Signs of Sustainability: Tackling climate crisis takes us all

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If you’ve been paying any attention at all to world events over the past few years, you’ll have noticed two parallel trends that have been growing in intensity: the harrowing news of environmental devastation and the social unrest it has wrought.

Forest megafires, melting ice caps, megastorms, heat waves and droughts have brought us such things as the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the organizing of millions of people around the world behind a teenaged spokesperson.

Because of the depth of what’s commonly called an existential threat, there continues to be a growing feeling of despair especially among young people, with levels of depression and anxiety not recorded before.

The International Psychoanalytical Association recognizes climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” followed close behind by nuclear war. (For a deep dive, take a look at the American Psychological Association and EcoAmerica’s 2014 report titled “Beyond storms and droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change,” updated in 2017 as “Mental health and our changing climate: impacts, implications and guidance”).

Greta Thunberg has captured the devotion of millions who rally behind her impassioned pleas for action. And it’s just that call to action and working with others to address the problem that some say is the surest way out of despair.

A November 2019 article in Time magazine summarized what many psychotherapists have been saying: “When it comes to treatment [for ecoanxiety], experts say taking action—either by changing your lifestyle to reduce emissions or getting involved in activism—can reduce anxiety levels by restoring a sense of agency and connection with a community.”

In this series of articles, we’ll be looking at some of the solutions to the climate crisis and ways you can get involved in making them work for everyone.

Locally, Tompkins County, Ithaca and other municipalities have been leaders in environmental stewardship for many years. Nick Goldsmith, sustainability coordinator for the city and town of Ithaca, has been, among other efforts, spearheading an initiative to draft a green building policy that would significantly reduce energy use of new buildings being built in the city and town, set to go into effect later this year.

That will soon be followed up by a more ambitious goal to draft legislation requiring that all existing buildings reach similar energy levels. Last year, the Common Council passed the Ithaca Green New Deal resolution, setting a very ambitious goal to “achieve carbon-neutrality community-wide by 2030” while ensuring “benefits are shared among all local communities to reduce historical, social, and economic inequities.”

(See Nick Goldsmith’s Signs of Sustainability column in the Dec. 11 issue of Tompkins Weekly for a full run-down.)

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the leading voice behind a national Green New Deal. While a Green New Deal has little chance at the federal level at this time, New York state recently enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which has been hailed as one of the most ambitious and far-reaching pieces of climate-related legislation in the country.

It sets goals of net-zero emissions state wide, with 40% emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% emissions reductions by 2050, with the remaining up-to-15% being offset under specific guidelines. Further, it sets goals of reducing energy consumption in buildings and of a net-zero-emissions electricity sector by 2040.

Significantly, and in alignment with the concept of a Green New Deal, the CLCPA includes several environmental justice provisions.

It requires that 35 to 40% of overall benefits from the state’s climate programs go to disadvantaged communities and creates the Climate Justice Working Group, which will help set policy including establishing the final criteria for identifying disadvantaged communities based on considerations related to public health, environmental hazards and socioeconomic factors.

What makes Green New Deals different from other regulations about energy use is this mandate to include all voices and consider all who may be affected by the process. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick has committed to forming an advisory group with broad representation from all sectors of the Ithaca community.

Currently, the main way to provide input to the Ithaca Green New Deal is through the city’s website (cityofithaca.org/642/Green-New-Deal), but several groups are working on starting to collect input into the process, including a focus on reaching out to groups underrepresented on environmental issues.

To learn more about how you can get involved, including hosting a community conversation with your neighbors, email ithacagreennewdeal@gmail.com.
Becoming part of the process is the surest way to reduce climate despair and ecoanxiety. Help get the word out about Ithaca’s Green New Deal, the state’s CLCPA and similar initiatives.

Learn as much as you can about them and think about how they can affect you and what you would want to see as part of the solutions. If done right, they can help lift people out of poverty while directly tackling the most serious crisis of our time.

This is the first in a three-part series. In future articles, we’ll talk about more ways to get involved and some of the solutions each of us can take advantage of to reduce our carbon footprint.

Guillermo Metz is the energy and climate change team leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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