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Speak Out on Climate Change

Are Athens’ leaders wise and courageous enough to respond effectively to the growing economic and environmental challenges we face? Are we of the Athens community willing to step up and speak out to demand a clear vision and course of sustainable growth that meets the needs of the entire community: black, white or Latino; old or young; prosperous or struggling economically?

These were the questions that rose up for me during the timely and heartening gathering on environmental justice recently sponsored by the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club on Oct. 22. The lively and intimate discussion was held at the beautiful and moving Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, featuring the recently elected president of the Sierra Club, Aaron Mair—the Sierra Club’s first black president and one clearly dedicated to opening our eyes to the environmental, economic and social problems that are unfolding.

The relevance of Mair’s core message for Athens was first captured in his channeling of Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous phrasing, that the “fierce urgency of now,” in this case regarding the climate crisis, cannot be ignored; and that it calls for a World War II-level of mobilization with “all hands on deck” if the growing problems of the biosphere in the coming years are to be solved.

Listening to his words, I could not help but think how blessed we are in our region with a beautiful, nourishing and abundant environment, and how easy it would be to wait until the crisis is knocking at our door in the form of climate refugees, an imperiled food supply, unpredictable electricity or an economy unable to quickly adapt. As Mair pointed out, “We must learn how to break down these silos [that separate us] and work together to solve these problems now!”

Mair further brought the forum’s concerns close to home when he directly addressed environmental justice issues of race relations and poverty, asserting that “to heal our relationship with nature, we must heal our relationships among ourselves.”

It has never been more broadly and clearly acknowledged by scientific, government and business leaders (see the November issue of National Geographic devoted to climate change) that the climate crisis is real and growing, and a successful response to it must involve everyone and must benefit everyone. Recent research by UGA’s Marshall Shepherd and others in the journal Applied Geography (“Climate Change Vulnerability in Georgia,” 2015) included Athens-Clarke County in the areas of Georgia most vulnerable to climate change, due in large part to our poverty level.

In order to successfully respond to the coming (and current) challenges, we must find solutions to this persistent poverty, as well as to the political divisiveness that both reflects the national political divisions and too often prevents the effective harnessing of the creativity, industriousness and many other resources that would otherwise make Athens-Clarke County and the surrounding community a potentially shining example of community response to daunting challenges.

There are campaigns and efforts being mounted now to address these issues. For involvement or more information, reach out to