“We all have power,” says Mariela Vasquez, a youth ambassador with climate advocacy group California Environmental Voters. “But it takes someone else to encourage us and show us how to use it.” Throughout California’s Central Valley and Inland Empire, she is working to do just that.
Mariela has spent the last few years with the group doing community outreach and engagement around climate and environmental issues in the Central Valley, home to some of the worst air quality in the country. To her, having an impact means helping her community, especially other young people, become more informed about local environmental issues and policies so they can channel that knowledge into political participation. This commitment to ensuring that the public has input into decisions about climate policy is at the core of environmental democracy, a model that some governments have sought to implement to achieve more democratic and equitable outcomes in environmental policymaking. But as Mariela and her peers can attest, the attempts to put the ideals of environmental democracy into practice have been far from perfect.
Young activists across the country and globe see the potential power of working locally to build more sustainable, resilient communities, but they run into barriers — as young people, as activists, and as constituents — that make this lever of change difficult to access. Recognizing the benefits and challenges of incorporating public voices into local decision-making can help improve such processes and bring them closer to reaching the participatory aspirations of environmental democracy. In particular, the experiences of young people, especially those from marginalized backgrounds who have historically had less access to political power, can highlight the shortcomings of many efforts — genuine or not — to receive public input in climate policy development.
To better understand the obstacles standing in the way of effective environmental democracy, I interviewed four young climate activists: Mariela, Lucy Ramsey, Wendy Pernillo, and Robin Sack. As a collective, they are far from representative of every young climate activist. Coming from Oregon and California, they represent geographies with unique environmental problems, strong climate policies, and similar partisan contexts. Yet they speak to some of the challenges that young people face as they try to make their voices heard locally on decisions that will impact them for years to come.
The promise of environmental democracy
Environmental democracy is a model of climate policy decision-making within governments of all scales that centers on partnerships with community members as stakeholders. Initially outlined at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and reified in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, environmental democracy ensures that those who are impacted by policies have access to the information that is the basis for those decisions, a means to voice their perspectives, and access to justice as policies are developed and implemented.
In a local context, involving the public in policy development and implementation can allow governments to meet the participatory goals of environmental democracy and can sometimes yield greater government transparency. Making these processes accessible for all constituents, especially those from marginalized and underrepresented communities, is essential to countering a long legacy of environmental policies that have caused disproportionate harm to the groups often excluded from influencing those decisions.
In practice, however, creating systems for public input can be difficult to do in a way that supports the diverse needs of a community, particularly for climate issues that have added obstacles like the need for scientific expertise and the occasional urgency of decision-making, such as in the aftermath of a disaster.
Benefits of environmental democracy processes
As local and state governments strive to reach state and national benchmarks for climate-related goals, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions, local democratic processes for public participation serve as critical tools to unify efforts between governments and residents. Moreover, public participation can help ensure that climate and environmental decision-making is serving all members of a community, helping localities tackle the climate crisis with greater equity in outcomes.
This goal is especially important considering the history of environmental racism perpetrated at the local level. Decades of discriminatory environmental policies and closely connected policies around transportation, housing, and urban planning have left communities of color the most vulnerable to climate change and other environmental hazards. For example, communities of color bore the brunt of the development of U.S. highways, and even today, roughly half of those who live near highways and suffer from highway traffic pollution are nonwhite. Inequitable policies like these, which have enduring health and economic repercussions, have existed for decades. More participatory approaches to environmental decision-making and planning, when carried out equitably, may be one avenue for mitigating environmental harms for all people.
In the case of Wendy Pernillo, an organizer in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, she hopes that advocating for her community, which is predominantly nonwhite and low income, at the state level can help shape policy related to air quality in the region, while also remaining responsive to the community’s economic needs, including the opportunities provided by the warehouses in the area. In her mind, seeing that the needs of her community are lobbied for in state and local governments is among the biggest benefits of her work.
The other benefits of engaging the public in the process of government decision-making are manifold. At the individual level, this kind of community engagement can build social capital, bolster civic knowledge, and improve well-being. Wendy and other young activists like Lucy Ramsey, of the youth-led climate advocacy organization Sunrise Movement PDX, feel more hopeful and less cynical by working in partnership with like-minded peers.
These emotional benefits are noteworthy because young people today are facing a mental health crisis, which is only worsened in the face of climate change. Yet the potential advantages should be viewed with a measure of caution, as involvement in politics can be taxing on young people’s mental health, often resulting in burnout for those who lack the support systems to help them cope with social and political stressors. However, research suggests that maintaining close connections to community organizations can counteract the harms of activism on mental health. Lucy and Wendy’s experiences highlight just this: political organizing is hard, but it takes less of a toll when done in community with others.
At the community level, mechanisms of public participation, and activists like Mariela who are providing their communities with information and resources to take action, can help community members become informed about and engaged in local environmental issues. This can in turn result in communities that care more about sustainability and have greater trust in science and government. This type of engagement can also foster community connectedness and resilience, which has proven to be useful in moments when communities are threatened, such as in the face of wildfires.
Research and firsthand experience also suggest ways that participatory processes can improve climate and environmental policy, a notion that counters assumptions that climate policy must be solely expert-driven. Nonexperts can offer valuable and overlooked insights to climate policy. For instance, in developing transportation policy and planning, the lived experiences of young people and older constituents who rely on public transit, who work and live in affected areas, and who may have disabilities that impact their use of public transit add substantive value to the policymaking process.
Improving environmental democracy processes
While getting engaged at the local level can be a great way to increase knowledge and resiliency throughout the community, this work comes with many challenges for both policymakers and the public. For policymakers, creating sustainable systems for input demands a significant amount of money, time, and personnel. Already burdened by time and resource constraints, policymakers face even greater challenges in fulfilling a commitment to diverse representation and creating inclusive processes that guarantee the participation of individuals from marginalized backgrounds.
These difficulties assume a good-faith effort by policymakers, but in many localities across the country, this may be unlikely. Especially given the power held by industry, corporations, and other moneyed interests in politics, the public can be low on the list of stakeholders to please in some political contexts.
Regardless of whether this is the case in their local contexts, all four of the activists I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment. For young people, these processes can feel hollow, and opportunities for public voice seem inadequate without better outreach and education. When asked how they would want to see local governments improve how they engage constituents in climate policy and decision-making, the young activists I spoke to expressed three desires: greater accountability, improved access to information and opportunities to learn, and more contact from politicians and policymakers in their communities.
Even when structures were in place for public comment, neither Mariela nor Robin felt like they were heard. Mariela reflected on training volunteers to send letters to assembly people: “I never know if they are going to open those, if they are going to care about those.” Robin’s experiences lobbying in the Oregon state capitol and trying to get the attention of the Oregon Department of Transportation with Sunrise PDX were similar. They said, “A lot of time it feels like they are just advertising that they are going out into communities that are being affected by their projects but not actually listening to what they have to say.”
The nature of these forms of public participation can make it challenging to effectively analyze and display their impact. In a 1990 article, Daniel Fiorino of the Environmental Protection Agency wrote, “[Public hearings] give at least the appearance of individual and community involvement, legitimate decisions already made, warn the agency of potential political and legal obstacles, satisfy legal or procedural requirements, and defuse the opposition.” Absent an authentic intention to incorporate constituents’ comments, this explanation aligns with the experiences of Robin and Mariela, who haven’t felt heard even within processes ostensibly designed to invite their feedback. Intentional efforts to share how public comment shaped policy and implementation is a first step toward more bidirectional communication between government bodies and the public.
Transparency and information
Another gap identified by these young organizers is access to information about often opaque local and state political processes. A lot of the work they do seeks to demystify these processes for other young people in their communities, but these activists would like to see local governments pick up more of the slack. Lucy walked me through the process of offering testimony, from locating an elusive corner of the city website and registering for the Zoom session to discovering surprise laws and regulations that without legal expertise on their youth-led team would be hard to forecast. To put it mildly, “there’s a lot of hoops to jump through.”
These barriers are more likely to be felt by communities that have been historically underrepresented in politics, not to mention those without easy access to the internet or who may face language barriers. Even voting, one of the more straightforward ways for the public to have its voice heard in a democracy, is rife with obstacles, many of which are more likely to impact young people and people of color. Sharing information is a pillar of environmental democracy, and making processes for public input and engagement more accessible is paramount for improving environmental democracy and advancing environmental justice.
Contact with the public
Along with greater access to information, Mariela and Wendy both wanted to see their representatives at all levels of government be more present in their communities. Mariela wondered at the potential impact on her peers’ civic knowledge and trust in government if assembly members or state senators had held an event like a town hall at her high school. While not direct forums for public comment, greater face-to-face time with constituents, such as town halls and in-person community events, could help to improve the trust and relationship between government leaders and constituents. Over time, this may help more people feel welcomed into avenues for public input, especially those from underrepresented communities that may historically have felt like or received messages that such participation wasn’t for them.
Challenges of participating in environmental democracy processes
Absent such support for public participation, constituents of all ages face more difficulties in having their voices heard by local governments. Systemic barriers aside, each activist noted some of the personal psychological hurdles young climate activists face, including self-doubt, burnout, and imposter syndrome. Robin recounted the thought process they know many of their peers experience: “Am I really supposed to be doing this? Am I out of place in this space? Should I be using my time when they aren’t even going to take me seriously? And do I deserve to be taken seriously?” The political imbalance between a politician and a constituent is large, but it grows with age disparity, a feeling shared by the other young activists.
Wendy commented that the slow, tedious effort of local activism can lead to burnout, especially when she and her peers don’t feel like they are being heard. These feelings are compounded for youth from marginalized identities, who may face more barriers and have less support in getting engaged. Wendy explained the discomfort she can feel as a young woman of color in many of these decision-making spaces that often are dominated by older people, white people, and men.
Legacies of racism and colonialism influence who feels welcome to take advantage of opportunities for public input. Individuals’ and communities’ willingness and ability to get involved in these processes depends in part on their relationships with government entities, which are far from equal. For instance, Indigenous communities are leaders in the environmental movement and hold a wealth of traditional knowledge about conservation and land stewardship, yet their defense of the environment has often been met by violence at the hands of the state, such as the violent response to protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These injustices and inequities perpetrated by the state remain deeply connected to individuals’ perception and likelihood of participating in participatory opportunities in decision-making.
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If embraced authentically, the principles of environmental democracy could help facilitate the changes these young activists want. Dedicated efforts to bring more people into the fold when it comes to deciding and implementing climate policy help spread information broadly to the community. And community engagement efforts where policymakers listen to the perspectives of the public and truly value the expertise their lived experiences provide could be a first step in improving relationships between policymakers and their constituents and increasing accountability.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a call for applications for its National Environmental Youth Advisory Council, which will “provide advice and recommendations on environmental issues directly to the head of the EPA.” While not a local body, this new council follows in the footsteps of local and global counterparts and shows one method of public input that can harness the power of intergenerational wisdom and partnership to shape policy agendas and implementation. Thinking more creatively at the local level about how governments can better incorporate the voices of youth, and the public more broadly, into climate policy may be one way to push toward helping young people feel like they are heard on perhaps the most defining health, economic, and national security issue of their generation.
To strengthen our democracy — and our climate policy — local and state governments need to continue to center the values of environmental democracy, taking care to not only seek out but to consider and incorporate the perspectives of diverse young people. As activists like Robin, Mariela, Wendy, and Lucy seek to empower their communities and share their perspectives, our local democracies must meet the moment and create stronger structures for community input in environmental policymaking.