Climate Change and Collective Action: Where Local Governments can Shine

Posted on March 11, 2024

Blurred background of trees, with a hand in the foreground holding a small plant sprout.

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Mary King, a writer for Envisio. She is currently based in Toronto, Ontario, and you can find Mary here, on LinkedIn.

What I’m eating: I am subscribed to a food-share produce box, and they recently dropped off so many more zucchinis than I ever thought possible. So I’m eating a lot of zucchini-based meals. 

What I’m reading: I am reading “The Chairs Are Where The People Go,” by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. It’s a funny, offbeat, meditative work of short, non-fiction essays about, well, pretty much every topic… but the nature of neighborhoods and cities comes up a lot, so I really like it! 

What I’m working on: Aside from my work at Envisio, I am working on my own collection of writing (fiction and essays). I’m really interested in how a loss of public space in cities is impacting democracy — this is what I studied in grad school, and I would like to turn my thesis into an essay collection.


How can we bridge the gap between the seemingly immense and abstract reality of “climate change” and needing to “save the planet” to inspire meaningful action among residents? Where do we find the balance between personal responsibility and relying on policymakers to implement effective solutions?

Part of the answer lies in harnessing the power of collective action at the local level.

I have always bristled at the idea that “collective action” runs into problems due to some faulty aspect of human nature — some inability to cooperate, for instance — rather than a problem with inspiration, scope, and strategy. 

The “problem of collective action” is usually described as a fairly abstract philosophical and political concept. It goes like this: while everyone knows we would be better off if we worked on a major problem together, competing individual interests and selfishness tend to make collective efforts challenging, and often, paralyzing. 

Addressing climate change is the topic that I’ve been most interested in with respect to collective action. Not only is climate change a serious existential threat, it is also rich with the fallacies and assumptions we make about collective action. The underlying sentiment when we consider collective action as a paradox, or a problem, feels short form for, “We can’t figure out how to fix the problem because it’s just human nature… we are doomed, may as well accept it.” Well, I don’t really think the issue is as simple as just having competing individual interests. 

We ought to be wary when it comes to rhetoric that overstates the impact one person’s actions can have on “solving” climate change. I do try my best to make conscious choices around sustainability — more mindful consumerism, buying more local food, biking instead of driving when I can, or using public transportation — but the reality is, I am just one person. And we need to acknowledge there are social barriers to individual actions of sustainability. It can be expensive to shop locally. It is not always accessible or safe to bike. The greater systems at play tend to get in the way of our ability to make choices toward the greater good; this is what creates the reality of competing interests. 

It’s also true that when considering all of the major global entities in the world involved in climate change, the scope becomes hard to comprehend; the individual tends to fall out of the picture! 

I’m not suggesting individuals bear no responsibility for mitigating their impact on the environment — we do — but rather, that the systems set the tone. It’s a mix; an acknowledgement that the real game-changing shifts happen at systemic levels, and at individual, small, localized levels. This is what is so amazing about the power of local government. It is both a system that is able to push forward initiatives that can make a difference, while also rooting it in something real and tangible.

Small enough to engage a community, and big enough to pull off the major changes that need to happen. 

Local governments have a unique ability to advance climate action plans in ways that are tailor-made for their own communities, taking into consideration their resources, capacities, and particular environment. Some examples might include policy steps to prevent the loss of local, old-growth forests — which are natural carbon sinks — or operationalizing plans for green infrastructure to prevent the urban heat island effect, caused by too many packed buildings and paved surfaces. Other local governments may take a more bureaucratic approach through efforts like sustainability-based incentives for local businesses or developers. 

Sometimes these actions might not immediately scream “sustainability” to everyone because they’re not directly addressing the big, existential challenges facing our planet. However, they are incredibly important and effective. Local government climate action plans really add up, particularly when it comes to cities. According to the UN Environment Programme, cities and urban centers are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Local governments can also collect granular, specific, and relevant data on the ways climate change may be impacting vulnerable people in their communities, and be proactive to prevent climate-related disasters. Asking the right questions can point you toward problem areas: “This river tends to flood, and these homes are vulnerable,” or “We realized no cooling stations are accessible by public transit.” Local governments have the opportunity to take into careful consideration their community’s specific and unique environment, and the particular needs of those who live there. 

In my role, I’ve been fortunate to witness more and more local governments embracing actionable strategies around key sustainability goals. What’s particularly inspiring is seeing communities showcase their plans and progress on their public dashboards. Communicating plans, rationale, and data to a community is one of the most important things that local governments can do to keep climate change actionable and not lost in the realm of abstract problem solving. Communicating why a certain incentive is in place, or why a major sustainability-related renovation or capital improvement plan is underway, goes a long way in building trust and keeping people excited and informed about the changes being made in their backyards. 

Local, contextual forces play a huge role in unfreezing collective action paralysis. Local governments sit in a unique position as strategic decision-making entities that can also arrive at specific, tangible outcomes, readily felt by those closest to them. Climate action plans can motivate and engage individuals within communities, and hopefully, inspire other local governments to do the same.

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