What it Means to Be a Climate Citizen


Alongside my roles as mother and spouse, it is being a citizen I hold most dear. It is as a citizen, I act with most reverence, with most intention, and with the most hope for the future.

As I’ve come into my work in recent years, I’ve begun to realize my work almost always starts from the idea of citizenship. More specifically, I work and act as a climate citizen.

And though I’ve acted on my identity as a climate citizen, I haven’t yet written down what I think it means.

Now, we’re in the midst of Climate Week at the UN. We’re seeing the building momentum of a youth climate justice movement led mostly by young women. We’re in what looks to be the beginning of a crescendo about impeachment of my own county’s president. And to add to it all, the UN just released another devastating climate science report. This one about climate impacts on oceans and the cryosphere.

It feels like it’s time for some reflection about citizenship, specifically climate citizenship.

So, here it is. My first attempt at defining what it means to be a climate citizen.

But first, it’s important to recognize that the political climate we are in makes conversations about citizenship challenging and sometimes problematic. Citizenship as legal status, and the lack of it, is being used in horrifying ways that sow fear, mistrust, and civil and humans rights abuses in different communities. Some shy away from using the words citizen and citizenship for good reasons.

My response to this challenge is that when I discuss citizenship, I speak not so much of status, though status is important for reasons I will discuss below. I use citizenship as a powerful way to describe a way of being and acting in public life. To give up the power of the idea of citizen and citizenship would give way to undemocratic forces, and I am unwilling to do so.

What is citizenship?

I act with reverence as a citizen because citizenship is a sacred trust between the individual and the collective. And this sacred trust matters for both the life of an individual citizen and for the collective citizenry determining their future together through democracy.

It is only through the collective that an individual can enjoy certain goods – goods such as universal education and certain kinds of security. At the same time, as a citizen the individual has both the right and the responsibility to hold the collective together and to shape what the future of the collective looks like. In other words, citizenship is an active process of consent and dissent of individuals as part of the collective.

Perhaps most importantly, it is through citizenship that an individual can most fully be part of a community bigger than themselves and have an ability to enact their agency over a shared future, a desire that is essentially human.

What this means for me is that as a citizen I am able to define myself as a part of a community, a state, a nation, and the world. I have found that I am only able to live the life I want through these kinds of collective identity. I cannot think of myself only as an individual, and so I claim and am claimed by citizenship.

Citizens can act with elected officials. For example, at this press conference announcing a new climate action caucus in Minnesota, both legislators and young people spoke.

Citizenship as rights and responsibilities

While citizenship is multi-faceted, much of it can be thought of in two buckets – citizenship as rights and citizenship as responsibilities.

Rights of citizens

Citizenship includes a whole host of rights. In my own country, citizenship includes rights of protection – rights to a fair trial, to privacy, to equal protection under law, to freely practice religion, against unlawful search and seizure, and to a measure of economic security.

These are rights citizens must work together to uphold, so in a sense they depend on another set of rights – the rights that enable citizens to act with agency in their democracy.

These rights include the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to assemble, to petition government, and more. These rights are the foundations of citizens engaging in the governance process and of their consent to be governed.

Responsibilities of citizens

Importantly, these rights of democratic and civic agency must not only be protected, these rights must be used by citizens in order for them to actually result in democracy. Being a good citizen requires taking on the responsibility to use and protect rights. In so doing, citizens take on responsibility for others in a democracy (both citizens and non-citizens) and for the democracy as a whole. A good citizen follows the law, which goes some way to protecting and upholding the rights of others. Being a good citizen also requires deeper engagement in public life. Voting, engaging others in conversation about the community’s future, petitioning government, challenging both unjust laws and the unjust application of laws.

Climate citizens in Minnesota exercise their right and responsibility to assemble as part of a global climate strike on September 20.

Climate citizens

So, what does all this talk of being a citizen and citizenship mean when adding the idea of climate to the idea of citizenship? Here are some answers to begin.

Climate citizens and human rights

The relationship between borders and the citizenship status of people matters, and it’s something that is central to climate citizenship. Climate change is already forcing the movement of people around the planet and across borders. The state protection of these borders and treatment of people trying to cross them have already resulted in human rights abuses driven, in part, by climate change. While these movements of people are only going to grow into a climate-changed future, the human rights abuses do not have to grow. Climate citizenship involves taking on the work of ensuring mass human migration does not lead to mass human rights abuses.

Climate citizens act with civic agency

Climate citizenship involves putting climate change in the center of engagement with public life. Climate citizens vote on climate, show up in public spaces for climate, run for office with serious climate platforms, and knock on doors for climate candidates. They bring climate work into their civic groups – places like libraries, small business, and professional societies. Climate citizens defend institutions and values that are important for democracy and for acting on climate – a free press, academic freedom, science, public education, a social safety net. They know a well-functioning democracy is as important as anything for addressing climate change. Climate citizens protect democracy with an urgency that matches their concern about the climate crisis.

Climate citizens act with solidarity

One of the very hard things about citizenship is that it requires respecting the citizenship and humanity of others, especially those with which one disagrees. It requires acting with a sense of solidarity with others, even in the face of all kinds of disagreement. This work of solidarity in the face of disagreement is hard. For climate citizens, it is especially hard because of the complexity of both the problems and of the emotions these problems elicit. Acting with care, intention, and integrity in civic and democratic relationships matters for climate citizenship. Climate citizens take care of themselves and others in ways that make acting with a true sense of solidarity possible.

Climate citizens grapple with reality

The reality of climate change is the planet isn’t going to compromise with us humans. The climate system works the way it does, and so climate citizens grapple with the realities of how this system works. And they use tools – especially the best science available – to understand potential paths forward. At the same time, climate citizens know that while science can help us understand how the climate works, it does not dictate the path we take. Figuring out that path is the work of climate citizens.

My core beliefs as a climate citizen

At the core, my identity as a climate citizen depends on holding and acting on two interconnected beliefs. First, I believe that my actions as a citizen matter for shaping our climate future. Second, I believe that others act in good faith with the same belief. As climate citizens, we act on these beliefs despite not knowing the future and whether these beliefs are true.

We wade through the feelings of fear, of grief, of shame, of hopelessness that knowledge of climate change brings. Together, we climate citizens create feelings of strength, of hope, maybe even of joy in taking part in noble and necessary work. Most important, together we create the resolve for relentless action on climate.

And in acting as climate citizens, we make true the belief that our actions matter. Together, we climate citizens create the democracy capable of withstanding the onslaught of challenges wrought by the climate crisis.

Leave a Reply