Your Turn: Climate change isn’t a single issue; it frames all

Fifteen out of 240 minutes. That’s how much time was devoted to the unfolding climate crisis during the first set of Democratic presidential debates. Six percent of the total time (toward the tail end of the debates) devoted to a topic that threatens our existence as a species. A topic that still receives limited attention in our legislatures, in our corporate board rooms and in the media.

Others have made this point, but the major challenges facing us — locally, nationally and globally — could all be framed within the larger threat of climate change. The widening wealth gap, besides its basic immorality and threat to social stability, also limits the bandwidth many have available to fully wrap their heads around this. They’re focused on meeting basic needs, often with little time or resources available to advocate for policies, figure out who the best candidates are to vote for, or simply implement carbon-neutral strategies in their day to day. Especially when politicians and corporations aren’t doing nearly enough to make such actions easier (or are actively making them harder).

Discussions of trade, our economy and jobs commonly ignore the inevitable transformation of industries that must occur — either proactively planned and deliberately carried out now or haphazardly transformed later in reaction to continued environmental degradation and some level of social collapse. For agriculture, Robert Leonard and Matt Russell have been writing on this transformation in The New York Times, looking at not just water-reducing and carbon-neutral practices, but also carbon-negative practices that would increase long-term stability for farmers and avoid federal bailouts to the tune of billions of dollars.

Through red-lining and other institutional racist practices, people of color (as well as the poor) have been relegated to living in areas more susceptible to environmental hazards and the impacts of climate change. These same people have also historically been excluded from “green” movements, which to varying degrees have predominantly been white, elitist and urban. Climate change can’t be addressed without also addressing institutional racism and environmental injustice.

Inadequately funding public education, for both K-12 and higher ed, limits our ability to nurture and develop the individuals, technology, policies and new disciplines needed to respond to the climate crisis. Even gun control is relevant, as the widespread use of firearms put toxins into the environment, further straining available resources for addressing the environmental and health impacts of climate change.

At the beginning of Kansas’ 2019 legislative session I wrote an op-ed in the Kansas City Star asking state leaders to look at issues and legislation through the lens of climate change. Some positive things did happen, thanks to legislators who get it and the tireless efforts of organizations like the Climate + Energy Project and Kansas Interfaith Action. Nevertheless, we still lack even the beginnings of a state level, comprehensive mitigation and adaptation plan, at least as far as I’m aware.

While I’m disappointed Gov. Laura Kelly hasn’t made more of an effort to lead us in this direction, she hasn’t exactly had legislative majority leaders willing to work with her on some of the biggest issues facing our state. The conservative leadership in the House and Senate have tried to block her at every major turn, likely driven in part by fear — fear of losing the power they still have, of having their world views challenged, of not reaching higher office. It’s not exactly a nourishing environment to develop such a plan.

Assuming we eventually follow this path, there are numerous sources to draw from. Other states and cities have developed their own plans, including cities within Kansas. Other potential sources include a new generation of economic thinking available at Evonomics, the science of working together available at Prosocial World, the research and writings of political economist Elinor Ostrom (previously awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences), and other policy/behavioral focused research on achieving sustainable outcomes.

Getting airtime during the Democratic presidential debates is certainly a movement in the right direction. But climate change should be a consistent, major focus of all candidate debates, from the federal level down to local school boards and city commissions. The goals and plans of neighborhood associations, county commissions, and local businesses should all address climate change in some form. We must collectively move faster.

And if our community, corporate and government leaders aren’t up to the task — if they’re too afraid to face this reality — it’s time to replace them.

— Marcel Harmon, an anthropologist, engineer, and former Lawrence school board member, leads the R&D services of BranchPattern, a building consulting firm.


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