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The Big List: Climate Action

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/14/20 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

Reaction to our post, Things to Try To Be More Sustainable in 2020, which was about individual actions, inspired this follow up about collective action. I wrote a caveat that acknowledged individual action for the environment won’t solve the biggest issue facing humanity, i.e. climate change. I appreciate the push-pull of debating whether individual actions have merit beyond making us feel good.

My opinion is there’s intrinsic value in individual action. It is something we can control in a world that feels, increasingly, like its spinning out of control. I also feel as though taking individual actions for the environment demonstrates to our leaders a commitment that regular people are willing to make, whether it’s in their consumer choices, a simple act like walking or making a sacrifice like abstaining from eating beef. Perhaps it was inspired by Greta Thunberg’s moment of protest, alone, in the rain, in front of her parliament. She started alone, but her action spoke to a whole generation which built the youth climate strike movement.

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One of the real criticisms against individual action is it obscures the hard work needed in reaching systemic change. It’s only at the ‘scale of the whole’ as Case Weatherhead’s Sustainability leader David Cooperrider says that real change is made. And that is where we will focus today. Here are Ten Things We Must Do to Save the Planet in 2020.

1. Adopt a national policy to reduce carbon emissions — A November report in the magazine Science noted that global carbon emissions fell from 2014 to 2016 even as the global economy grew. That’s not a large span of time, but an important event, especially as a unilateral, U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement looms. The takeaway? That its possible to de-couple economic growth from planet-burning carbon emissions. It is also necessary, Science writes, if we are to meet our carbon reduction goals of 13% per year for the next decade to ward off the extreme impact of climate change. To date, the largest reduction of carbon emissions was 3% per year during the Oil Crisis of the late 1970s. It’s going to take an all-hands on deck effort. 
The most direct way to achieve real, meaningful carbon reductions, with the goal of stabilizing planetary systems, is to have a national policy and a plan with broad buy in.

At this writing, the non-profit group Coalition for Green Capital explains that the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee previewed a legislative framework designed to ensure a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050. The framework included the creation of a National Climate Bank to invest in a rapid, affordable, and equitable clean energy transition.”

2. Fix Lake Erie — The Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) infestation on Lake Erie has become so bad every summer, the threat to human health so great, that Ohio broke with business as usual in 2019 to free up millions of dollars to start cleaning it up. It’s an expensive and painstaking fix to subsidize more sustainable farming practices in the Maumee River valley in the hopes of preventing agrichemical run off into Lake Erie — the chief cause of the HABs. Will cover crops and organic farming scale and reduce run off? Making the transition to organic farming needs real, lasting financial and technical support. That kind of systemic change is what the latest ‘farm bail out’ should have been intended to provide. The other angle is restoring large swaths of functional wetlands, similar to what the Cleveland Museum of Natural History showed is possible in restoring the Mentor Marsh. “We need to work with nature to build our next generation of coastal infrastructure,” University of Akron ph.D candidate Kelly Siman writes about her research on coastal resilience strategies.

3. Transition to 100% clean energy — Wind and solar energy is eating coal’s lunch all day. So what’s with the perception that it is ‘too this’ or ‘too that’? The spin on renewables costing a mint is outdated and so damaging to all who support a transition away from dirty fossil fuels. It bears repeating — renewable energy cost-per-unit has come down to earth. Manufacturing and installing solar and wind is the fastest growing energy sector. Cities like Cleveland see the future and are planning for broad-scale solar installations (and a Lake Erie wind farm) as part of their commitment to transition to 100% renewable energy. Say it again — Cleveland (and at least 40 other cities including the suburb of South Euclid) see their future and economic prosperity — tied to moving to a renewable energy future.

4. Conserve forests and grasslands — Forests are the lungs of the planet and yet slash and burn policies were ramped up last year in Brazil where severe wildfires in the Amazonian rainforest (so large they could be seen from space) and more recently in Australia have killed an estimated one billion animals and brought whole ecosystems to their knees. We have to do better. 

Tropical governments and societies are changing; they are calling for more protections to human health from agrichemicals, for better labor practices, and for sustainable management of rain forests. Many in the North support indigenous people’s rights: Since the first Earth Day, fifty years ago this April, North Americans have joined in the protection of people, flora and fauna. We recognize the choices we make, the products we buy, the companies and candidates we support can ensure sustainable production through protection of natural resources.

“The depletion of tropical life systems is now finally becoming more clear,” Richard Tucker writes in his book, Insatiable Appetite, “as global climate change brings us all — governments, investors, workers and consumers, rich and middle class and poor alike — fatefully together.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Consumers of goods that are sourced from natural resources found in the tropics are more aware of labor practices and environmental degradation.

  • There is a link between our choices and how the world’s ecosystems function

  • Global ecosystems like the Amazonian rainforest are increasingly under threat from the production of beef, timber, and luxury goods like coffee, cocoa and bananas for North American markets.

  • The global market for the goods we consume may seem too distant and big for us as individuals to change, and that is why we need organizations to act as go-betweens.

  • Non governmental organizations can act as intermediaries, negotiating for the protection of human rights and environmental protections.

  • Individuals can express their dissatisfaction with companies who don’t abide by conservation agreements and labor practices in other countries.

  • Studies have shown that a majority of Americans support the protection of natural resources and responsible management of nature.

  • Protecting nature protects our liberties, because it helps to spread peace and prosperity while acting to reduce our global impact. 

  • Environmental protection is a core American value that we exercise when we insist that governments and companies operating in the tropics act in good faith when it comes to respecting other countries’ labor and environmental laws and practices. 

Another major story from 2019 involved a sudden, rapid decline in birds which have been dying by the thousands because of habitat loss, particularly in the Midwest where grasslands and prairies have been plowed under for corn and soy farming. We need sustainable agriculture and prairie restoration to be a national priority!

5. Design a sustainable transportation system: What does a sustainable transportation system look like? Thankfully, former auto-dependent cities in Northern Europe, Canada, and South America provide us with a roadmap to transition to a people-first transportation system. Take Oslo which recorded zero pedestrian and biking deaths last year. Bogota, Columbia has become a world cultural capital in no small part by putting transit and Open Streets at the forefront. It is where you’ll find a culture that cares. 

How can Cleveland build on the good work of its 2014 Bikeways Plan which added to but didn’t complete a bike network? Here are some ideas:

6. Invest in drawdown of carbon in urban areas: A jaw dropping IPCC report from 2018 underscored the immediate need for not only carbon reductions, but carbon drawdown. Carbon drawdown investments fall into two buckets — geo-engineering and nature-based solutions. Of the latter, pressure is building to mono crop fast-growing tree species like poplars in a forest restoration effort. A more sustainable strategy will be to plant trees in large patches that are diverse and resilient in the face of temperature swings and droughts. Diverse, nature-based solutions will have more ‘stacking benefits’ in drawing down carbon than geo-engineered solutions like launching giant mirrors into space (no kidding). For example, planting trees is a proven method to sequester carbon, provide habitat, protect watersheds and dissipate urban heat islands. 

Just as important as reforesting cities is returning vacant land to productive use. Stormwater management, soil building and urban farming, the kind practiced by the likes of Rid All, Chateau Hough, the Ohio City Farm, and many other small scale practitioners in Cleveland has an important role to play in the green economy and in carbon sequestration since many of them also run compost operations.

7. Keep a daily count of the toll from climate change: We need to keep reminding people of the urgency of climate change while conveying how events such as wildfires, hurricanes, melting ice caps, droughts and floods are linked to the accelerating effects of ecosystem change. 


NASA’s Vital Signs is a dashboard of earth systems that has satellite images of events like wildfires and global data maps on carbon levels and soil health. 

  • The Plain Dealer once ran a day in the planet column to collect a snapshot of concurrent natural disasters, which have vaulted to new heights in the last decade.
  • The Mauna Loa observatory has a real-time ticker measuring how much rampant carbon emissions is up and acting like a heat-trapping blanket over the earth. 

  • The global youth climate rallies have catapulted climate concern into the public consciousness like never before. The Global Sunrise Movement has a presence in Cleveland, and will meet monthly, including this Thursday.
  • Extreme weather has made the climate crisis real for a majority of Americans, reports the Climate Advocacy Lab. “More people connected the dots between human-caused global warming and their own experiences (of heat, hurricanes, etc.), leading to higher levels of support for climate action.”

8. Invest in dense, transit-connected places: Cities winning Amazon and new business attraction have lots in common. Such as, a highly educated workforce, abundant natural resources, and lots of dense, walkable, transit-connected places that gives rise to collaboration because of proximity and more mixing of ideas. A policy change that would go to some length in building more density is the parking minimum in city zoning codes, which tells developers how much parking they need to build. Often, the way it is written requires developers to supply more parking than is necessary, particularly where transit and other mobility options are present. Cities from Buffalo to San Diego have eliminated parking minimums in an attempt to not oversupply parking which can skew the affordability of a project. It’s a relatively new idea to trust that developers are more invested in the provision of parking, and will work to strike a balance between the cost and benefit of parking supply.

Also, a real transit-oriented development plan that incentivizes development near transit is badly needed if Northeast Ohio has a chance of saving its once-proud Rapid Transit system. RTA, NOACA, City of Cleveland and a regional decision making body such as the Mayors and Managers Association could collaborate to make it happen under the auspices of Vibrant NEO.

9. Invest in the closed-loop economy (and biomimicry and b-corps) The closed-loop economy isn’t new — GCBL covered the Waste-to-Revenue efforts being led then by Entrepreneurs for Sustainability ten years ago — but the keynote at the 2019 Sustainability Summit from Nik Engineer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation confirmed that the Circular Economy is in play at the corporate and philanthropic level. Engineer believes that Cleveland is well positioned to be a leader in the circular economy because its manufacturers do a lot of resource sharing and recycling.

“If we eliminate the concept of waste, we will add $4.5 trillion back into the economy,” said Engineer. “Think of a forest. There’s no waste. Everything goes through its lifecycle and its energy is reused. We need to transfer that idea to buildings. Buildings that absorb CO2 and rain water and return it to the local environment cleaner.”

10. Redesign our food system to eliminate waste: The incongruence of children going hungry by the thousands in Cuyahoga County and 40% of landfill mass being wasted food is enough to make the elimination of food waste a top concern. The intersectionality of social equity and environmental impact is clearly what’s driving the success of food donation services like the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland’s Food Rescue mobile app, which Freshwater Cleveland reports, diverted more than 200,000 pounds of food from the landfill onto the plates of local residents. Stone Soup Cleveland is another food donation service that has risen to the challenge — most companies and stores are laboring under the false assumption that it’s illegal to donate open packages of food. As a recent federal ruling clarified, the Good Samaritan laws are all the legal protection needed to do so. Perhaps as more food purveyors figure out a system to donate from their events and back of house, Cleveland will be known as much for it’s local food scene as for rising up to feed everyone.

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