Friday, March 29, 2024

Why Climate Mitigation Matters, Even if the Math Seemingly Doesn't

Making Public Comments to the Flagstaff City Council

This past week I stood up in front of the Flagstaff City Council to provide some comments on a recent proposed amendment to Flagstaff's Carbon Neutrality Plan. There is a large group of concerned citizens here in town, that have put forth a proposed change to the wording in the document which would recategorize the priorities of the plan from those of mitigation efforts (i.e. reducing our carbon emissions), to those of fire and flood management (essentially more adaptation measures). For anyone that lives in Flagstaff, this is a really important issue as many are impacted by the increase in wildfires, floods, and debris flows. Now...putting aside any of the reasons why there have been increases in these types of events, the principal argument and request of this citizens group was essentially this:

As a small city in Northern Arizona, fires and floods are the most pressing concerns and threats that directly affect us all. If moneys are to be allocated for any environmental-related efforts, they should be allocated to forest thinning as well as flood management, and fire management....and not to reducing our very minimal greenhouse gas emissions. China and India emit way more emissions than the US, and until they reduce their emissions, any small changes we make to our efforts in our town, essentially 'Don't Matter'.

On the surface, the may seem like a sound argument: Why should we put so much time, effort, and money, into something so seemingly insignificant, especially when reducing our emissions also doesn't really have any direct impact on our town? If we put those moneys instead towards fire and flood mitigation, it matters more to our residents. Sounds like a strong argument.

This group presented their argument confidently and boldly, and they had the overwhelming support of the several dozen people standing in solidarity. As an outside observer, one might be very convinced that this is undoubtedly an easy answer: Make the proposed changes, and amend the neutrality plan to prioritize the fire and flood adaptation measures.

But...I contend that this is NOT the right answer, and I will do my best to explain why I believe this, and why my public comments at city council reflected this position.

Specific to our community, I would first say that Flagstaff already has 16 separate policies, plans, and initiatives (that are all backed by funding from different agencies), that are specifically dedicated to adaptation measures...including fire, flood, and debris flows. Our forests are also nearly all part of the Coconino National Forest and are therefore heavily supported by the US Forest Service as a federal agency (and the fire crew and management therein). Flagstaff's Carbon Neutrality plan as written, is the ONLY plan that we have on our municipal books that specifically addresses greenhouse gas mitigation. But, let's put all of this aside for a moment and look at this idea and proposal from a more holistic view, because even if it were our only climate plan, I would still argue that it is essential to prioritize greenhouse gas mitigation.

I would like to first preface all of my following thoughts by saying that it is absolutely essential that in any discourse such as this, that ALL voices are heard, and that everyone can share their thoughts, comments, and concerns without fear of intimidation or ridicule. Our city council was excellent in this regard giving ALL citizens equal voices. Civility and respect are essential for any progress.

As I sat through the public comments both in support, and in opposition to the proposed amendment, it became clear very quickly that everyone agrees fires and floods are an increasingly dangerous threat to our community. Where there were disagreements, pertained to whether the Carbon Neutrality Plan should explicitly prioritize fire and flood efforts over greenhouse gas mitigation (and thereby prioritize those efforts for potential future funding through this plan). Over the several hours of comments we heard many passionate testimonies. There were citizens that spoke about their houses being threatened by fire or flood, and how they worry for their families during fire season. It was all very moving. When it was my turn to go up and share my voice, I opted to eschew my usual approach of speaking to the science, and instead I chose to speak to the philosophy and ethics...and speak to the "Why," as it were.

Throughout the evening, we heard a lot of discussion about data. More specifically, we were presented multiple data sets that ostensibly make the strong argument for adopting the amendment. For example, we heard that China and India emit much higher quantities of greenhouse gases than we do as a nation (and certainly as a city). To this point, I would simply say...Yes! Correct! China and India, two countries of over a billion people each, absolutely emit more greenhouse gases than our nation of a few hundred million, and especially our city of 70 thousand. 100%. What's more, is that no matter how much we as a city might do to mitigate our emissions, how many trees we might plant, how much atmospheric carbon we might capture directly...we as a city will NEVER offset the cumulative emissions of China or India. Yes! Also Correct. The math will never be in our favor.

So why should we spend time and money working to reduce our emissions then if it effectively "doesn't matter." And the reason is simple. is the right thing to do.

This isn't meant to sound cliché, glib, or idealistic. We should not fail to act simply because the math is not in our favor....especially when there is a clear moral obligation TO act. We are all obligated to work towards reducing our emissions and play our respective parts in working to do what we can for the future.

I went on....

I bring a re-usable grocery bag to the store every time I shop. Why do I do this? My one bag will never offset the millions of single use plastic bags that China and India use every day, but I still do it. And the answer is the same. I do it because it's the right thing to do. I do it because that single motion of me bringing that bag to the store just might one day, hopefully, lead to a movement. I urged the council that we have an obligation, and that we can also serve as a beacon and inspiration to others. IF we can show the city, the state, the country, and the world, that we can effect real and measurable change....even on small scales (and when the math isn't in our cumulative favor) just might lead to a larger movement. Other cities might see us, and try the same...and then maybe our county, and state, and so on. If no one acts simply because the math isn't favorable, no change will ever come. This is not a matter of Flagstaff "virtue signaling" either...this is a very real matter of moral ethics.

I went on....

We have countless people in the US that go hungry....but there are most certainly millions more in China. Does this mean we shouldn't do everything we can to help feed those here that need it, simply because there are more hungry people in China? Of course not. We are called to help those in need when we are morally obligated to....even if the math is not in our favor to end all of global hunger.

We should put those insignificant LED lights in our homes. We should compost our insignificant food scraps, and we should use those insignificant re-usable grocery bags. We should do these things in spite of the math. I ended with one of my favorite, and fittingly apropos Gandhi quotes (paraphrased):

"Many things we do in life will be (or seem) insignificant, but it is essential that we do them."

My three minutes were up. I thanked the council and went back to my seat.

After several hours of discussion amongst the council, weighing all considerations, they ultimately voted not to adopt the proposed amendment, thereby keeping mitigation as the highest priority in the Flagstaff Carbon Neutrality Plan.