Equity and Engagement in Climate Response
This page addresses how local governments in Washington State can identify and reach out to vulnerable populations that are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change, including examples of local community engagement and equity policies.
It is part of MRSC’s series on Climate Change.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments about the resources on this page.
Conducting outreach and educational programs with the public is a vital component of fully realizing climate action goals. Outreach programs should engage diverse community groups on the potential hazards from climate change and provide transparency on climate action plans. The public should be engaged early and often throughout the planning process to ensure that goals reflect the needs and priorities of residents.
However, the impacts of climate change are not and will not be felt equally in communities throughout Washington. People who are already vulnerable typically have access to fewer resources to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and will experience greater impacts. In addition, people and communities that depend on the natural resource economy (i.e., agriculture, forestry, tourism/outdoor recreation, and fisheries) are particularly vulnerable to the growing impacts of changes in climate. These communities are on the frontlines of the climate experience.
Who Is Most Likely to Be Impacted?
The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment, prepared by U.S. Global Change Research Program, highlights three frontline communities in the Northwest: tribes and Indigenous peoples; people who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods; and low-income populations in urban and rural environments.
Chapter 70A.02 RCW defines “vulnerable populations” to include without limitation:
Racial or ethnic minorities;
Populations disproportionately impacted by environmental harms; and
Populations of workers experiencing environmental harms.
Among the “environmental harms” referred to in this definition are (1) pollution that creates vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change, and (2) adverse health and economic impacts from climate change (see RCW 70A.02.010).
Engaging Frontline Communities
Seeking out and respecting the experience and knowledge of vulnerable communities is a central tenet of environmental justice. On its Environmental Justice webpage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines the principles of environmental justice as the:
(F)air treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.
In the context of climate, this means involvement in all aspects of climate change evaluation, planning, and selection of mitigation alternatives.
Here are some best practices for outreach to frontline communities.
Build authentic relationships
Trust is built over time, and it takes time to build trust with communities whose experiences with government may not have been positive. When developing an outreach plan, create a foundation for an ongoing relationship, not a one-off transaction designed to extract information and leave. Once a frontline community has provided input, follow up and show them how their participation has led to tangible results. Community members can also be invited to serve on an advisory or implementation task force.
The Renton Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force and King County’s Climate Equity Task Force are strong examples of effective relationship-building with diverse communities.
Design engagement efforts with thought and care
Agencies should design engagement events that are welcoming and do not create additional burdens for community members to attend. Consider co-hosting events with community groups that serve the core audiences your agency is seeking to engage. When designing an event, attend to key details, like meeting time, venue location, and consider providing food, childcare, and/or translation services to attract community members. Offer pop-up booths at community centers, churches, libraries, festivals, and coffee shops to build one-on-one connections. The Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan Public Engagement Strategy calls for the county to make use of existing summer fairs and festivals to maximize outreach efforts.
When designing promotional materials, make sure these are also available in the non-English languages spoken in your communities. For example, King County offers a climate change infographic that can be downloaded in Arabic, Samoan, Chinese, or Spanish. Promotional materials should also be written such that they are free of jargon, as not all readers will have expertise in environmental issues.
Use different types of engagement to meet people where they are
There may be certain populations that cannot access or attend in-person meetings or events. When in-person engagement is not the best solution for the target audience, consider using online surveys, polls, or QR code options, and provide access to these opportunities in frequently visited public spaces like city hall, public health clinics, and/or libraries.
Other options for inclusive engagement include phone calls or texts, polling, and door-to-door visits. Postcards/mailings that include a survey (or similar call-to-action) can also be effective, but note that including return postage increases the odds the survey will be mailed back. Shoreline’s Climate Action Community Engagement Plan provides examples of outreach to a wide range of audiences, from QR codes on public signs in highly trafficked areas to door-to-door visits conducted by multilingual high school students.
Pay for people’s time and expertise
Leaders in frontline communities can often reach out and involve community members who would otherwise be left out of the planning process. When your agency consults and partners with these community representatives, recognize that they are bringing with them a specific expertise. Acknowledge their contributions in a meaningful way, including paid compensation for advisory committee members or community liaisons. MRSC’s blog Investing in Equity to Prepare for Environmental Challenges describes how Shoreline compensated community-based climate advisors to assist in its engagement efforts related to the city's climate action plan update.
Examples of Equity Policies and Community Engagement in Climate Plans
Here are examples of local government climate action plans (CAPs) that specifically include an equity policy and/or community engagement plans and activities:
- Austin, TX Climate Equity Plan (2020) — Created with input from community members (as conducted by Community Climate Ambassadors) with a focus on engaging racially and economically diverse residents. Each strategy in the plan was evaluated through an equity tool that accounted for outcomes related to health, affordability, accessibility, community capacity, cultural preservation, accountability, and a transition to green jobs.
- Bainbridge Island Climate Action Plan, Section 8 (2020) — Identifies community outreach goals, challenges, and strategies with an emphasis on resident empowerment and education.
- King County Strategic Climate Action Plan (2020) — A thorough and comprehensive integration of outreach and equity goal into each policy area.
- Methow Valley Climate Action Plan (2021) — This CAP is a good example of integrating climate action education into local government goals. The Approach to Equity section explains how the planning process defined equity within the context of the Methow Valley and explicitly states a commitment to equity and deeply engaged community members. Students from Western Washington University evaluated equity in CAPs and provided recommendations for the Methow plan.
- Pierce County Sustainability 2030: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan (2021) — Applied equity-based guiding principles to review all suggested strategies and includes a section on education and outreach.
- Spokane Sustainability Action Plan, Implementation and Monitoring (2021) — Includes an equity checklist to ensure that benefits can be shared across the community without creating any unintended negative consequences to any geographic area or group of people.
- Tacoma Environmental Action Plan (2016) — Integrates outreach into each sustainability goal.
- Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan, Section 2.4 (2020) — Defines climate equity and shows how the plan addresses multiple facets of equity. It identifies strategies and actions related to housing, transportation, energy, and health. The county also developed a Public Engagement Toolkit for program volunteers.
Our Climate Change topic page offers links to all of MRSC's resources related to climate change, including blogs and webinars, including the Equity and Inclusion in Climate Action Planning webinar and associated webinar materials.
Additional topic pages to consult include:
- Community Engagement Resources
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources for Local Governments
- Language Access
- Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Climate Change and Environmental Justice: A Snapshot of Jurisdiction Activities (2023) — Provides samples of some state-based initiatives to improve the public health impact in communities disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution.
- Clean Energy Transition Institute: Rural and Tribal Communities Define Decarbonization (2022) — Looks at whether decarbonization strategies and clean energy development can address energy inequities in Washington’s rural and Tribal communities
- Greenlining Institute: A Guidebook on Making Equity Real in Climate Adaptation and Community Resilience Policies and Programs (2019) — This comprehensive guidebook includes recommendations on how to incorporate equity principles into climate adaptation and resilience policies and programs. It also includes a section on meaningful community engagement.
- Spark Northwest — Works directly with communities across the state to develop affordable, locally controlled clean energy projects.
- Urban Sustainability Directors Network: Equity — Includes links to all of USDN’s resources related to equity, from reports and tools to case studies at the city, county, and state level.
- Washington State Department of Health: Environmental Health Disparities Map — An interactive mapping tool that compares environmental health disparities for communities across the state. The map can assist in identifying frontline communities by census tract. It shows pollution measures, such as diesel emissions, as well as proximity to hazardous waste sites. In addition, it displays measures like poverty and cardiovascular disease.
- Washington State Interagency Council on Health Disparities and Environmental Justice Task Force — Was responsible for recommending strategies for incorporating environmental justice principles into future State agency actions across Washington. Includes links to the group’s final report, recommendations, bylaws, and operating principles.