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Climate Ambassadors in Vernon: Helping to Create Broad Support for Climate Action

Mary Stockdale

· General

As Regional Organizer for BC’s Interior and North, Laura Sacks is always on the look-out for innovative initiatives to share with the greater hub community. On the first BC-wide Community Climate Hub call in November 2020, Mary Stockdale talked about the climate ambassadors program she helped launch in Vernon. Immediately Laura wanted to learn more, and asked Mary if she would be interested in writing something for a Hublog, so she could share with climate hub members across the country.

Please read on for this contribution from Mary Stockdale, who is an Adjunct Professor in Geography at UBC’s Okanagan campus. She is also a member of the new Okanagan Climate Hub.

The climate emergency requires creative ideas and the willingness to innovate. This is especially true when working in small municipalities, where resources are scarce. The Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC) of the City of Vernon, BC (population approx. 42,000) has developed an innovative climate ambassador program that helps to engage a wider range of community members in order to build their climate plan.

The City of Vernon formally launched a process for developing a Climate Action Plan (CAP) in late 2018, after growing pressure from climate activists for ambitious municipal action on climate change. To advise this process, a Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC) was set up, consisting of community members selected to represent a range of relevant backgrounds.

The CAAC’s climate ambassador program has emerged as a leading mechanism for reaching out to the wider community. Over the spring of 2019, city planner Laurie Cordell, together with CAAC members Bill Darnell and myself, held a number of half-day training sessions for over 30 ambassadors, including four youth ambassadors, all of whom had been recruited though CAAC networks. These training sessions focused mainly on building the capacity of the ambassadors to deliver an interactive, customized 20 minutes slide presentation that aimed to raise awareness of, and seek community input into, the proposed CAP.

The inspiration for this program came from an unusual source: the UK-based Climate Outreach, a leading international climate communications organization with whom I have worked, long-distance, in recent years. The central tenet of Climate Outreach’s theory of change is that climate communicators must find ways to reach beyond the usual environmentalist groups. They must engage a far wider swath of society, in order to build the broad social mandate needed to avoid political polarization and to achieve ambitious, and sustained, climate action. A significant amount of this work can, and must, take place at the community level.

Vernon’s City staff and CAAC members modelled our ambassador program off the success of Climate Outreach’s climate ambassador program for the Women’s Institute, a network of 6,300 institutes and over 220,000 members. Their program supports communities across the UK in talking about and preparing for the impacts of climate change. Key concepts in both Climate Outreach’s and Vernon’s ambassador programs, arising from the research evidence base, centre on training trusted messengers to reach out to their own peer networks, using customised language and narratives that connect to their target audience’s particular sense of identity, core values, and aspirations for a better future.

The result so far of our Vernon ambassador program has been outreach to over 1000 community members in a wide range of groups, including service organizations, non-profits, professional organizations, clubs, churches and businesses. This has undoubtedly led to a wider awareness of the CAP in the community, and considerable feedback from community members into the development of the plan. In December, 2020, an ambitious draft Climate Action Plan was adopted in principle by City Council. After another round of community engagement, it will be taken back to the Council in early April for consideration of approval for implementation.

An informal evaluation of the ambassador program so far has been helpful as we think ahead to adapting the program for the CAP implementation, as opposed to planning, phase. Key findings show that the top barriers are related to volunteer comfort in speaking up and reaching people beyond the “usual suspects”.

It can be difficult to step forward and be first amongst your peers in talking about climate change. Our ambassadors need a lot of support, especially as we move towards engaging these groups that are more difficult to reach. We will need to explore new ways for these climate champions to interact with their peers in ways that feel most appropriate and comfortable to them; for example, by further exploring how to have one-to-one climate conversations, or take a more action-oriented approach.

There has still, to date, been a tendency to mostly preach to the converted, engaging community groups that are already supportive of climate action. We are now developing a community-based research program with UBC Okanagan on how to engage those community groups that are more difficult to reach. These range from groups with a tendency to low engagement, such as faith groups (although a promising start has been made in several churches), workers and trade unions, and high-income citizens; to groups with barriers to engagement, such as youth (although some steps in the right direction have been made here), Indigenous community members, visible minorities, and low-income citizens.

Our climate ambassador work is an ever-evolving process where we find ourselves constantly innovating and learning from the collective wisdom. We would be happy to share ideas with any interested groups across the province or beyond, so please contact us if you are interested in learning more at: mary.stockdale@gmail.com 

Mary, an Adjunct Professor in Geography at UBC’s Okanagan campus, has made engaging communities in climate action her central concern. Locally, she has been a founder and director of the 10 year old North Okanagan network Climate Action Now! (CAN!), and she is also the Co-Chair for the Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC) of the City of Vernon, who have just released their draft Climate Action Plan. Mary has also worked for the UK-based climate communications organization Climate Outreach.

She is part of the new Okanagan Climate Hub that covers Vernon.

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