Reflections on the Life of Kirby Edmonds

Many members of the local community have worked hard to bring the environmental and social justice movements together in common cause. They understand the crucial need, as I wrote recently, “to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice.”

No one grasped this necessity and worked harder and more effectively to accomplish this difficult task than Kirby Edmonds, who passed away on August 22 from complications of a heart attack he suffered in July. None of us who worked with Kirby — and there were a lot — doubted that he would recover and rejoin us at the table (in the form of Zoom most recently) to help us carry on. His sudden death came as a tremendous shock and left a huge hole in the soul of our community.

Among his many leadership roles, Kirby was Managing Partner of TFC Associates (Training for Change), Senior Fellow and Program Coordinator of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and Coordinator  of the Cradle to Career collective impact initiative. Most recently, he had helped to organize the Tompkins County COVID-19 Food Task Force, established to ensure that those in need have access to food and that food producers stay in operation during the pandemic.

Kirby spearheaded the effort in 2011 to launch the Building Bridges Initiative, whose goal is to create a “socially just and ecologically sound local economy” in the Tompkins County area. TCCPI joined with many other organizations and coalitions to be part of this effort, and Kirby met most recently in June with the TCCPI members, along with longtime community activist Anne Rhodes, to discuss the current status of the Ithaca Green New Deal, in which he also played a key role.

Kirby knew in his bones that the old notion of top-down, command-and-control leadership was no longer effective or desirable in a world facing complex, interrelated, and seemingly intractable problems. In his profoundly calm and wise fashion he modeled a new way of exercising leadership, one in which a leader created the space to build a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions.

“If we really want to solve these problems, then we’ve got to find new structures to work on them,” Kirby said in a 2017 interview. As Irene Weiser, coordinator of Fossil Free Tompkins, observed upon news of his death, Kirby “brought us Building Bridges. In so many ways, Kirby was that bridge.” Connect and collaborate were his watchwords.

Dismantling structural racism and poverty, establishing food security, affordable housing, and good paying jobs, and ensuring that our environment and climate could support the generations that come after us: these were the driving forces in Kirby’s all-too-short life. Equity, justice, inclusion, stewardship, and wisdom: these are the values that animated his actions.

Kirby was our very own John Lewis, who once declared, “We do not live on this planet alone. It is not ours to hoard, waste, or abuse. It is our responsibility to leave this world a little more clean and a little more peaceful for all who must inhabit it for generations to come.” As did Lewis, Kirby left us a vision and blueprint for building a better, more just world; now we must bring about the fulfillment of that vision and blueprint, keeping Kirby close to our hearts and never forgetting what he stood for as we do so.

Racial Justice and Climate Change

We are currently in the grips of a constellation of crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggle to confront systemic racism, and the ongoing climate emergency. The three do not operate independently of each other, but rather are closely linked, even intertwined. How we address them and their interconnections will determine the future of our nation and the world. “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities,” writes Sarah Kaplan. “Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.”

The climate emergency, the pandemic and its racially disproportionate impact, and the killing of George Floyd and other shocking instances of police violence have ruthlessly exposed the longstanding racial injustice that forms the core of the American experience. “Whether it is a global pandemic, climate change, or police brutality, people of color — particularly black communities — are always the first and worst hit, and it must end,” Alvaro S. Sanchez, the Environmental Equity Director at The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, rightly insists.

Fighting climate change and Covid-19, in short, means we have to fight racial injustice. As activist  Elizabeth Yeampierre contends, “you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.”

A George Floyd mural in Houston. Photo by Alfred J Fortier licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The evidence is overwhelming that communities of color are the most threatened by Covid-19. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made available as the result of a New York Times law suit, shows that Latinos and African Americans  have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors. Furthermore, African Americans and Latinos have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.

When it comes to exposure to pollution, the data is not any better. “Sixty-eight per cent of black people live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant,” notes  Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. in a recent interview with Bill McKibben. “We know that the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Harvey, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy all had a direct impact not only on marginalized and vulnerable communities but on communities of color, which reinforces that racial justice and climate justice are linked.” Yeampierre points specifically to the prevalence of asthma and upper respiratory disease in black communities. In her words, “we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations.”

Just how bad are the disparities? Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington last year compared Americans’ exposure to fine particulates to how much pollution their consumption generates. They found that whites experience 17% less exposure to pollution, on average, than their own consumption causes. In stark contrast, African Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than their consumption generates, and Latinos experience 63% more. It would be hard to find a more striking illustration of white privilege.

White environmentalists often jump to the conclusion that communities of color are too caught up in their day-to-day struggle for survival to care about climate change. But, in fact, climate change is not an abstract concept to black and brown people; they are faced with the consequences of climate instability on a near daily basis. As a result, these under-served communities represent what one analyst calls “a well of support for broader action.” In fact, a poll conducted a year ago by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 49% of white respondents expressed “alarm” or “concern” about global warming. The figures for Latino and African-American respondents were 69% and 57%, respectively.

The unmistakable message of our time is that we have to break out of our silos and build a broad-based, multiracial coalition to fight for both climate and racial justice. We must end the practice of making some communities sacrifice zones, understanding that in the end we all pay a price for this short-sighted approach. Instead, we must build a clean energy economy that benefits all and strengthens the resilience of local communities.

 

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Rise of the Climate Justice Movement

As we close out the second decade of the 21st century, the stark reality is that the climate crisis has been getting worse every year. We are just now wrapping up the second warmest year on record and the last five years are the hottest ever recorded. Australia’s two hottest days in history took place one after another in mid-December, and then on Christmas Eve exceptionally warm weather  melted the most ice across Antarctica in a single day than any other day on record: 15 percent. Scientists warned earlier this month that the planet’s oceans are losing oxygen at an unprecedented rate as the temperature rises. I could go on.

Climate Strike in Edinburgh, September 20, 2019. Photo by Magnus Hagdorn licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The worsening climate emergency, however, is not the whole story. As Sharon Zhang notes, “the climate crisis escalated in 2019,” but “so did the climate justice movement.”

Arguably the most important development of the climate movement in the past decade, climate justice provides a radically new framework for organizing. It examines the sources and impact of climate change as well as responses to it, and asks who is affected first and worst in each case. In the words of Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “Climate change affects everyone, but will not impact everyone equally.”

The recent emergence of the Green New Deal has underscored the central tenet of climate justice, that social equity needs to be at the center of any effort to shrink our greenhouse gas emissions. Calling on the federal government to drive public and private investments and meet climate targets, as Julian Brave NoiseCat writes, the Green New Deal seeks to “create millions of green jobs while modernizing infrastructure and leveling the playing field so that everyone – particularly communities of color, women, and working families – can participate in a new economy.”

The Sunrise Movement, which first appeared in 2018 and came into its own in 2019, has been one of the most effective proponents of the Green New Deal. Made up mostly of young people who came of age during the climate crisis, the Sunrise Movement campaigned across the country for the Green New Deal this past year. Marisa Lansing and Cheyenne Carter, two local Sunrise Movement leaders, explained at their presentation to TCCPI in October that the Sunrise theory of change emphasizes “democratic people power.” As they put it, “We build our people power by talking to people” and “through escalated moral protest.”

The Green New Deal has a long ways to go before becoming established policy, but make no mistake: it has dramatically changed the tone and dynamic of the climate debate and who is participating in it. It has brought a new moral focus to the conversation and infused it with a fresh, vibrant energy that can’t help but give one hope for the future, even in the face of increasingly dire news about the climate.

Up in Flames or Fired Up?

The climate news, to say the least, has not been good this autumn. In particular, the fires sweeping across California have captured the headlines. Driven by the Santa Ana winds, they have taken on near biblical proportions. The largest of these conflagrations, the Kincade fire in Sonoma, has consumed almost 77,000 acres as of this Halloween evening and it is still only 45 percent contained. Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to millions of people in an effort to prevent new blazes, which continue to flare up around the state.

The Kincade fire in northern California.

Although an eight-year drought ended in March, the seasonal rains have been late this fall and the fierce winds, which usually arrive after the rains begin, have dried out the land, turning California into a tinder box. Under these conditions, the slightest spark can ignite a raging wild fire at a moment’s notice.

Not surprisingly, the changing climate has been a significant factor. As one climate scientist notes, “everything that’s occurring today is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would have been if the same Santa Ana wind event were happening 100 years ago.” The combination of a multi-year drought and historically hotter summers is bad enough, but throw in 60-70 mile per hour winds and you have an obvious recipe for a horror show worse than any Halloween trickster could possibly conjure up.

To put it bluntly, the California fires demonstrate how unprepared we are for the climate emergency we have set in motion as a result of our profligate consumption of fossil fuels. As Russell Brandom writes, “The slow-moving nature of the climate crisis means that, under even the best scenarios, these fires will keep growing for the next 40 years. The longer we keep going this way, the more powerful they’ll get.” It’s this gradual unfolding of the climate catastrophe that is the crux of the problem. Our institutions, especially our political system, are designed to respond to sudden threats, not ones that take generations to emerge.

If you are a member of the young generation whose future is most at stake, however, then your perspective shifts dramatically. What you see is the disaster, not the gathering accumulation of forces that has led to its outbreak. Many of us who are older have become numb to the growing crisis and have, to one degree or another, become resigned to the situation or are unwilling to make the tradeoffs required to meet the challenge.

It is for this very reason that the Sunrise Movement is fired up and demanding to be heard, in Ithaca and across the country. The young members of this movement have made clear that if the current political leaders do not rise to the challenge, then they will be held accountable. It is a development worth keeping in mind as the Ithaca Common Council considers the budget for the city’s Green New Deal.

Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

“A Fire Bell in the Night”

In 1820, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that the admission of Missouri as a slave state was like “a fire bell in the night” that threatened the survival of the Union. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, issued a report that sounded a similar alarm across the land.

Only a dozen years remain, according to these scientists, before the world spews so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will be impossible to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C. After that all bets are off and human civilization will be courting catastrophe.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, the consequences will “include, but are not limited to, the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Only fundamental changes in energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure can head off such a calamity. Even then it is almost certain that vast amounts of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere using technologies that are currently only in the early stages of development.

Two days after the release of the IPCC report, underscoring the urgency of the situation, Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, killing dozens of people and inflicting millions of dollars of property damage. It was the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. in terms of pressure and the fourth strongest hurricane to do so in terms of wind speed.

A harbinger of what’s to come, such storms and other extreme weather events will place ever increasing stress on American society, exacerbating class and racial divisions and heightening inequality and civic instability. The strains on American democracy are already tremendous due to a level of political polarization unprecedented since the coming of the Civil War. Accelerating climate chaos will clearly make things far worse.

“The evidence seems to be mounting,” The Atlantic  observed last week, “that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.” All the more reason, then, to head to the polls on November 6 and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do. This time let’s make sure to heed the fire bell in the night.

The Art of Creative Problem Solving

There are few problems more intractable and complicated than climate destabilization. The interaction between the myriad parts of the climate regime, the various feedback loops and the uncertainties that make it so difficult to predict what lies ahead, can seem overwhelming.

But, fortunately, there has been a tremendous unleashing of creative energy aimed at tackling this existential threat. It is this creativity — the seemingly unlimited capacity of humans to take on the most complex challenges — that is the source of our greatest hope.

One of the toughest areas to address lies at the intersection of environmental stewardship and social equity, especially at a time when the degree of inequality in American society has reached levels not seen since the early twentieth century. It was a special honor, in this context, to hear about a new NYSERDA initiative at last month’s TCCPI meeting to develop affordable, net-zero modular homes targeted to provide low-income families with a way to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

An example of an affordable net zero modular home. Photo courtesy of VEIC.

Working with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), NYSERDA will be spending $230 million over the next three years as it rolls out this new campaign. VEIC is a thirty-year-old nonprofit based in Burlington that is the first of the public-service ESCOs in the U.S. It has, in particular, focused on ways to provide low and moderate income families with ways to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and, in the process, provide significant cost savings for these families.

Currently, 8 million individuals live in manufactured homes in the U.S. These homes typically consume twice the energy of site-built homes. Following Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed hundreds of mobile homes in Vermont and New York in August 2011, the call went out to replace mobile homes with modular construction.

The new net zero modular homes are equipped with solar PV systems and super efficient technology, including LED lighting, EnergyStar appliances, cold climate heat pump, heat pump water heater, and energy recovery ventilator that also monitors indoor air quality. The result is a manufactured home that not only saves the homeowner money but also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and provides higher quality, healthier homes.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of how human ingenuity and technical prowess can combine to address in one package two of our most serious problems, climate change and inequality. With the right priorities and focus, there is little doubt that more such solutions are on their way.

Houston, Harvey, and the Future

The ongoing tragedy in Houston is a dramatic reminder of what will happen if we continue to defer action on global warming. Climate change did not “cause” Hurricane Harvey, but it almost certainly intensified the impact of Harvey. The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake provides us with a glimpse of the future awaiting us if we don’t take extraordinary steps to decarbonize our economy now. As Eric Holthaus notes, “This isn’t just a Houston problem.”

hurricane-harvey-0f3c62e9-2c28-4809-81a8-efeabedfd449

Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Besides giving us a window on what lies ahead if we don’t act to mitigate climate change, Harvey has underscored the extent to which climate change is a social justice issue. The disproportionate impact on Houston residents of this unprecedented storm couldn’t be starker. The economic divisions of Houston are easy to delineate : neighborhoods to the west and south of Houston are significantly better off than those to the east and north.

True to form, the worst damage has been in the poorer neighborhoods, especially those on the east side closest to the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later,” says Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard.

Here’s the big picture: currently we are putting 41 billion tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. Scientists have determined that we can only emit 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide before we run the risk of setting off catastrophic climate destabilization. That means we only have 15 years left before we use up our carbon budget. Obviously we cannot wait until year fourteen and then shoot for zero in that last year.

In fact, an article published this past June in Nature argues that if we do not reach peak emissions by 2020 and begin to drop from there the chances of the of not overspending the carbon budget are minimal. That’s three years from now.

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris climate negotiations, along with several scientists, policy makers, and corporate executives, lay out in this article a six-point plan for ensuring that we reach peak emissions in three years. Everything outlined in the plan is achievable but it will require a level of political will and support from civil society that simply does not exist at present.

Among the targets that the plan sets:

  • At least 30% of world’s electricity supply generated by renewables (currently 23%)
  • No new coal-fired power plants built after 2020 and existing plants on the road to retirement
  • Upgrade at least 3% of building stock to zero- or near-zero emissions structures each year
  • 15% of new car sales are electrical vehicles (currently 1%)
  • The financial sector is mobilizing at least $1 trillion a year for climate action

Ambitious goals, yes, but Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the cost we will pay if we don’t start to move immediately to put carbon emissions on a downward path. “The status quo is not an option,” says David Roberts. “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is for us to determine the ratio.”

Embracing the Commons in the Age of Trumpism

“As we enter the twenty-first century,” Thomas Berry observed in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000), “we are experiencing a moment of grace.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” is the understandable response. Certainly, anyone paying attention to the news these days has good reason to challenge this seemingly naive claim.

What Berry means, however, has less to do with a positive assessment of our current circumstances than with the narrow window of opportunity we have to turn back from the disastrous road we are on. We have an all too brief moment to transform our exploitation of the Earth and each other into a web of relationships that is, in Berry’s words, “mutually beneficial.” Unless we act now to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, Berry contends, we will become “impoverished in all that makes us human.”

96775190-9c81-4986-ab2c-a8ccddfec25f

These are important words to remember as we come to grips with a level of political polarization in our nation’s history unprecedented since at least the days of racial, ethnic, and class conflict in the 1890s, when lynchings, virulent opposition to immigration, and widespread  attacks on labor dominated the U.S. landscape. In particular, the threat that Trumpism poses to democracy is all too real, and the implications of “America First” for global efforts to stabilize the climate and confront inequality in the developing nations are alarming.

How should we respond? For those of us privileged enough to have the resources, it is all too easy to fall into despair and retreat into our respective cocoons. But that is moral cowardice and, at any rate, will end up being self-defeating. As Van Jones has pointed out, ” eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco-apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.”

What does it mean to embrace eco-equity? Conventional politics offers two opposing points of view: conservatism, in which the unfettered market is seen as the way forward, and progressivism, in which the expanded state is considered to be the solution. But the hard truth, as George Monbiot contends, is that “the market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state.” In Monbiot’s words, “One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

What are the commons? Monbiot provides an admirably concise explanation: the commons are “an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights.” It can, at least in theory, include land, water, air, knowledge, scientific research, and culture. Historically, the commons in pre-industrial England were an integral part of the manor. They existed as part of the estate owned by the lord of the manor, but to which the tenants and others held certain rights.

By definition, then, the commons as an idea holds itself over and against the concept of private and exclusive ownership. Perhaps the most compelling current example of the commons is the Missouri River, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans, have fought to protect against the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Knowing the clear risk that a potential oil spill could pose to the drinking water not only of their own people but also all those living downstream, the “water protectors” have taken a stand against the argument that the rights of corporations have precedent over the rights of all those whose lives depend on the commons, including those yet to be born.

To understand the crucial place of the commons in determining the future of what it means to be human, in short, is to see that the “moment of grace” to which Berry refers insists that we resist Trumpism and the corrosive atomization of community and radical individualism that it engenders. It is the most effective and humane way that we can bring about the kind of eco-equity Van Jones rightly views as the only viable option left for avoiding an otherwise inescapable eco-apocalypse.