Editor's Note: This is the second installation in a series explaining why people from many backgrounds are acting on climate change. Read the first installation.
Brooklyn, New York City
Attorney and Environmental Justice Leader; Executive Director of UPROSE
Historically, people from low incomes and people of color have suffered at the hands of major carbon emitters. Generation after generation has gotten sick from chemicals in factories or fossil fuel plants—has been forced to live near toxic sites. So it’s really important for these communities to drive the climate change agenda and embrace these issues.
Building resilience has to be a block by block effort. It may seem really localized and really small, but there is already innovation within low income communities — our communities are really taking ownership and planning environmental remediation and mitigation. Our communities can teach society new ways of thinking about living with limited carbon footprints because we already recycle, repurpose, and reuse. We live sustainably because we can’t afford to live any other way.
If our consumption culture can stop thinking that more is better then we can actually change politics and the economy. And if we can do that, we can change the role that the United States plays in the global climate change agenda. I believe that we can create a groundswell of support that will force our representatives to follow.
Former 1st and 5th Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
The potential impact of the earth’s warming at an accelerating rate and the degree of global cooperation requires all Americans to insist that our country take the lead in mobilizing the world’s response. Nothing short of American leadership will suffice.
The biggest hurdle is public apathy. Unless the public demands action Congress will not overcome its current dysfunction. The four former Republican EPA administrators Lee Thomas (President Reagan), Bill Reilly (President George H.W. Bush), Christine Whitman (President George W. Bush) and myself (Presidents Nixon and Reagan) have all decided that our experience in managing societal risks in the face of scientific uncertainty makes us qualified to speak out and therefore we are—both individually and collectively.
I believe that if the evidence of the effects of global warming—such as sea level rise affecting drinking water in Florida, glacial melt in Greenland and Western Antarctica, and ocean acidification and its impacts on oysters and other shellfish in Puget Sound—hits home then people will see the here-and-now impacts and become more insistent that something be done. If the public demands action it will happen. The skeptical scientists may never be convinced but so far they are in the distinct minority.
I personally hope the skeptics are right and the problem never materializes. The action the world takes now to diversify our energy sources will still be of great benefit to the vast majority of the world citizens. However I am skeptical of the skeptics. If the skeptics are wrong and we do nothing then some of the effects of increasing global warming could be very, very severe. Managing that risk downward just makes common sense.
Labor Union Organizer, Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project
As workers and environmentalists we’re often being pitted against each other—as though we had to choose between our economy or our environment, our jobs or our lives. But we can’t. We need both.
Climate disruption and the economic instability it causes will be the defining features of the economy for many, many generations to come. Given the carbon already in the atmosphere, an unprecedented transition is already inevitable. However, ensuring that it is a just transition (for example that the risks and sacrifices are shared equitably) is far from inevitable. The fight will be (and, indeed, already is) between false solutions that exacerbate climate disruption and inequity and real solutions that restore right relation to each other and to the planet.
The biggest challenge is the biggest opportunity. We are in the midst of both the biggest planetary emergency we’ve ever seen that threatens our very survival as a species. At the same time, we’re in the midst of some of the worst economic devastation, income inequality, and poverty that we’ve experienced in generations. Some would see these as separate issues and claim that we need jobs, therefore we must accept whatever kind of jobs there are—whether that’s building refineries, laying pipeline, fracking, incinerators, etc. Or we can realize that the same extractive economy that tries to get more labor out of workers than workers can take is the same extractive economy that takes more (and faster) from our natural resources than the planet can regenerate.
The truth is that we CAN have both—work that meets the needs of our communities, respects workers’ rights, and restores the damage that we’ve already done to the planet. We just need to lead a just transition to that kind of economy that is based on shared values of ecological balance and economic prosperity for all.
Mayor of Carmel, (R-IN)
I believe strongly that I need to act in the best interest of my city and its residents. When I continue to see scientific reports, like the one issued in December 2013 by the National Research Council, reinforcing the warning that continued global warming—no matter the cause—could bring rapid and drastic changes that could have real impact on our community, I feel compelled to do the right thing. Almost every night on the news we see bizarre things like the outbreak of mountain pine beetles out West and in Canada and the drastic decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic, which if it persists could have ramifications that would not only affect those living in that region, but many others in the path of more bizarre weather patterns.
For cities like Carmel, Indiana, this is a matter of concern when you think about the potential impact on electrical grids and the city’s emergency response capabilities in the event of natural disasters.
There are many who hesitate to be “aligned” with the Democratic Party in this debate. Which is a shame, because the roots of conservancy lie in the GOP … going back to President Teddy Roosevelt who established our national parks, U.S. Forest Service, and preserved more than 200 million acres of wilderness. I don’t see it as a political issue. There has been a constant drumbeat to make this much more of a cultural debate, rather than one of science. I suspect that those who fail to heed the warnings and learn the lessons of history will more than likely end up unprepared and paying a pretty steep price.
When I was a Boy Scout we were taught to conserve. Our parents, children of the Great Depression, recycled everything. The root of the word conservative is conserve. I would argue that both liberals and conservatives should be interested in conservation and energy independence. This is not only an issue of cleaning up our air and water. It’s a matter of quality of life.
As told to Rene Ebersole and Manon Verchot