On Thursday, Jan 31, The Advocate and City Club of Corvallis hosted the latest in their CitySpeak events series. Advocate Editor-in-Chief Stevie Beisswanger moderated a panel of five speakers on climate change from academic, legal, nonprofit, and activist backgrounds. The same night, Corvallis’ Climate Action Advisory Board (CAAB), a group tasked with finding and promoting climate action initiatives, held their first full-committee meeting of the new year.
The Advocate covered both meetings to get a sense of how the people of Corvallis and their government are responding to an increasingly urgent situation.
What we found was a community that was well-informed, however felt itself ill-equipped. People in Corvallis are well aware of what they are up against, but not as sure of what to do about it. That is not to say there aren’t any solutions – speakers at each meeting offered both individual and systemic changes. None are intended to be a silver bullet, because each recognizes that climate change is not a monolithic issue. It requires a wide variety of solutions aimed at many different aspects of society – energy policy, personal consumption habits, and maybe even some civil disobedience. But the inescapable fact in all these conversations was that whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it fast.
What the City is Doing
The CAAB met earlier in the evening. The board was formed to assist City Council with implementing the 2016 Climate Action Plan (CAP). Corvallis wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% below 1990 levels by 2050, a similar figure to the one recently offered by state Democrats as a benchmark for their proposed cap and trade plan. Community members spoke up about the alarm from recent climate change reports, including a fourth grader from Hoover Elementary who voiced serious concerns about the effects of plastic waste on ocean life.
The CAAB is tasked primarily with coordinating resources and information between citizen-based initiatives brought to the board and appropriate support networks, like recommending the Hoover student to a few other organizations in the city that could help them. They also review climate-related project proposals and make recommendations to the Council, like the presentation on Thursday night by Alan Hickenbottom of LEAN Energy US, who wants Corvallis to rethink the way it buys energy.
LEAN is a California-based nonprofit which promotes and supports cities and municipalities switching over to a model of purchasing energy called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Hickenbottom is the Oregon Project Lead for LEAN, and has been traveling around the state making this pitch to other communities like Coos Bay.
Put simply–though the process is not a simple one–adopting a CCA gives communities themselves more control over what kinds of energy they want to buy and from whom they purchase it from. It allows communities some control from investor-owned utilities, creating a board staffed by local elected officials and community members, to make more localized decisions about energy pricing. The utilities would still be paid for use of the physical infrastructure (which they own), but the cost of the energy itself would be paid into the CCA board, creating a revenue stream for the city to build out new energy sources or run related projects. This new system is enjoying a rise in popularity in California, and to a lesser extent, across the country. Eight states currently have laws which allow CCAs.
Hickenbottom told the CAAB that his organization has “dropped a bill” in the legislature, but openly expected it to take multiple years for it to pass. The board voted unanimously on a motion to recommend that the Council look into adopting CCA in Corvallis.
The CAAB used the bulk of their remaining time discussing which community outreach programs should be funded, ultimately deciding to look into opening a website. The highly deliberative, slow-moving nature of the board’s process contrasted sharply with the urgency felt in the community’s comments both in CAAB and throughout the night. During the community comments period, a member of the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists offered a comment to the board about the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which stated that the world has approximately a dozen years to make deep, systemic changes to energy use or face runaway climate change effects.
“My daughter is 10,” she commented, her voice cracking. “She will be 21 when this is happening. Enough said.”
Action Steps, Citizen Concerns
The CitySpeak event brought together not only the five panelists, but a crowd that filled the library’s large meeting room. Panelists included Jillian Gregg, an OSU professor who teaches climate change, Asher Miller, representing the Post-Carbon Institute and Corvallis’ Climate Action Plan, Jeanette Hardison with the Sustainability Coalition and Zero Waste, Trish Weber with 350.org Corvallis, and Cooper Brinson, an attorney from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
Each panelist gave a short presentation on how their work intersects with climate change. Gregg spoke about educating OSU students on climate change as a science, not a debate. Miller, also a member of the CAAB, spoke about the city’s policy approach and described CAAB and its role. Hardison focused on the disproportionate share of environmental damage that comes from individual waste, and the waste created all the way down the production and supply chain that comes from simply letting lettuce go bad.
Weber gave an overview of the Jordan Cove pipeline, a 229-mile pipeline proposed to run through southern Oregon which has the potential to affect hundreds of wetlands and waterways, including the Dungeness crab business in Coos Bay, a $150 million industry. The pipeline would also irreversibly damage the area’s historical indigenous landscape.
Brinson — though he defends clients within the structures of the law — wasn’t nearly as quick to defend the law itself. He said that he has come to the conclusion that the law, in the face of a problem like climate change, is ultimately limited. He believes some degree of “revolutionary action” is required – which, given that his organization defends those who purposefully break the law for the greater good, is likely a professional asset.
A wide breadth of information was presented, but common among them was a focus on individual action and an awareness of the growing urgency. Corvallis is a well-educated community on this subject – there was an impromptu lesson from a member of the audience on how trees produce oxygen. The panelists, many of them local residents, instead focused on steps people can take to reduce their own footprint and engage with groups in the community based on their own skills and passions.
Weber encouraged audience members to contact the Oregon Department of State Lands to block permits for the company building the Jordan Cove pipeline. The comment period ended Sunday, Feb 3, a few days after the event, and Weber stressed that if the department blocked the permits, not even federal regulators could overrule them. Similarly, Miller said that citizen presence at city meetings really makes an impact, even just by fact of attendance. He said CAAB needs groups around the city to come to the board and make themselves known, to help build a network of resources and contacts.
Hardison was straightforward with the crowd about the role of individuals in creating emissions and waste: we’re the biggest culprits. From wasted food to inconsiderate consumer choices, the things we buy and pay into as individuals carry environmental costs largely hidden from us at the point of sale. Both the Sustainability Coalition and Zero Waste provided free information at the event and online about reducing waste and making smarter purchasing choices.
Asked what others could do to help what he referred to as “the movement,” attorney Cooper Brinson’s advice was simple: “Give us something to do,” he said.
Once questions were opened to the audience, the discussion opened up to aspects of climate change that often don’t make it into headlines. A young woman named Malaya spoke about the disproportionate effect climate change has on people of color and poor people, and about her family in the Philippines dealing with worsening storms and flooding. A man named Byron spoke to the audience about considering an animal-free diet, arguing that the practices of factory farming are not only cruel, but also produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
When the panel was asked what the biggest barriers to understanding were for people who don’t believe climate change is real, or who refuse to act about it, the panelists’ responses differed. Miller observed that many people live with a cognitive dissonance about it. The issue is simply too big for them to handle, or in some cases comprehend, and humans fear what we don’t understand.
Brinson stated that he simply does not speak with adults about climate change anymore. The closeness of the issue with political identity, as well as decades of attempts to brand the environmental movement as a misguided ideology, have made it too difficult to try and persuade some people, he told the crowd.
“If you’re talking about educating the kids, great. But the adults? I’m done,” he said.
The End, or The Beginning?
As all the speakers and audience members during this evening acknowledged, climate change is an issue almost too big to be seen with the naked eye. It is a frightening problem. But global problems don’t necessarily require global solutions, not in the traditional sense. International political efforts like the Paris Accords are incredibly important, but this change will need to extend from the heights of political treatise all the way down to the way we conduct ourselves as individuals.
There are still many ways that we can make a difference by ourselves. Think smarter about what you support with your money, even if it’s just a head of lettuce. Ask yourself if there is a skill or a passion you can apply to the mission of a local organization. Consider if you could be spending your time, arguably the most valuable resource any of us have, in a way that reflects your values.
There may not be a visible, tangible reward for your efforts in the short term, but climate change has acted largely out of sight and, as a result, out of mind. The effort to make sure it stays on our minds, like much of this fight, is on us.
By Ian MacRonald