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Success at Washington University’s First Climate Day

Last Friday, Washington University in St. Louis hosted its first Climate Day event. This exciting event brought together students, educators, community members, and leaders in climate action in important discussion about today’s pressing climate issues. Climate Day featured a keynote speech, 3 panels consisting of professionals working in government and in the non-profit sector and WashU students, a resiliency activity, and group discussion.

Climate Day started off with a powerful speech by keynote speaker Elliot Diringer, who is the Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. He began with the statement that “climate change is one of the most defining challenges of our time that we each play a role in.” Diringer spoke about the evolving state of play in international climate negotiations, recalling his role in trust building between organizations during international climate negotiations from the Rio de Janiero Earth Summit in 1992 to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Diringer detailed the obstacles to greenhouse gas emission reduction posed by the current administration but optimistically pointed out the changing cultural and economic attitude towards sustainability that has led to powerful organizations shifting their practices and products with climate change in mind. He closed by urging the audience “to find a way to connect the issue of climate change to the values that people hold dear.” This sentiment was later reinforced by the words of Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. She believes that environmental activists must relate the effects of climate change to the life of the average American to generate collective action and interest in climate change on a national level.

An impressive panel on Climate Justice and Citizen Action followed the keynote speech. The panel consisted of Natalie Lucas (Care about Climate, Sierra Club), Anne Barton-Veenkant (350 STL), Louise Bradshaw (STL Zoo), and Georgia de la Garza (Shawnee Hill and Hollers). Georgia de la Garza left an important message for WashU Students on the importance of unity in student engagement. “You have social justice issues, and I say for all your organizations—religious, cultural, whatever—come together and work together on one issue, and just keep knocking those issues out one-by-one…”

A second panel followed the resiliency activity that centered on Legal and Policy Perspectives on Climate Action. Catherine Werner, St. Louis Mayor’s Office, assured the room that the current state of massive climate change that we are experiencing is an all hands-on deck situation and that we need everyone to help. This panel focused on the more technical details of climate-related policy but emphasized the importance of policy paired with individual action.

Colin Wellenkamp, of Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, spoke about different tactics to engage communities that traditionally are hesitant to believe the science behind climate change. He notes the importance of the kind of language used and highlights that economic incentives are the most effective way to engage with people regarding personal decisions. Maxine Lipeles, with the Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, talked about the need to move to sustainable energy on the national level and the economic growth and health benefits it could generate.

Clayton Scott, a WashU student, spoke about the tricky balance that is inherent to climate justice work of taking it seriously but also trying to remain hopeful and encouraging. He stated that it can sometimes feel like too big of problem to take on but that it is important to keep in mind the power that many individuals acting together can have and that your own personal impact can make a difference.

Ingrid Archibald, a WashU student, spoke about the anxiety that felt heavy upon the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the necessity to talk about the devastation that is occurring in communities that are being affected by climate change in ways that much of the rest of the world is not yet experiencing. Andrea Godshalk recalled the crucial voice of Fijian representatives speaking to the gravity of the situation of sea level rise as their nation faces the question of when and where to relocate.

The speakers and dialogue navigated difficult topics in climate justice, though there was an air of optimism amidst the urgency. Overall the event created an effective and inspiring space for engaging the attendees on different perspectives on climate justice and activism. The takeaway for many seemed to be the importance of remaining hopeful to drive further action.

This article was written by communication intern, Kristen Patino.
Photo Credit: Courtney Chazen