A new group in Charleston is committed to lowering the area’s carbon footprint, and they’ve notched a recent success on James Island.
The Charleston Climate Coalition, an all-volunteer group, was a driving force behind a resolution in the small town to consider climate change when making purchasing decisions.
The group, with between 30 and 40 members, started to take shape after a 2019 rally on the College of Charleston campus that was inspired by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Its goal is to push the climate change discussion in the Lowcountry past talking about symptoms of the problem, like flooding or sea rise, and on to addressing the root causes.
The vast majority of scientists agree that insulating gases released in the burning of fossil fuels are making the planet warmer. Further, an international review of the most recent climate science released by a United Nations panel in 2018 found that the world needs to transition away from these fuels by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
“There’s a lot of adaptation work happening, a lot of discussion of how we’re going to handle the consequences” of climate change in Charleston, said Jen Wright, a College of Charleston professor who is one of the coalition’s two co-chairs. “But not a lot of discussion of mitigation. How do we stop this from even happening in the first place?”
Belvin Olasov, the other co-chair, said he was eager to work on just that problem when he moved back to the region after college a few years ago. He got a contract working for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, but when that ended in March he decided to focus on the Climate Coalition full time.
While the region has a bevy of environmental groups focused on local development issues, land and animal conservation, water quality and other issues, there was no one group that was specifically aiming to cut greenhouse gases on a local level, Olasov said.
Now, the group is working from the ground up, trying to get local governments to formally acknowledge climate change.
The approach of pushing for resolutions town by town has been successful before. Political scientist Gibbs Knotts, dean of the College of Charleston’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said the campaign is an opportunity to get buy-in on the issue in the less-partisan local government world.
‘Meeting People Where They’re At’
The James Island resolution was a learning opportunity for the coalition. When a model resolution was first presented to Town Council in September, it was tabled, and Mayor Bill Woolsey had major reservations about the document.
He told The Post and Courier last year he was skeptical of the language, including the phrase “climate emergency.” Some activists and scientists have started to prefer this to the more neutral “climate change” because the stronger storms and wildfires that have long been predicted are beginning to arrive.
But for the first draft of the resolution, “much of it just did not seem appropriate for our small town,” Woolsey said in December.
In that month, a revised version of the resolution came before council, saying the town would consider the climate consequences for purchases related to its relatively small assets – one building and three vehicles. It passed unanimously.
Olasov said the passage was still a victory because the first step is acknowledging the challenges of a warming planet.
“I believe in meeting people where they’re at, and of course balancing that with the reality of the climate science,” he said.
The resolution approach is not an unfamiliar one in the environmental world. It was the beginning of a campaign by several organizations to block offshore oil drilling, including by Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, or SODA, which is based in the Grand Strand.
Peg Howell of SODA said the group was working on local, state and federal decision makers all at the same time as they aimed to avert drilling in federal waters under the Obama and then Trump administrations. But securing resolutions from several towns provided proof that coastal residents thought the move wasn’t in their interest.
Howell said she eventually collected the resolutions in a five-inch binder.
“When I went to Congress (to testify against drilling), I had that binder in front of me,” Howell said. “Here’s the documentation of the people who oppose this decision for our coast. That’s the power of the resolution.”
For the coalition the goal is similar. Wright said they’re hoping for a “Lowcountry pact” of communities that want to address climate change.
The challenge, however, will be making a complex problem understandable to elected leaders. Howell said that was one of the lessons of the anti-drilling campaign.
“You’re talking to human beings when you’re talking about legislators who have a zillion different issues on their minds,” she said. “It’s easier for them to imagine passing a resolution or creating an ordinance about one piece of the elephant.”
Part of the idea behind the resolution push is also that the region should lead by example: The Lowcountry faces long-term existential challenges from sea rise, so it should be leading the effort to stem the heating that’s causing oceans to swell.
“If we don’t care enough to act on it here, then how … are we ever going to expect Topeka, Kansas, to help us act on it?” said Gary Smith, another member of the coalition.
Knotts agreed, though he added that without follow-through, resolutions act as mostly a value statement.
“I don’t see any evidence that (climate change is) the top of the list for the state legislature,” Knotts said. “That calls on local jurisdictions, particularly local jurisdictions in the Lowcountry, to signal it’s important.”
The city of Charleston itself has made some recent moves in this direction. It is suing fossil fuel companies over their contributions to global warming, and it also started work on a Climate Action Plan last year.
Several members of the Climate Coalition are working in the study groups that are putting together the plan, said Katie McKain, Charleston’s director of sustainability. The groups are working in five broad areas: building efficiency, transportation, waste, carbon sinks that suck up greenhouse gases and community education.
Those categories are based mostly on where the city has found its emissions are the worst in its past greenhouse gas inventories.
That highlights, however, the complexity of the climate problem. Several sectors of the economy send carbon into the atmosphere, and those gases are persistent, meaning emissions stick around for a long time, regardless of where they came from.
It can be an overwhelming problem, acknowledged Wright, who teaches classes on the psychology of social change at the College of Charleston.
“It’s a tremendously difficult thing for us to be able to process in a way that allows us to feel the urgency that’s actually there,” she said. But at the same time, “We’re not trying to scare people … we’re just communicating a clear message consistently, in a way that gets people out (and) mobilized.”
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