Citizens for a Greener Society

Traditionally policies for a green and sustainable future have been driven by «experts» and policy makers. A new approach to the goal of achieving much-needed transformation gives the citizens a much more active role in policy development and changes in behaviour.

Antje Klitkou, forsker, NIFU,
Lina Ingeborgrud, forsker, NIFU,
Lisa Scordato, forsker, NIFU

Citizens’ empowerment to act on societal challenges

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015) is an invite to concerted actions on challenges to achieve sustainability. Many of these challenges are grounded in established systems of politics, technologies, markets, practices and cultures, and they require new and radical solutions.

One response has been more public and private funding into research and technology, along with government regulations to facilitate the replacement of fossil energy sources with renewable ones. One way is to replace conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines with electrical battery cars and subsidising the massive deployment of wind energy.

Citizen involvement

However, over the last decade it has become increasingly clear that responding to the large social and environmental problems threatening our planet and communities is not a question of science, technology, and regulations alone. It is also a matter of how the citizens respond to and engage in these issues, and not least their ability to act.

The pivotal role of citizen engagement in sustainability transitions has captured the attention of social scientists who are studying conditions leading to more sustainable systems that can provide energy, mobility, food, agriculture and more. This research focus on citizens has led to the emergence of new notions such as environmental citizenship.

This explicit focus on the citizen shifts the traditional understanding of the citizen as a passive user and a barrier towards the necessary transitions taking place. There is an increasing interest for bottom-up collective engagement, grassroot movements and self-organisation.

If we look at citizenship in the context of clean energy transitions this takes different forms: as energy communities with prosumers or social movements, new social practices of using energy, as collective engagement in energy-related controversies (e.g. about the siting of renewables, protests against coal mining) or through the response to external shocks (e.g. accidents such as the severe nuclear failures in Fukushima 2011, or climate change induced extreme events such as heatwaves, storms and floods).

A just and fair transition

An important implication of a citizen-centred perspective of transitions is the need to ensure a ‘just’ transition, which means that both costs and benefits are shared appropriately between the actors involved. For example; Only using “sticks!”, in the forms of fees and taxes for reducing private car use, may be more disadvantageous to less affluent workers who are not able to work from home and who have few mobility alternatives, compared to more affluent groups who do not find it hard to pay or find alternative means of transport.

Moreover, this ‘social justice’ perspective feeds into discussions on what is a fair distribution of responsibilities, benefits and burdens between national governments and citizens, and not least how to ensure fair decision-making processes related to sustainability issues. For example, people think it is unfair if citizens are forced to make changes in their everyday life if the national governments do not respond accordingly through its environmental policy.

Not considering these issues risk exacerbating public polarisation over the challenges (e.g. between pro-environment groups and climate change deniers) which leaves room for populistic movements who see climate policies as an elite agenda that threatens local economies and jobs, and who therefore mistrust the science as well as relevant policy initiatives. We have also seen actors actively exploiting this mistrust to protect their interests.


The European Network for environmental citizenship has defined environmental citizenship as «the responsible proenvironmental behaviour of citizens who act and participate in society as agents of change in the private and public sphere, on a local, national and global scale, through individual and collective actions, in the direction of solving contemporary environmental problems, preventing the creation of new environmental problems, achieving sustainability as well as developing a healthy relationship with nature».1

Conflict between agendas

Such polarisation may also be found between groups representing different pro-environmental agendas, such as those advocating for massive production of renewable energy and those rather arguing on the importance to protect biodiversity.

This is evident in Norway’s discourse on the development of onshore wind. Such opposition is often described by policymakers, developers and other renewable energy actors with the concept of NIMBY (Not-In-My- Backyard) which suggests that people generally claim to promote renewable energy technologies, but that they selfishly reject them when they are planned close to their homes.

However, there is lack of empirical evidence of such NIMBYism, and alternative perspectives rather point to people’s place attachment and identity, in which opposition to for example wind farms can be understood as place-protective actions2. In Norway’s case, onshore wind development has mobilised large groups of protesters all over the country, also represented by those not living in proposed wind farm areas.

Lack of inclusion

Protests, such as in the wind example above or climate change denial, may also be a response to a lack of inclusion in decision-making processes on sustainability issues. An environmental citizenship perspective, by contrast, emphasises inclusion of citizens by giving them additional rights as well as duties.

The general elements of citizenship encompass civil rights, political rights and social rights on the one side and duties,
such as paying taxes, participating in social or military services, and obeying laws on the other. Environmental citizenship covers rights on clean air and water, the right of future generations to have a healthy planet, and the protection of animal welfare and biodiversity. The additional duties include green behaviour such as recycling, and collective and individualised responsibilities.

Environmental citizenship must be based on the «development of the willingness and the competences for critical and active engagement and civic participation»3. Still, developing such willingness and competences for engagement is not a straight-forward task. Behaviour and behavioural change are well-explored and debated concepts among social science and humanities researchers working on sustainability transitions.

Empowerment is an important strategy for increasing the impact of environmental citizenship and to enable citizen participation in decision making. Photo Solstock.


Within this strand of research, many parties have pointed to a so-called awareness-action-
4 to explain the dissonance between people’s awareness of environmental issues and climate change and how they act in their everyday lives. Such perspectives stress the fact that people may not necessarily lack information and education on these subjects, but they may face practical challenges when trying to live in accordance with their knowledge about these issues. This leads to the issue of empowerment.

Empowerment is an important strategy for increasing the impact of environmental citizenship and to enable citizen participation in decision making. Empowerment is key both as an input and as an outcome when people and communities mobilise in environmental issues, and this is conceptualised in the term environmental empowerment.5

We understand environmental empowerment as a combination of internal and external empowerment.

Internal empowerment refers to civic knowledge, self-confidence, praxis and activism towards sustainability transitions, and this may focus on situation-specific individual competence in people’s everyday lives.

External empowerment points to the structural and systemic conditions (policies, institutions and infrastructures) to enable such transitions. This acknowledges that the way we eat, travel and consume is highly intertwined with infrastructures and societal norms, and that we also need looking into how society is organised to possibly facilitate more environmentally friendly choices.

The combination of the internal and external empowerment may lead to citizen participation in environmental issues and to their active contribution to address and solve environmental problems. This is mostly based on collective forms of environmental empowerment, which may take the form of for example grassroot movements.

When power preaches

One major challenge to collective environmental empowerment is that policy makers as well as NGOs may deliberately or subconsciously turn such learning arenas into instruments where the «experts» are to convince the citizens that they are wrong and need to change their behaviour. In other words: The experts are «talking down» to the participating citizens, with the goal to inform them about the facts and the policies needed, not to listen to their concerns and ideas.

Such attitudes risk reinforcing the scepticism found among some citizens towards politicians, activists and «experts».

The narratives around societal and environmental challenges are becoming increasingly politicized and associated with tribal identities. Even if the starting point is that climate change is real and that something has to be done about it (which is a fair assumption), citizens must be given room to air their grievances and explain their scepticism, partly because they may bring in helpful perspectives that are lacking in the regular debate, but also because this will help all participants better understand the cultural, social and psychological dynamics of the relevant conflicts. These dynamics cannot and should not be ignored.

Futures Literacy

Still, the big question is how to create environmental empowerment in practice. One suggestion is by focusing on people’s hopes and visions for the future, their motivation for action towards environmental issues, their belief that they may be able to influence the future.6

In this context fostering Futures Literacy may be crucially important as it is a necessary capability to enable participants to reveal, reframe and rethink the assumptions they use to imagine the future.


Futures Literacy Laboratories (FLLs) are co-created learning-by-doing processes with the objective to enable participants to reveal, reframe and rethink the assumptions they use to imagine the future.

The approach is anchored in the tradition of Futures Literacy and developed within the UNESCO network on anticipation. UNESCO defines Futures Literacy (FL) as a “capability and a skill that allows people to better understand the role that the future plays in what they see and do”.

According to Riel Miller, head of the Futures Literacy Unit at UNESCO, “Futures Literacy is important because imagining the future is what generates hope and fear, sense- making and meaning. The futures we imagine drive our expectations, disappointments and willingness to invest or to change” (Miller, 2018)7.

FLLs have been developed as a practical method aimed at developing futures literacy among stakeholders, integrating capacities for anticipation, reflexivity and inclusion in the development of projects, programmes, institutions and policies.

What makes FL distinctive is the capacity for improvisation, spontaneity and the explicit exploration and sense-making of our anticipatory assumptions. These are competences which are necessary when the objective is to address complex societal problems.

UNESCO has established a global network of policy makers and researchers who are developing and using Futures Literacy for similar purposes. In Norway, NIFU is part of this network through the Futures Literacy activities within the AFINO centre and through the informal network on Futures Literacy established by NIFU, the University of Stavanger, Fremtenkt in Bergen and the Research Council of Norway. The University of Stavanger and NIFU will now host a new UNESCO Chair on Futures Literacy.

See also Forskningspolitikk’s interview with Riel Miller

1 Cao, B. 2018. Defining Environmental Citizenship. Meeting of the European Network for Environmental Citizenship. Lemesos, Cyprus.
2 Devine-Wright, P. 2009. Rethinking NIMBYism: the role of place attachment and place identity in explaining place-protective action. J. Commun. Appl. Social Psychol. 19:426-441.
3 Cao, B. 2018.
4 Kollmuss, A., Agyeman, J. 2002. Mind the gap Environ. Educ. Res. 8(3):239-260.
5 Rich, R. C., Edelstein, M., Hallman, W. I., & Wandersman, A. H. 1995. Citizen participation and empowerment: The case of local environmental hazards. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 657-676.
6 Schreiner C., Sjøberg S. 2005. Empowered for Action? In: Cobern W.W. et al. (eds) Beyond Cartesian Dualism. Science & Technology Education Library, vol 29. Springer, Dordrecht. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3808-9_5.
7 Miller, Riel (2018) Transforming the future. Anticipation in the 21st Century. Routledge. New York.