Jason Ben Nathan / Sun Senior Photographer

Politicians and Cornellians discuss climate change at conference Friday.

February 28, 2016

Politicians and Cornellians Address Climate Change Threat

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A number of local politicians joined students and faculty members at an interdisciplinary panel Friday, banding together to advocate the need for grassroots advocacy and open dialog in addressing climate change.

The climate crisis “represents the greatest social crisis of our time,” argued Lara Skinner, the associate director of the Worker Institute at Cornell’s School of Industrial Relations, as she began the discussion.

“Women, people of color, children, the elderly, workers, immigrants and low-income communities of color will all be affected [by climate change] disproportionately,” Skinner said.

She added that these low-income communities will be hurt “first and worst” by the repercussions of a change in climate.

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there were 100,000 newly homeless people in New York City. Many of these low-income people were previously living on friend’s couches and in illegal basement apartments, according to Skinner.

Skinner advocated an effort that would simultaneously combat the growing income inequality in New York state and reduce global warming pollution.

“We can create many, family-sustaining ‘climate jobs’ by retrofitting buildings for efficiency, improving communities’ public transportation systems and massively increasing New York state’s solar and wind capacity,” she said.

Minority communities often face the most immediate, day-to-day impacts of “environmental issues, such as mining and direct coal plant pollution,” said Aubree Keurajian ’15, environmental activist and former KyotoNOW! co-president.

“Environmental justice is not just talking about the impacts of climate change,” Keurajian said. “It is also very important to talk about the immediate aspects of the fossil fuel extraction industry.”

Steve Englebright, New York State assemblymember and chair of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, offered several potential solutions to environmental injustice.

“I believe that my committee needs to start removing fossil fuels from urban centers because they are driving an asthma epidemic in places like the Bronx and Queens,” Englebright said. “That is unconscionable.”

New York State assemblymember, Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) made one addendum to Englebright’s solutions, saying that policymakers “must listen to the voices of people who might normally be disenfranchised.”

Lifton recognized that many citizens, particularly students, face innumerable daily responsibilities. However, the assemblymember emphasized that democratic engagement need not be time consuming or burdensome.

“If most people could just provide a small amount of time effectively pushing our stalled political system — through voting or joining national groups and weighing in on that level — then we can win,” Lifton said.

Prof. Bob Howarth — the David R. Atkinson professor of ecology and environmental biology and an attendee of the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris — spoke about climate change’s environmental consequences and the best methods to mitigate them.

According to Howarth, the scientific community agrees that a temperature anomaly – the difference between the average temperature of a calendar year and the long-term average value temperature — of above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be a “travesty.”

“We’re on a trajectory to reach that 1.5 degrees 12 years from now, so this is not something far into the future anymore,” Howarth said. “There is an urgency for change that is unprecedented in the world.”

Panel members, also stressing the problem’s urgency, drew on expertise from their own disciplines to detail suggestions for activism.

Prof. Lauren Chambliss, communications, advocated grassroots solutions to the climate crisis. As the communications director at the Atkinson Center for Sustainable Future, she said public opinion is evolving toward a greater understanding of and desire to address climate change.

“We are seeing change at both the policy level and in public understanding,” Chambliss said. “This is happening in part, because people’s voices are loud and rising.”

Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, moderated the panel discussion and concluded the event with a bold call to action.

“Every so often, a generation gets called upon to do something extraordinary,” Monger said. “This generation is being called upon to take the planet to zero carbon emissions.”