On February 24th, nearly 100 Austinites joined Rainforest Partnership Executive Director Niyanta Spelman, Texas Interfaith Associate Director Yaira Robinson, and Huston-Tillotson student Brittany Foley, as well as Austin Mayor Steve Adler, to discuss what the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement means for Austin at a local level. The event, “The Paris Climate Agreement, An Austin Perspective,” was cohosted by the Austin EcoNetwork and the Rainforest Partnership and was held at Google Fiber Space.
Mayor Adler kicked off the event with a keynote address describing his experience in Paris in December 2015 attending the COP21 events and concurrent Conference of Mayors meeting, the latter of which was the largest collection of mayors to meet in one place in the history of the world.
With this level of representation and knowledge-sharing, it was important for Austin to be there learning from others, as well as representing what we have accomplished so far, such as finalizing one of the world’s cheapest solar agreements.
“You would be surprised, perhaps not, at the number of people when I would say ‘Hi, I’m Steve Adler.’ — ‘Where are you from?’ — ‘Austin Texas.’ And they would look at me and they would say: ‘Was it really 3.8 cents per kilowatt?’” – Mayor Steve Adler
Clearly, Austin signed the solar contract heard ‘round the world.
While there, Mayor Adler joined 126 other local jurisdictions–together representing over 700 million people and over 20 trillion dollars in GDP–in signing the Under 2 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) agreement, which sets ambitious goals such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050. As ambitious as these goals are, Mayor Adler has no concern about whether or not Austin can live up to them, considering we set even more extensive goals for ourselves prior to Paris in the 2015 Austin Community Climate Plan, which outlined a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“I will tell you that it feels really good to know as you’re signing and making that pledge, that you’re coming from a city that has already set even more ambitious goals,” Adler said.
The important role cities play in actually planning for and achieving the climate goals agreed upon in international climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement is often understated or overlooked altogether. Yet, in reality, city agreements make up about 50 percent of the international requirements for cutting emissions and reducing the impacts of climate change, according to Mayor Adler. While the international arena gives people the impetus to act, the work is really being done “in the trenches” at the city level where the decisions are being made.
For Austin, the important local decisions center on three broad categories: energy, transportation, and waste management. From investing in more renewable energy, to working with employers to reduce peak hour transportation, to transitioning towards zero waste by 2040, the City of Austin is chipping away at its goals–but the government can’t do it alone.
As the panelists ( who followed Mayor Adler’s address) said, there is a role for everyone to play in tackling climate issues.
The Interfaith Community and Climate Change
Representing Texas Interfaith Power and Light, Yaira Robinson attended COP21 with the goal of experiencing the negotiations and parallel events first-hand and pushing past the acronyms, distance, and complexity in order make climate change more tangible and immediate for religious communities in Texas. From candlelight vigils held simultaneously in Texas and Paris to a ‘Boots and Berets’ video series, Yaira and her fellow Interfaith members used their time at the conference to bring the issue of climate change and the urgency of the negotiations home to their constituents.
What Yaira has noticed is that awareness and concern among the religious community is rising, and with the global community on board, momentum is shifting. People are asking more and more: what can we do now?
“In a lot of communities now, what we’re hearing is that people are ready to act. They want to know how. They need some help. So I would say when we start having more conversations about what can we do as a city, let’s be sure to think about the religious communities and how they can start to make some changes on their campuses and their houses of worship.” – Yaira Robinson
One of the biggest roles the religious community can play, Yaira suggests, is building bridges and providing support and insight about crisis situations. Faith communities are often on the front lines of emergencies, refugee crises, and natural disasters, which will likely be exacerbated by climate change. “The more we’re able to communicate our lived experience in being on the front lines of those kinds of crises to world leaders–I think that’s starting to be heard, and I think that’s having an impact,” Yaira said.
Ultimately, the religious community is ready, eager, and able to help out.
Students, Millennials, and Climate Change
Like the religious community, students are also realizing the role they play in curbing climate change. Huston-Tillotson sophomore (Green is the New Black member) Brittany Foley attended COP21 to learn more about how her fellow students have contributed to climate change solutions and to be a spokesperson for environmental justice in Paris. She aims to represent “the voice for frontline minority communities” and sees a place for both minorities and students at the table: “We’re the first generation to experience climate change and the last to do something about it,” Brittany said.
Ultimately, Brittany’s experiences in Paris confirmed that climate change is happening fast and affecting everyone. Bringing this information back to her peers in Austin, she focuses on making climate change real and digestible, relating everyday life experiences and struggles to environmental and climate issues–which, as Brittany explains in a blog post recapping her time in Paris, are felt most acutely in minority communities facing increased environmental hazards like poor air quality and consequently higher asthma rates.
As the up-and-coming leaders of this world, it’s time for students to take action, Brittany said.
“My generation–we’re loud, we’re rambunctious, we’re in your face. And once we see our world is going down, we’re going to do anything in our power to do… whatever is possible to help our earth.” – Brittany Foley
Nonprofits and Climate Change
Finally, representing the Rainforest Partnership, Niyanta Spelman compared COP21 to the other international climate agreements she has attended since COP15 in Copenhagen, explaining what went right this time. In a way, it was years in the making. A record-breaking 300,000 person People’s Climate March during Climate Week 2014 in New York (held simultaneously with a one-day summit on climate change with 125 heads of state in attendance) followed by groundwork laid out at COP20 in Lima, meant that the momentum and preparation was in place for 2015 and that the “world was finally ready” to enact a historic international agreement.
Thanks to Lima, 185 countries voluntarily submitted plans for reducing emissions before the Paris conference, which was already a big deal. Then, to come to Paris where any part of the negotiating language based on those plans could be struck down or changed, and to actually finalize an agreement that nearly every country in the world signed on to, is a monumental accomplishment that set “a new trajectory for the planet,” Niyanta said.
As Niyanta described, it was incredible to witness parts of the agreement taking shape.
“What was so weird watching that was no body was objecting. One after another, all these people kept voting and saying yes,” Niyanta said. She explained that it seemed as if the negotiators and leaders felt compelled to act, to get something done even if they did not get everything they wanted out of the agreement. With so many people around the world watching and demanding change, there was a “collective responsibility that people felt that we as a planet have to do something,” Niyanta said.
In other words, now that there is an agreement, we cannot just sit on our heals. As Niyanta explained it, we can no longer afford to have an insular view of the world that disregards how we in Austin are connected to regions, environments, landscapes, and processes globally. For example, rainforests might seem irrelevant to semi-arid Austin. But Niyanta argues otherwise.
“Why rainforests in Austin? They make up less than 2 percent of the surface area of the planet… but those forests, the tropical rainforests, are so important to us as a human kind…[They] give us our oxygen. They absorb and store carbon dioxide, store carbon, give us our medicines…It is a global system, we’re so connected that it matters–it doesn’t matter where you live.” – Niyanta Spelman
Ultimately, Niyanta hit home when she said, “It’s almost like everybody was just working towards Paris. I was like, that’s incredible. Paris, that agreement, is just the beginning.”
Paris is just the beginning.
If there is one key takeaway to reflect on as we move forward as a city, it’s this – Our reputation as environmentally-friendly Austinites precedes us, but there is a lot of work to be done to live up to that reputation more fully and to better combat climate change. There is also a role for everyone to play, from the government to the citizens, minorities to students to religious communities, non-profits to businesses. Our progress thus far and our goals for the future are ones to be proud of, to embrace, and to build off of more and more every day.