To confront the existential threat that is climate change, governments, industry and institutions of higher education must give voice to those most affected by it, transcend political divisiveness, and deploy empathy and compassion alongside research and innovation.
This was the message that scientists, policymakers including Gov. Jared Polis, and University of Colorado Boulder leaders delivered Wednesday night before about 200 people who braved frigid temperatures to attend the chancellor’s annual summit, dubbed Working to Forge a Just and Sustainable Future.
Chancellor Philip DiStefano kicked off the evening at Denver’s History Colorado Center by announcing the dates of the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit, a first-of-its-kind gathering aimed at addressing all of the above goals. Co-hosted with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the inaugural event will take place Dec. 1–4 on the CU Boulder campus, with online offerings and virtual watch parties enabling participation around the globe.
“We know that climate change is not just a challenge for the scientists to solve, and the solutions we seek will not be purely technical,” DiStefano said. “The answers will come when all of us come together combining our intellect, our energy and our unique perspectives in one shared commitment.”
Giving voice to the voiceless
The three U.N. global climate summit co-chairs, Heidi VanGenderen, S. James (Jim) Anaya and Seth Marder outlined their goals for the Right Here, Right Now summit, envisioning a gathering in which global dignitaries and scientists share the stage with youth activists, Indigenous leaders and storytellers from distant lands sharing insight on how climate change is already jeopardizing their access to food, housing, peace, health and other human rights.
“In many cases, the people who are most severely impacted by climate change are not the ones whose voices are heard,” said Marder, director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI). “In order for us as a civilization to address climate change, it is critical to really think about this in an empathetic way.”
Clint Carroll, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and associate professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, began his remarks with a 1980 quote from Dakota poet and activist John Trudell, framing the challenge of climate change not only as a matter of “human rights” and “civil rights” but also of protecting “natural rights.”
We must go beyond the arrogance of human rights. We must go beyond the ignorance of civil rights. We must step into the reality of natural rights because all of the natural world has a right to existence and we are only a small part of it.
With that in mind, Carroll said Indigenous communities feel a responsibility to caretake their homelands and their “more-than-human relatives” in perpetuity. In some cases, he said, Indigenous groups — required to work with a Western legal framework to make change — have fought for and won a designation of “personhood” for bodies of water, mountains and other natural features.
For instance, in March 2017, after more than a century of advocacy by the Maori tribe in New Zealand, the Whanganui River there became the world's second natural resource to be given its own legal identity.
This unique Indigenous perspective is needed in the fight against climate change, Carroll said, but Indigenous students remain the least represented in the academy broadly and in the environmental sciences specifically. The Tribal Climate Leaders Program, which currently supports three graduate students, seeks to address that.
“Indigenous knowledge systems . . . offer the world approaches that underscore the rights of the Earth and all life, including humans—and our responsibilities to act as good relatives.”
Pride, hope and unity
Other speakers stressed that there are already reasons to have hope, and even pride.
Gov. Polis noted that Colorado is on track to have an 80% renewable electric grid within eight years. The state also just hired its first environmental justice ombudsman and established a Just Transition office to ensure that “everyone benefits from a clean energy economy,” including those who have made a living in the coal industry and seek ways to transition.
The Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit represents a chance to put Boulder on the map as a hub of global dialogue around what needs to be done next, he said.
“We need to do a lot more to act on the moral imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledge the disproportionate impact on many global communities,” Polis said. “This requires a new level of cooperation that has never existed before, and the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Alliance understands this challenge.”
Speaker Matt Burgess, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, also offered up signs of hope, pointing to research suggesting that, even though renewables constitute only about one-tenth of primary global energy sources, clean technology has been improving faster than many predicted it would.
One recent study he published suggests the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are still within reach. But progress must be accelerated to stay on track, and that can happen only if political polarization is overcome.
“We need a society-wide transition sustained for decades, and that will simply not happen in our democracy if we don’t work across the aisle,” Burgess said, images of controversial podcaster Joe Rogan and TV host Whoopi Goldberg on the screen behind him.
Jim White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a climate scientist for 30 years, closed the evening with a few simple, notably unscientific tips for convincing people to take steps right here, right now.
“About 20 years ago it occurred to me that talking about chemistry and physics and engineering was really not reaching nearly the number of people I wanted to reach,” he said. “I needed to start talking about the people aspect of climate change.”
Key to that discussion, White said, has been convincing people that even if they aren’t deeply affected themselves today, their actions will impact the next generation tomorrow.
“Do you love your children?” White asked the audience. “Then show them.”