Leaders At All Levels Must Rise Up to their Climate Promises

Danielle Meitiv delivered these opening remarks to Sept. 15th’s  Climate Emergency Town Hall in Montgomery County’s Silver Spring Civic Center:

I was invited because I’m known as someone who cares about this issue and I’m a scientist. But I’m not convinced that science is what we need right now. In fact, after more than twenty years of working on this - 27 if you include my interest pre grad school - I am convinced that more science is not the answer. After studying and researching and speaking about climate change for so long, I have to say that it hasn’t worked. We’ve known for decades that climate change was a threat to life on Earth. But we have yet to act.

In 1957, Roger Revelle told Congress that by burning fossil fuels “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future” - that was the year the term global warming was coined. He said that "The Earth itself is a space ship" and we endanger ourselves when we endanger our atmosphere

Thirty years later in 1988, James Hansen told Congress that he was 99.9% certain the earth was warmer then than it had ever been measured to be, that there was a clear cause and effect relationship between this warming and the greenhouse effect, and that the likelihood of freak weather was steadily increasing.

A year later the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and since then thousands of scientists have worked together to produce five assessments –  that all say the same thing with increasing urgency. Climate change is real. It’s happening now. We can do something to prevent disaster. But we have to act now.

And still no action. Not only has all this science not led to any action, any reductions in greenhouse gases - we are still steadily increasing our emissions. We have made ZERO progress over the time that I have been working in this field

Because this isn’t about science. Sure, good science can help with the details. Science can tell you IF the Earth is warming (IT IS) and how much. But it can’t tell you whether to care.

I wish there were a graph I could show you or a fact, a paper, a study I could point to that would suddenly motivate everyone in this room to do everything they can to take this crisis seriously and push our leaders to act. But there is no lack of science and it the plethora of facts hasn’t made much of a difference.

What we lack is courage. Leadership. Commitment.

So while you have invited me to speak as a scientist, I’m going to take off that hat and instead speak as a human being on a planet that is dying. On a planet that is burning. As a mother who looks at her children and fears for their future. For the frightening world my grandchildren will be living in. Because make no mistake - we are talking about a terrible future if we don’t act.

You think the heat waves are bad now? The hurricanes? The floods? We have only experienced one degree of warming. ONE. Even if we implement all of the commitments agreed to under the Paris Accord - and no wealthy nation has come close - we are committed to 4C. If we don’t reduce our emissions at all and continue with business as usual, that’s 6C.

Look at the chaos that resulted from 1 million refugees fleeing war in Syria. Climate change will make that 20 million. 200 million. Or more.

But there I go - do just what I said I wasn’t going to do. I’m throwing out facts and hoping that one of them will stick. That THIS ONE will convince people to ACT.

But what we need is courage. So, I’m going to put aside the science and the data and instead quote from one of the most courageous and passionate leaders on this or any issue – 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, the teenager who calls autism her superpower because it helps her speak truth to power. Yesterday, Greta joined American students for the Fridays for Future for a school strike outside the White House. It’s one of a global movement of school strikes she started outside the Swedish Parliament in an effort to get leaders to stop talking, stop stalling, and ACT. For the rest of this talk I’m going to try to channel that spirit, because it’s well past time we talk truth about this issue right here in Montgomery County. From Greta:

“We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people and now is not the time for speaking politely, or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now it's the time to speak clearly. Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced.

The main solution however is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. And either we do that or we don't. You say nothing in life is black or white but that is a lie, a very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5 degrees of warming or we don't. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond the human control, or we don't. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don't. That is as black or white as it gets.

There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Now we all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the future living conditions for humankind, or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”

We can create transformational action that will safeguard the future living conditions for humankind, or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. Now to be very clear, as Greta has said many many times, this is NOT about individual actions. No matter how many times you’ve been told to recycle or take shorter showers, there’s not a lot we can do at the individual level. No, these actions must happen at the communal level. At the political level. As Americans we love our individualism and the idea that we can personally make a difference. But when we’re talking about the future of every species on the planet, we have to put aside our egos and work together.

And that starts with holding our leaders accountable.

In 2017, the MoCo Council passed a resolution to use all available powers and resources to:

  1. declare a climate emergency and initiate a massive global mobilization to restore a safe climate and build a sustainable economy; and
  2. transform the climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2027 and reaching 100% elimination by 2035, and initiate large-scale efforts to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere.

In a statement about this event, our County Executive said:

“We are now in a climate emergency. Addressing any emergency requires a plan, and that plan must be followed by leadership and action. Montgomery County intends to lead and set an example that others can follow and join.”

But what’s happened so far? It’s been two years and what have we accomplished? How much have we progressed towards that goal of 80% by 2027 and 100% - 100% meaning ZERO GHG emitted, NOTHING burned in Montgomery County - by 2035. NOTHING. Climate groups in the County have given the government a score of 32 out of 100 for their inaction so far. We’ve done nothing.

Does that sound like an emergency response to you? Is that how you want the EMTs and paramedics acting when you call 911 because someone you love is having a heart attack or bleeding on the ground or your house is burning down?

We know what we need to do - it’s not a mystery. We need to stop emitting greenhouse gases. We need to stop burning stuff to make energy.

We have to convert every building to 100% renewable energy - which means every furnace, outlet, and gas stove. Every. Single. One. Residential. Commercial. Schools. Every building in the County. Every bit of energy from solar or wind. There has been discussion of using the International Green Building Code but that only applies to new buildings or reducing future emissions. It does nothing to reduce current ones, which accounted for 2⁄3 of our GHG emissions in the last county inventory.

That means no more internal combustion engines. Period. We need massive investments in public transportation to reduce the number of cars because there’s literally not enough rare Earth metals to replace every personal vehicle with an electric one. And we need to convert every single remaining vehicle in the county to an electric vehicle - running on renewable energy - starting with the County fleets of public and school buses. But MCPS is still buying diesel school buses and the new supposedly climate-friendly BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] is going to have fossil fuel buses as well. Buses that have a 20 year lifespan when we’ve just said we’re going to be at ZERO 16 years? That math doesn’t add up so either someone is really bad at counting or they didn’t really mean what they said.

We need to stop burning trash. Not when we reach some magical recycling rate, which we haven’t managed to do in the decades since we set that goal. Not after the contract extension ends. Now, as we were promised in the primary.

We need to stop sending tens of tons of horrible dangerous toxic ash to Black communities in Virginia. Yes, that is what happens to everything you throw away. 70% of it becomes toxic emissions of lead and mercury, CO2 and methane. And 30% of it becomes ash which is shipped out of state to become someone else’s problem. That’s environmental racism. And you know what is really cynical? The state calls that “renewable’ and our own county government counts that ash as 20% of our recycling. So we’re really only recycling 40% of our trash. Who thinks we’re going to get to 80% without a real push? No, we need to stop burning NOW.

What we do in this county matters. Together we are more than 1 million people. We live next door to the nation’s capital and have been leaders among counties in the region. Now is the time to act, to set an example that others can follow.

Again I’ll quote Greta:

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. So we have not come here to beg the world [in our case, County] leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past, and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming, whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”

Change is coming, whether we like it or not. The climate is changing. Without action the changes will be terrifying. Or we can change our politics and create a different future. 1 One of hope and beauty. One where we not only survive but thrive. That is up to you and me.

Join Greta in the Climate Strike next Friday. Act like your lives depend on it. Because they do.  Thank you.

Meitiv is a climate scientist living in Montgomery County, a DSA member and an MDC DSA-endorsed candidate for Montgomery County Council in 2018. A version of this article appeared Sept. 17 in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace.

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