolkits.

During the 1990s, “civic environmentalism” began to take deeper root as a result of reports to Congress by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and similar prestigious organizations, by support from federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA Forest Service, as well as by learning on the ground among a wide array of civic and professional networks. These included watershed and bicycle associations, land trusts and community gardening groups, community design centers and projects, and collaborative conservation partnerships on hundreds of Western landscapes. While climate change was just beginning to come into focus in the 1990s, action at the city level fostered an integrative civic framing as “sustainable cities,” increasingly with climate resilience, environmental justice, and democratic engagement as prominent themes.

The pathways of innovation and capacity building, of course, vary across specific communities, fields, and agencies. In each of the 12 main sections of our report, we summarize the kinds of distinct challenges, as well as the civic and professional associations and public policies that have helped to build capacity in recent years. These overlapping areas include:

  • sustainable cities and local climate planning
  • collaborative environmental justice and the Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program
  • community design and public interest design
  • urban and community forestry
  • collaborative community conservation and ecosystem management
  • environmental education
  • coastal management and sea level rise
  • civilian climate corps
  • citizen science
  • digital and geospatial mapping for engaged communities
  • climate and science communication
  • civic professionals: associations and professional schools

Some Examples

Since it is not possible to summarize each area here, we offer a few examples and then turn to some general proposals to help leverage civic capacity building on a much broader scale. We draw most directly from the presentations at our conference, as well as some of the academic studies and practical toolkits developed by conference participants and other project contributors.

Sustainable cities, for instance, has developed as one of the most important arenas for civic action in the U.S. because community organizing and neighborhood associations pioneered a “rebirth of urban democracy,” and then combined it with a range of specific sustainability strategies among a wide array of groups such as watershed associations, land trusts, bicycle associations, and environmental justice groups. Because governance challenges are key at the city level, elected officials, planning and environmental administrators, and civic groups increasingly sought to integrate distinct approaches into a coherent framing, typically as “sustainable cities,” then further modified to include “climate resilient” and “environmentally just” cities.

Various intermediary organizations, such as ICLEI USA and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, helped cities with a wide range of technical tools and peer learning. Toolkits such as Michael Boswell, Adriennne Greve, and Tammy Seale’s handbook, Climate Action Planning, provides a clear, step-by-step guide that can be utilized to develop a public vision with broad legitimacy, community collaboration, socially just values, and pragmatic implementation. It includes the technical aspects of greenhouse gas inventories and forecasts, but places technical tools in the context of developing partnerships among nonprofits, universities, and public agencies, and ensuring broad public education and outreach through public workshops, digital platforms, visualization tools, and youth-led events. It integrates watershed, land-use, and bicycle plans developed with civic input into climate planning and includes a role for “equity work groups” to help ensure racially just perspectives.

The work of this team, which has included climate planning in more than 70 California cities and training of young planners through a state university campus with both technical and civic skills, has also filtered upward into the 2020 California Adaptation Planning Guide and the SB 1000: The Planning for Healthy Communities Act Toolkit, with input from environmental justice communities. In effect, civic engagement in city climate planning has become state policy.

Youth have become increasingly central to climate work though social movement action, which captures most public attention, but also through environmental education and conservation corps. Environmental education has been driven for decades by large national organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, by state networks of educators and natural resource agencies, and by zoos and aquariums. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has played an especially important role across the field and has leveraged institutional resources and funding provided through the Environmental Education Act of 1990 to develop guidelines for excellence in all areas of curriculum and professional development, as well as Community Engagement: Guidelines for Excellence. These guidelines align very intentionally with best practices in other areas of climate and sustainability work, thus generating complementarities across fields as young people become increasingly engaged in civic work in their communities and careers.

Conservation and climate corps also have a robust foundation upon which to build. While the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal did not have much resonance for several decades in the immediate post-WWII era, by the 1970s and 1980s conservation corps had re-emerged in cities and states, with a national network, now called the Corps Network, providing leadership across the field. The policy design of AmeriCorps early in the 1990s, especially its state commissions and nonprofit partnerships, ensured a robust institutional foundation. Green City Force, for instance, works as a partnership with the New York City Housing Authority, as young residents ages 18-24 develop collaborative leadership and career skills as they retrofit buildings to be energy and water efficient, develop urban farms, implement recycling and composting, and steward a range of other healthy community and green infrastructure projects. FEMA Corps, the Public Lands Corps, and the Student Conservation Corps, among others, work with federal, state, and local agencies on a broad range of disaster response, coastal restoration, ecosystem conservation, and similar projects. While the most ambitious funding proposals for a Civilian Climate Corps did not make it into the Inflation Reduction Act of August 2022, this “new CCC” is proceeding with funding and administrative support from many sources.

Civic engagement for climate action depends critically upon local knowledge and expertise, geographic information mapping tools and narrative and other climate communication toolkits and practices. At our workshop, Chris Lepczyk presented the work of his team in Handbook of Citizen Science in Ecology and Conservation, which carefully and clearly maps every step of project planning, collaboration among volunteers and professional scientists, data collection, quality assurance, visualization, communication with broad publics, and presentation to policy forums. Breece Robertson, drawing upon two decades of work at the Trust for Public Land and her eminently usable guide, Protecting the Places We Love: Conservation Strategies for Entrusted Lands and Parks, provided the latest GIS tools – especially Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps – for land and wildlife conservation, which combines visually compelling maps with public narratives to enrich public meetings, youth engagement, and active stewardship. Lindsay Campbell, whose City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City’s Nature, provides a comparative analysis of city sustainability strategies, showcased tools such as STEW-MAP developed in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service, which permits the mapping of stewardship groups, formal and informal, across a city or landscape with the aim of building further capacity.

Climate and science communication is important across all areas of policy and takes many forms. The information deficit model that seeks to elicit opinion change and public will at the grand scale through more data and evidence has important though selective impact at that scale, but much less in local communities, complex ecosystems, and regional landscapes and economies where identity, culture, and livelihood are intertwined. Maxwell Boykoff, drawing upon his Creative (Climate) Communications: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society, and Faith Kearns, building upon her Getting to the Heart of Science Communication:

A Guide to Effective Engagement, presented rich models of communicative practice oriented to community relationships, emotions, problem-solving, and the management of conflict and collaboration. Climate communication need not let fear and loss crowd out hope and efficacy, especially of communities and partnerships taking hopeful civic action with pragmatic steps that can potentially lead to recovery and resilience.

Leveraging Civic Models through Federal Policy

None of these models of civic collaboration has progressed far enough to ensure democratic engagement on climate at the scale that will be needed in the coming decades, and none comes without potential problems and unintended consequences, such as favoring some sectors of the community over others or managing to the lowest common denominator. In sketching policy options, we thus examined strategic initiatives emerging in each field, but also considered a larger architecture that could promote learning through all relevant federal agencies, civic and professional networks and intermediaries, and though the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. In addition, we propose a funding design that might incorporate adequate investment for civic infrastructure as we invest many hundreds of billions of dollars in the green infrastructure needed for effective mitigation and resilience.

First, we propose that each relevant federal agency develop a clear civic mission and strategic planning process to guide its work on civic collaboration and to align it with its other climate tools (regulatory, investment, ecological, data) to get the optimal mix for that agency and its various offices. Drawing upon widely recognized components of civic innovation as well as selective federal agency frameworks for community-based work, we suggest the outlines of a civic mission template, coupled with a civic strategy template, to guide this process. The civic mission template brings together many of the core themes of innovative work over the past decades, such as assets-based community development, democratic deliberation, and co-production. It then challenges each agency to integrate these into its work and to communicate them broadly to relevant publics to motivate further engagement.

The civic strategy template builds upon these themes by posing core questions that each agency should ask to align civic work with its other climate and sustainability toolkits: which deliberative and collaborative models might work best in some areas but not others, how can the agency build appropriate partnerships in a specific field, what types of grants help to build capacity at the local level and through national and regional intermediaries? Since federal agencies are already doing some of this work, we also propose that the National Academy of Public Administration conduct a project with several of them that could further develop appropriate civic mission and civic strategy initiatives across all relevant federal agencies. Funding could come from both public and private sources.

Second, we propose that a National Advisory Council on Civic Climate Collaboration be established according to the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 to lend further coherence to the work of existing advisory councils that have addressed civic engagement as a core component of work in each specific field. The latter include the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the National Environmental Education Advisory Council.

Third, we propose that an Office of Civic Collaboration on Climate be located within the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy – perhaps conjointly with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – to provide further coherence and impetus for civic approaches across the federal system and to help align these with other climate policy tools. This new office could draw upon an emergent set of federal agency mission statements and strategic planning processes (#1), as well as a cluster of citizen advisory committees (#2). In turn, it can help guide agencies that might be outliers or laggards. Its focus is to help build civic and institutional capacity across the federal system to enable robust and effective engagement and partnerships. An Office of Civic Collaboration on Climate would enable concerted attention to the civics of climate change, which might otherwise be lost or marginalized amid the array of other worthy policy tools and staff duties.

Fourth, while we propose building upon many recent grant programs, such as the Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program and various watershed grants, we also consider how to institutionalize funding for civic capacity more firmly. We propose that federal investments for climate projects with direct relevance to neighborhoods, cities, regions, landscapes, coastlines, and other ecosystems include a minimum investment in civic capacity building. A three percent minimum would yield $30 billion for the civics of climate change for every $1 trillion investment overall and would help ensure appropriate federal investments to enable our communities to become capable, empowered, responsible, and co-productive partners. This is our one blue-sky proposal. It would require further work among relevant partners of the Office of Civic Collaboration on Climate, such as CEQ and OMB, as well as Congress. In the absence of some mechanism like this, civic engagement tends to remain unspecified and likely undercapitalized, as in the current Inflation Reduction Act.


Civic engagement and collaboration are key to effective climate policy if communities and institutional stakeholders are to become co-productive partners in addressing the most wicked policy challenge of our time. This is especially true as our democracy crisis can further exacerbate our climate crisis, and as the latter in turn will tend to aggravate political and cultural polarization. As Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models shows, robust models of engagement can be well aligned with many other tools in our climate policy toolkit. We can do this in ways that are ambitious enough to meet the immense challenge before us over the next several decades, yet feasible enough in design to be implemented through public agencies and partnerships that can mobilize the civic skills and virtues of ordinary citizens and associations.

Over the next months and years, our network of practitioners and scholars will be crafting further initiatives to enhance strategic engagement and policy design. We welcome further collaboration.

Carmen Sirianni is the Morris Hillquit Professor Emeritus in Labor and Social Thought, and Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Brandeis University. 

Ann Ward is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Brandeis University, as well as the Sustainability Education and Outreach Program Administrator at Tufts University, and Managing Editor of CivicGreen.

Joel Mills is Senior Director of Communities by Design at The Architects Foundation.

Mawell Boykoff, Creative (Climate) Communications: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Lindsay K. Campbell, City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City’s Nature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
Helen Ingram and Steven Rathgeb Smith, eds., Public Policy for Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1993).
Faith Kearns, Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2021).
Christopher A. Lepczyk, Owen D. Boyle, and Timothy L.V. Vargo, eds., Handbook of Citizen Science in Ecology and Conservation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), Community Engagement: Guidelines for Excellence (Washington, DC, 2017).
Breece Robertson, Protecting the Places We Love: Conservation Strategies for Entrusted Lands and Parks (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2021).
Carmen Sirianni, Sustainable Cities in American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020).

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