Empowering local voices to tackle the climate emergency

Innovative engagement events can foster meaningful dialogue and transform community needs into policy. ICLEI’s “Town Hall COP” initiative, piloted in 2023 as “local stocktakes” and continuing into 2024 and beyond, elevates the voices of those experiencing climate impacts on-the-ground by delivering city-level needs to global policy professionals. Hosting “Town Hall COPs” and other climate-related engagement events allows local governments to incorporate everyday residents’ priorities into climate efforts. 

At the ICLEI World Congress in São Paulo, Brazil, sustainability practitioners shared practical techniques for deep stakeholder engagement. Here, we share their findings and additional best practices from the 2023 Town Hall COPs and public engagement events. 

Meeting people where they are: Applying climate action to familiar frameworks
Sustainability topics can be overwhelming and difficult to grasp for non-expert audiences. As communities craft engagement events, consider using terms that are more tangible for everyday citizens. As Ava Richardson, Sustainability Director at the City of Baltimore, USA, expressed, “[Our engagement efforts] relied on being effective climate communicators, and sometimes that means using different language than what we use in our work every day.” The City of Baltimore launched a community survey to inform their newly updated climate action plan, but didn’t use the term “climate change” once in the survey, instead opting for more precise questions about how individuals pay their energy bills, use public transit, and manage extreme weather conditions.

Ava Richardson, Sustainability Director at the City of Baltimore, USA, shared lessons learned from the City’s extensive community engagement efforts for the 2024-2034 Climate Action Plan at ICLEI World Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Meanwhile, sustainability practitioners in the United Kingdom and Zambia tailored their Town Hall COPs to local governance structures and cultures, allowing community members to digest complex sustainability topics through the lens of familiar frameworks. The City of Glasgow applied recommendations from its Center for Civic Innovation to help participants grasp global climate policy topics. The City of Lusaka used the local stocktake as an opportunity to gather the city’s 33 Wards (localized administrative units) and establish the Ward Development Committees’ responsibilities in advancing the city’s climate mitigation and adaptation (for example, contributing to a city-wide natural resource inventory).

Institutionalizing engagement in ongoing decision-making processes 

Though Town Hall COPs are annual events, bringing diverse stakeholders together helped many local governments identify gaps and strengthen equity in their year-long decision-making processes. Andrea Paoloni, General Director of Climate Action and Environmental Quality at the City of Rosario, Argentina, points out: “We always need to bring new actors into the conversation.” Following their 2023 Town Hall COP, the City of Rosario established a series of ongoing workshops to foster continued dialogue on the City’s climate efforts and build trust with individuals over time. 
Similarly, Baguio City, Philippines, invited local youth activists to collaborate with municipal staff at their Town Hall COP. This youth involvement inspired the City to establish youth positions in decision-making councils and boards across the City. Walter Osigai Etepesit, CEO & Founder of the Walton Africa Waste Company and organizer of the Town Hall COP in Kampala, Uganda, echoed this sentiment, stating that “we need to ensure that we put youth in the center of climate discussion in policy-making and provide opportunities for young people to engage in climate-related events.”

Youth activist and CEO Walter Osigai Etepesit shares his experiences organizing a Town Hall COP in Kampala, Uganda and emphasizes the importance of youth organizing.

“Bring the COP home:” Why engage with local stakeholders on global issues?

As mentioned, a Town Hall COP is an engagement event in which elected officials and a diverse collection of community members compare local climate policies with their country’s Nationally Determined Contributions. While this may seem like a daunting agenda for one event, there are benefits to discussing Paris Agreement documents with community members.

Local best practices are informed by global policy. Over 2,200 local governments have adopted Science Based Targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While community members may be aware of an emissions reduction target, do they know the goal is aligned with Paris Agreement targets? Making this connection can instill a sense of agency in the community towards the climate crisis, minimizing climate despair. 

Bringing the COP to a Town Hall also increases the community’s access and understanding of global climate policy. Rather than traveling to the annual COP and lobbying diplomats, communities can contribute to climate policy formation from the comfort of home, saving time, money, and travel emissions.

Strategizing alongside citizen assemblies
Pointing to another innovative style of community engagement, the community-based organization Delibera Brazil partnered with local governments to host citizen assemblies in Toriama, Salvador, Francisco Morato. These assemblies provided recommendations on contentious sustainability topics that directly impacted their communities and guided their climate strategies.

Silvia Cervelini from Delibera Brazil shares the details of Decidadania, an innovative citizen engagement event conducted in partnership with ICLEI South America, at ICLEI World Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Emphasizing the importance of community involvement in climate decision-making, Silvia Cervelini, the Director and Co-founder of Delibera Brazil, shares, “Sometimes we think it’s complex to involve scientific knowledge in community engagement efforts, but with time, we can have citizen participation that really works together with the city’s leadership to solve these difficult situations, and we can get out of this crisis together.”

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