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How to Change Everything

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How to Change Everything 

By Lynda Hopkins

I was five years old when the first international conference on climate change was held. I was 32 years old when the United States finally ratified a treaty that would meaningfully limit greenhouse gas emissions.

We are currently witnessing the outcome of our political system’s refusal to address climate change. Throughout California, 120 million trees are dead or dying, thanks to the most severe drought in 500 years. South of Big Sur, some pine forests have hit 90 percent mortality. On the other side of the world, 93 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced coral bleaching. And in a chillingly mirrored statistic, 93 percent of our own offshore kelp forests have vanished.

When reading bedtime stories about polar bears or coral reefs to my daughters, I wonder what will be left for them. Will my generation be the last one to view Arctic animals, coral reefs, coastal forests, and giant kelp in a natural setting? Will future generations be forced to visit zoos and aquaria to experience nature? And these are but pieces of a much bigger picture: will my children be living in a world of climate refugees, dramatically rising seawaters, frequent natural disasters, weather patterns inhospitable to agriculture, and other challenges we can only begin to imagine?

This is, perhaps, an odd way for a Supervisorial candidate to begin an article about local policy. People don’t like bad news. We don’t like hearing that we need to change the fundamental fabric of our society in order to save ourselves. Climate change isn’t sexy: it’s downright depressing.

But I was inspired to bring up the topic because I’m currently reading This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. And climate change, oddly enough, has changed the course of my life ­­ and helped shape what I would like to accomplish for our County, should I be elected in November. When I was a freshman in college, I took a class called Earth Systems 10, where I learned about climate change for the first time. I was floored. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard about it before. I couldn’t believe that our elected leaders were ignoring mountains of data on the subject. But I could believe the immense potential for catastrophe.

So I immersed myself in environmental sciences. I conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef and Palmyra Atoll documenting coral bleaching. I studied the impacts of industry on nutrient and sediment loads in the Daintree River. I received a grant to travel around North America via public and mass transit, studying land use policy in different metropolitan areas and interviewing local land use planners as I went.

Then, after spending 6 years of my life in the field of interdisciplinary environmental sciences, I graduated from Stanford and started an organic food farm. It seemed the simplest, most direct way of addressing our communal need for sustainability: feed your local community, and do it in a way that improves the environment.

Now I’m running for office. People constantly ask me why, and there are so many reasons. But beneath all of those reasons lies that same sense of urgency I felt fifteen years ago ­­ a sense of urgency that Klein’s This Changes Everything captures all too well. It’s a sense of urgency that we are headed in the wrong direction, and that we must take a new tack to enact meaningful solutions.

When it comes to climate change, it should be noted that the agreement signed in Paris will not save us. A team of scientists have determined that the Paris accord, which had a stated goal of limiting us to two or even 1.5 degrees C of climate change, will in fact result in an increase of 2.6 to 3.1 degrees C.1 This is well within the realm of generating “runaway climate change” ­­ in which we reach an irreversible tipping point and face extreme and disastrous effects.

While it is positive that international steps are finally being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must take decisive action locally. In Sonoma County thanks to Ann Hancock’s progressive leadership at the Center for Climate Protection, as well as hard work on the part of the Regional Climate Protection Authority, which has released a draft Climate Action 2020 plan­­ we are well on our way.

Naomi Klein did a beautiful job of articulating what I believe we must do:

“We will need comprehensive policies and programs that make low­carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone. Most of all, these policies need to be fair, so that the people already struggling to cover the basics are not being asked to make additional sacrifice… That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy­efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high­density living; bike lanes in which riders aren’t asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low­energy forms of agriculture; urban design that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian­friendly areas.”2

This summarizes my vision for Sonoma County. We must protect our agriculture and open space while ensuring affordability. We must make environmentally friendly choices the easiest choices for all of us to make. We must commit to live­work communities that find strength in diversity.

We must also stop using “pro­business” as a dirty word. We must be pro­business. Local, independent businesses hold many of the keys we need to create a more robust, sustainable society. If we do not support our local business community ­­ our small farms; our mom­and­pop shops; our local creators and purveyors of quality products; our affordable housing builders; our independent banks ­­ we, by default, support a globalized society reliant upon cheap imports and inhumane labor. It is unacceptable to export our environmental problems and labor challenges to other communities via consumption, while congratulating ourselves on our beautiful parks and open space.

That is not my kind of environmentalism. Sonoma County must have a robust, productive, sustainable local economy. Local government should take the lead to support and encourage socially just businesses, green businesses, and environmentally friendly agriculture.

Partnerships with local businesses allow government to successfully implement policies that sculpt our society in beneficial ways. For instance: implementation of the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program depends upon our local solar energy businesses. Building retrofit programs hinge upon our general contractors and builders. In the future, we will need to partner with farmers and rural landowners to address drought-era water usage, create new ecosystem services such as water purification and infiltration, and generate carbon sinks.

There are also opportunities to facilitate the creation of new types of businesses and jobs. It is my personal belief that to address severe drought and other likely climate impacts, the fringe must become the mainstream. This means utilizing composting toilets, at­home alternative energy generation, greywater systems, and rainwater catchments. This means enacting the tenets of permaculture on both a personal and countywide scale. If we are serious about this, we will create new jobs and birth new industries.

Most importantly, we must make these practical, environmentally friendly strategies accessible to real people. Real people who are busy, who are struggling to make ends meet, who don’t have the time to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops or pay exorbitant amounts of money for permits for projects that benefit our environment and community as a whole. We must be willing to revise conventional government code to allow unconventional solutions to take root. 28 years of international inaction on climate change makes it clear that “business as usual” isn’t working. “Business as usual” policy isn’t working, but perhaps more importantly, “business as usual” politics isn’t working. Like our international and national leaders, locally, we sometimes waste far too much energy on tribalist politicking. To address our current crises ­­ from climate change to affordability, from rehabilitating our river to addressing homelessness ­­ we must abandon dogma in favor of innovation.

In short: if what must be done for the common good cannot be accomplished within our current political system ­­ if doing the right thing means breaking the rules ­­ then we must reinvent our political system and we must change the rules.

Is this all a crazy dream? I don’t believe it is. Sonoma County can lead California. California can lead the country. The country can lead the world. The first two steps have already happened before: the local food movement, which I’ve been part of for the past decade, took root in the Bay Area and spread across the country. There are now thousands of people my age changing the world one beet bunch at a time. Independent, agroecology­based farms and food systems are one of the keys (one that Klein, in fact, devotes several pages to) to addressing climate change.

Even if reinventing government and re­envisioning our environmental future is a long shot, it’s a long shot worth taking. I don’t want to tell my kids that I watched business as usual politics go on its business as usual course while kelp forests collapsed. I want to tell them that I stood up and tried to create a more just society, a healthier environment, and a newly accessible and responsive government. I want to tell them that I endeavored to bring together the intellectual resources of our local community farmers, business owners, environmentalists, unions ­­ to work together and lead the way for the rest of the world.

1 Rogelj, J., den Elzen, M., Höhne, N., Fransen, T., Fekete, H., Winkler, H., Schaeffer, R., Sha, F., Riahi, K., Meinshausen, M. (2016). Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2°C. Nature, doi.org/10.1038/nature18307.

2  Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate.