This is the second part in the Designing Resilient Systems for a Changing Planet series.
By Paula White with contributions from Chloe Criswell, Gabriela Suarez-Cruz, Sara Gurdian and Calvin Abbott
Last week our four youth interns shared their perspectives on climate change. They discussed how their work with The Watershed Project addresses climate change and what societal changes could help move the needle forward on reducing the impacts of global warming.
Chloe kicked off the discussion by talking about her work in bringing climate change awareness to children and teaching them new habits. Even something as simple as picking up litter from the street helps kids think about their impact on the environment. Sara echoed the importance of raising awareness through simple acts, such as picking up trash. It helps people feel like they’re part of the change, that they’re working for the environment. This is especially important in an underrepresented community, where people may not have heard the information before. Gabi commented that in her outreach to people about tree planting, it’s really important to give them the information in Spanish because then they really understand the issue and the actual climate change mitigation benefit that trees provide. Calvin noted that having reasonable people talking about climate change as if it is a fact and not up for debate is helpful for people. Chloe added that often people want to avoid the topic of climate change because they don’t want to argue about it, so instead if you give people something tangible to do, it deflects that concern.
The Watershed Project’s work helps mitigate climate change in many ways. Calvin talked about how pollutants decrease the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon. Pollutants and higher acidity in the ocean also kill marine photosynthesizers, notably coral species. Though it may be a small impact, all of the green infrastructure projects that The Watershed Project has installed are filtering out stormwater pollutants such as trash, PCBs, and heavy metals, keeping the ocean a little cleaner. All of the volunteers who come out to our cleanups Earth Day and Coastal Cleanup Day not only prevent trash from becoming marine debris, they also learn about the connection between consumption of single-use plastics and increased greenhouse gases. Gabi noted that her relatives from Mexico recycle more and use less plastic, and make more things. Sara added “I feel like you lose those traditions, you adopt the American lifestyle. This is how people do it here. You eat a bag of chips every day, you use a lot of plastic bags every day.”
Given that consumption and all of the greenhouse gases produced by the consumer economy is so ingrained in American culture, we turned to the question of what it will take to actually move the needle on climate change. Gabi mentioned a program in Mexico to reduce driving. Residents are forbidden to drive one day out of the week. Calvin commented that although it’s nice that people want to pick up trash, the only way to have a measurable impact is for the corporations and government to change their ways. Sara felt that change is catalyzed by an individual’s action, someone who picks up a piece of trash, realizes they did something positive, and may then be motivated to get involved politically. Chloe agreed that people are motivated by doing something positive and that picking up a piece of trash isn’t just a single act, it becomes a habit. Those individual actions multiplied by thousands of people can add up. Sara, who is in a training program to qualify for membership on boards and commissions said that we need to hold our elected officials accountable. Her goal, once she has been appointed to a commission is to use her environmental lens to educate and influence stakeholders, many of whom may be unfamiliar with climate change issues, to implement climate-friendly policies. Chloe added “ What better way to motivate and educate a group of people than someone who is from the community they represent?” Calvin brought up that our nation’s leaders have inadequate scientific backgrounds to be making decisions about the environment. Not one US senator has a degree in science, and there are only four congresspeople with a science degree, up from 2 since the previous election.
Finally we tackled the question of how we can pay for the work that needs to be done to reduce climate change. Sara commented that we need to be more efficient, we need to work together with non-profits and other partners to achieve our goals. Chloe mentioned a web model of several non-profits making contributions to address various parts of a problem. Calvin talked about how decentralization can lead to fragementation, making it hard to know what’s going on, something that happens even between programs within The Watershed Project. On the money side, he said, “I’m a big proponent of the carbon tax. What I’ve learned and seen in my life is that people are more willing to forego getting extra money than they are paying money that they already have. So I think that the carbon tax is more effective than a bonus or incentive program because when gas prices go up, people notice. When people can’t buy the same amount of the things they used to, they’re going to notice more than getting a $50 rebate at the end of the year. I think that holds true for corporations as well.” Gabi has observed this behavior with her family. When it costs twice as much to buy one item, they’ll only buy one, but if they can buy two things with the same amount of money, they’ll buy two things.
The Watershed Project’s youth may not have all the answers (yet) to solving climate change, but they are doing the work of educating the community, installing green infrastructure and planting trees and gardens, keeping trash out of our watersheds, and making our communities more resilient and better prepared to face the climate change impacts that are here, now. Go team TWP!