Translating the world's worry into action
Bennington College forum addresses next steps in fighting climate change
BENNINGTON — The fall series of public forums at Bennington's Center for the Advancement of Public Action echoes the message of the recent United Nations summits; it's time to act. But Thursday evening's conversation at CAPA — the forum called "Governing in the Era of Climate Change" — supplied something missing from the massive New York City climate strike and the U.N. Youth Climate Summit the following day: an answer to the question "What do we do now?"
CAPA panelist Edward Cameron, who has designed climate response plans for corporations and governments around the world, cut through the abstractions: "Stop protesting and start participating." As a state, participation can look like the Vermont Attorney General joining with 23 other states in the suit filed against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (This is the counter to President Trump cancelling California's ability to set car emission standards. The fight is over the nation's first substantial legislation to weigh environmental impact, signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.) Cameron describes the state AG's move as "an example of creative and imaginative leadership. And it's a way for a small state to have scale." Beyond Vermont punching up in significant environmental lawsuits, Cameron suggested what each of us can face individually: look at how we eat, how we travel, and how we consume energy at home.
Vermont Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, another panelist, was just as specific in actions every Vermonter can take, listing three specific questions to put to Gov. Phil Scott, such as "which Climate Action Commission proposals will you act on?" Copeland Hanzas transmitted a Greta Thunberg-ian frustration: to know and not to act is intolerable. (In the audience, another Vermont legislator chimed in with the Dec. 2 deadline for legislative proposals for the next session in Montpelier, and encouraged people to submit ideas to their state representatives.)
In complementary messages, Copeland Hanzas and Cameron used the facts about global investment—6,000 companies representing more than half of the global economy are taking bold climate action—and the opportunity of Vermont's annual budget to send Scott a clear message: private and public money can and should be merged in projects that build a climate-resistant economy and communities.
The third panelist was former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, whose comments had more to do with participation in a diverse democratic society than about the specifics of the climate.
Swift's reflections on moderate Republicans — she is one — leaving the party and ceding it to "the extremists" produced the mantra of the night: "leaving doesn't solve the problem." Swift's recommendations were societal, as well as personal: be in conversation with people you don't agree with politically; don't withhold friendship and respect from people with differing views; understand that two people with the same goal may see different strategies for achieving it. Swift's sternest warning was against living in a pocket of like-minded people. It was a night arguing for bi-partisan action, governmental and interpersonal.
CAPA Director and forum co-chair Susan Sgorbati has described a 2011 resolution by Bennington College to "confront the urgent problems of the world." This Climate Under Siege public forum series enacts that mission. For roughly 25 students required to attend the forum as part of a class taught by Sgorbati and forum co-chair Senator Brian Campion, the forum models an education that decodes global problems into local opportunities for action. It also turns the climate crisis topic — with all its alarm and dread — into a set of everyday choices and attainable commitments.
On Cameron's lapel was a round pin with 17 colors. They represent the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which shaped the agenda of the recent U.N. Climate Week. Lest that sound remote from Vermont or the work of CAPA, it is worth listing a few of those goals: quality education; decent work and economic growth; zero hunger; affordable and clean energy.
Another SDG calls for strong institutions. The three panelists for the Leadership in the Era of Climate Change forum brought that goal down to earth, arguing for a set of immediate actions and behaviors to strengthen units of society from our state government and our neighborhoods and homes.
Just two weeks earlier, the U.N. Youth Climate Summit had offered students from around the world an opportunity to question and challenge a panel of world leaders. That session at U.N. headquarters underscored the urgency of climate concerns, but did not deliver much to act on the next day, except when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the importance of meeting your elected representatives over coffee. Bennington College's forum series serves coffee and sets a table for conversation with state leaders, allowing us to "confront" through action, rather than feeling stuck with the "urgent problems." While its contribution of greenhouse gas emissions is relatively tiny, Vermont can model how to turn abstract worry and scientific forecasts into responsive plans. For Governor Scott, the forecast includes intense showers of emails and calls.
The final forum in CAPA's series, on Thursday, will consider the roles and responsibilities of nearby colleges — including the host institution — in the face of climate realities. Based on the emphasis of the recent panelists, expect to hear how the institutions — like government — have honed their climate responses through the demands of their constituents.
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