A Tale of Three Public Meetings

You and I are the public.

If you have never or rarely been to a public meeting, this post is for you.

Readers, who clicked on the link after reading the title of this post, thank you. Perhaps you are a candidate for becoming a public meeting participant who wants to learn about issues that are important to you and make your voice heard.

Do you believe that public meetings are an important part of the democratic process?

I do.

Yet, until December 13, 2018, I had not been to a public meeting hosted by the U.S. federal government. That evening I attended a public meeting put on by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) about possible offshore wind farms in the Pacific Ocean near where I live on the California Central Coast. I learned something surprising at that meeting and if you are interested you can read about it in the post entitled It is Your Community, Go to a Public Meeting.

Before that meeting, I knew conceptually that people who hold and go to public meetings influence what happens locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. But for whatever reason, I did not directly connect that to my daily life. Nor did I think of myself as the public that public meetings are for. I know weird, right?

The thing is that if you and I do not participate in public meetings then part of the public is missing and we are passing up an opportunity to become informed and weigh in on issues that matter to us.

To give you a feel for what occurs during a public meeting, in this post, I am recounting my experience at three very different environmentally-related public meetings that took place during the last five months.

Water District Meeting

We live in a small town with its own water district meaning that we are responsible for our water supply, distribution, and wastewater treatment. The Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) oversees more than our water but for this post, we will stick with water.

During the last drought, our town came dangerously close to running out of water. In 2014, the CCSD board of directors declared a stage 3 (highest level) water emergency, imposed severe water use restrictions, and authorized building an emergency water supply (EWS) project to treat brackish water and inject it into our aquifer.

The EWS is an expensive poorly thought out project that has saddled the community with a huge amount of debt and cannot be operated for a variety of reasons that we will not go into here.

When it was time to elect new directors in 2018, my spouse and I read up on the candidates, talked with some of them in person, and attended a forum mediated by the League of Women Voters.

The need for a reliable water supply has not gone away so the current CCSD board of directors and the townspeople are trying to figure out a way to move forward.

Cambria Community Services District Town Hall Meeting Attendees - September 7, 2019
Cambria Community Services District town hall meeting attendees watch a presentation at the veteran’s hall in Cambria, CA on September 7, 2019.

Last fall the public had an opportunity to attend a CCSD board/town hall meeting at which the CCSD staff provided an overview of how the town’s water and wastewater systems work and gave an update on the EWS project (now dubbed SWS for sustainable water supply).

I had not been to a CCSD board meeting before but I wanted to learn about what is going on with our water supply so I asked my spouse to go with me to the meeting. On Saturday, September 7, 2019, we walked to the veteran’s hall from our house and joined a sparse crowd of people. The CCSD staff gave a well prepared and informative presentation.

On the way home from the meeting, I pondered why I have not been attending these meetings. Was I just taking it for granted that clean safe drinking water would come out of my kitchen faucet whenever I turned it on no matter what happened? Was I apathetic because I do not think my opinion matters? Was I thinking that solving the water situation in our town is not my problem? Perhaps it was all of the above.

It does not matter why I had not participated before that day. All that counts is that I want to be involved, now. Writing this post reminded me to submit my request form so I can begin receiving meeting notices and agendas via email.

City Council Meeting

Our home is located in an unincorporated part of San Luis Obispo County, CA of which San Luis Obispo is the largest city (population around 47,000).

In 2018, the City of San Luis Obispo announced its intention to become carbon neutral by 2035. I do not live in the City so why should I care? Well, for starters, the environment does not recognize any kind of borders and the City often sets the example for the County.

During 2019, the City of San Luis Obispo worked on updating their climate action plan to incorporate the 2035 goal. Prior to attending the first public workshop in May, I wrote a post entitled The City of SLO Wants Your Climate Action Plan Ideas on behalf of the SLO Climate Coalition.

Several months later, on December 3, 2019, I attended my first San Luis Obispo City Council meeting.

That night the City hosted a workshop before the meeting for people to learn about the City’s climate action plan and to share their own ideas.

I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet the transit manager so I could talk with him about the need for more buses coming into the City because people like me who drive a car into the City for work, play, or to attend public meetings contribute to its greenhouse gas emissions. Talking with the natural resources manager I learned about a proposed demonstration project that involves compost and sequestering carbon in the City’s open green spaces.

After the workshop, my spouse and I grabbed dinner at a local Thai restaurant and then walked back to City Hall for the City Council meeting.

League of Women Voters at San Luis Obispo City Council Meeting - December 3, 2019
League of Women Voters volunteers at San Luis Obispo, CA City Hall on December 3, 2019.

We were greeted by three women from the League of Women Voters. (I think I later heard Mayor Heidi Harmon refer to them as democracy concierges.) I asked them about the protocol for the meeting. They gave me the run down and one of the women handed me a brochure about civil discourse.

The main part of the meeting was devoted to what was called a study session about the climate action plan. During the presentation given by the sustainability office, the city council members asked questions and provided comments. Then members of the public who had filled out speaker slips had an opportunity to stand at a podium and speak for three minutes.

It was an informative and even fun evening. Maybe next I will try a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors Meeting.

Non Profit Meeting

On a cold winter evening in January 2019, my spouse and I attended a presentation about Monterey pine trees put on by the Cambria Forest Committee. It was there that I encountered a rack of tubes holding tiny Monterey pine seedlings and found myself volunteering to grow a rack of seedlings myself.

I do not remember how I came to attend a Cambria Forest Committee board of directors meeting for the first time, but I do remember being warmly welcomed. Over the past year, I have attended several meetings and learned a lot about our Monterey pine forest and the challenges of coordinating conservation efforts in a forest with many different landowners both public and private.

My own contribution to the Committee’s conservation mission involved planting 20 Monterey pine seedlings in my own yard and nurturing a rack of 98 seedlings I grew from seeds that will be planted on California State Park property by the time this post is published.

A few weeks ago, my spouse and I bundled up and walked down to the Mechanics Bank community room to attend the January 8, 2020, Cambria Forest Committee meeting. I had seen on the agenda that there was going to be a report from the county’s Fire Safe Focus Group and I was interested to hear what they had to say.

Cambria Forest Committee Meeting Attendees - January 8, 2020
Cambria Forest Committee meeting attendees gathered at the Mechanics Bank community room in Cambria, CA on January 8, 2020.

When you live a forest, fire is a concern but it can’t be the only concern. Healthy forests are essential ecosystems and a healthy forest can reduce fire risk. There must be a balance between conversation and fire prevention.

At the meeting, there could have been an unpleasant confrontational discussion between people concerned about conservation and people concerned about fire safety, but it turned out to be a lively and productive dialogue (at least that is how it seemed to me).

Again, I learned a lot by attending a public meeting and I was introduced to another group in my community doing important work.

Now it is Your Turn

After reading this post, I hope you will consider attending a public meeting about a topic or issue that is important to you and your family. It is okay if you just want to listen, watch, and learn. However, if you also want to voice your opinion then speaking during the public comment period is one way to make your voice heard.

Remember public meetings are for you and me.

Featured Image at Top

A yellow piece of paper that says “You’re Invited” sticks out of a red envelope – photo credit iStock/ogichobanov.

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Implications of U.S. Leaving the Paris Climate Agreement

It is not over.

Last week, the Trump Administration began the yearlong process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. What does this mean for Americans?

Before we talk about ramifications, let’s do a quick refresher on the Paris Agreement; what it is and why you and I should care about it.

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is not the first international environmental-related treaty shepherded by the United Nations and it is unlikely to be the last.

United Nations Leaders Celebrating Paris Climate Agreement
United Nations leaders celebrating the 2015 Paris Agreement – photo United Nations.

The environment and global warming took the world stage during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment hosted by Sweden. During that meeting, the Stockholm Declaration was created and agreed on. It contains both environmental and development principles.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was founded that year to coordinate the UN’s environmental activities.

United Nations international environmental treaties include the 1987 Montreal Protocol aimed at phasing-out ozone-depleting substances (which it is doing), the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with an objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol establishing greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments for developed countries (the U.S. did not ratify it).

In 1995, the UNFCCC parties (countries) began coming together each year to assess progress, establish new commitments, and negotiate new treaties and amendments to existing treaties. This meeting is called the Conference of the Parties (COP).

President Barack Obama at 2015 UN COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris, France on November 30, 2015

The Paris Agreement was negotiated and agreed to during COP 21 in December 2015. It was entered into force on November 4, 2016.

Then U.S. President Barack Obama attended the COP 21 climate conference – photo credit Arnaud Bouissou – MEDDE/SG COP 21

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement builds on the UNFCCC (Convention) which is still in force. The Convention’s objective was and is:

“stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

The Paris Agreement objective is described in Article 2:

1. This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:

(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C [3.6°F] above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C [ 2.7°F] above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and

(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

2. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Attendees Wearing T-Shirts with Hashtag 2050startsnow at 2015 UN COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris, France
Two attendees at the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network session at the 2015 COP 21 climate conference in Paris, France – photo United Nations.

Of the 195 parties (every country) that signed the Paris Agreement only 10 countries did not ratify it (Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen).

My layperson interpretation is that the intent of the Paris Agreement is to up the ante by establishing a specific temperature ceiling, requiring each country to determine a greenhouse gas emission reduction target, and obliging developed countries to provide financial assistance to help developing countries (who are also the lowest emitters) adapt to climate change impacts.

U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

Article 28 of the Paris Agreement states that any party may withdraw from the Agreement three years after it was entered into force and that the withdrawal will take effect one year after notification.

When the U.S. Department of State issued a statement on November 4, 2019, announcing that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, it was not a surprise. Trump had announced his intention to do so while speaking in the White House Rose Garden on June 1, 2017.

Man Holding a Crystal Ball Showing Future Years Inside
Photo credit – iStock/shutter_m.

I am not a policy expert nor do I own a crystal ball (you probably do not either), so I do not know what the future repercussions will be, but here are a few observations so far.

  • Regardless of the fact that the U.S. has been a party to the Agreement since before he took office; Trump has been purposefully rolling back environmental regulations and protections and thwarting climate action.
  • The credibility of the United States has already been undermined by the actions of the Trump Administration so pulling out of this international agreement just adds more tarnish to our battered reputation.
  • By withdrawing from the Agreement, Trump is abdicating U.S. leadership of the climate movement which could have far-reaching economic and social ramifications. His actions are further endangering the health and wellbeing of Americans and people all around the world (including his own children and grandchildren).

There is some good news.

When the U.S. officially withdraws from the Agreement in 2020, there will still be 184 parties working towards its common goals.

A growing number of U.S. governors, mayors, and business leaders have stated that they are still in and are committed to achieving the Agreement objective. These leaders are actively taking climate action and creating their own partnerships with each other and other countries.

What Can You Do?

We have an opportunity in 2020 to elect a president that will put us back in the Paris Agreement. In the meantime, we can keep the climate movement alive and moving forward in our own communities, cities, counties, regions, and states.

  • Support climate action initiatives and policies where you live that are advancing things like clean renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, decarbonized transportation and buildings, infrastructure resilience, and waste reduction.
  • Tell your elected officials that you support the Green New Deal.
  • Give your time and/or money to environmental justice organizations that are helping people who are and will be more impacted by the climate crisis than others.
  • Be an informed voter and vote in local, state, and national elections.
  • Participate in climate rallies, vigils, and marches (people in the streets demanding change do get things done).
What Do Love Ribbon Banner at 2015 UN COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris, France
This banner was seen at the Alternatiba festival during the 2015 United Nations COP 21 climate conference in Paris, France – photo credit Mark Dixon.

I can imagine the people of the United States fulfilling and even exceeding the commitments in the Paris Agreement in spite of the fact that technically we will not be part of it.

I am still in. Are you?

Featured Image at Top: This is a photo of the Eiffel Tower lit up with 1.5 degrees being projected on it during the United Nations COP 21 climate conference in Paris, France on November 30, 2015 – photo credit Francois Mori/AP.

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Resources

  1. As Trump Steps Away from Paris Climate Agreement, U.S. States, Cities and Businesses Step Up – by Joel Jaeger, Tom Cyrs and Kevin Kennedy, World Resources Institute, 10/23/19
  2. China, France reaffirm support of Paris climate agreement, call it ‘irreversible’ – by Marine Pennetier, Reuter, 11/05/19
  3. On the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – Press Statement, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, 11/04/19
  4. Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know – NRDC
  5. Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord – the White House, 06/01/17
  6. The Climate Crisis in Terms Trump Can Understand – by Ban Ki-moon and Patrick Verkooijen, The New York Times, 11/07/19
  7. The Paris Agreement: When is a Treaty not a Treaty? – by Josh Busby, Global Policy, 04/26/16
  8. The Real Impact of US Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord – by Michele Bonanno, Impakter, 06/10/17
  9. The Reality of U.S. Climate Action: Non-Federal Leadership is Delivering Ambition and Action – America’s Pledge, September 2019
  10. Trump Isn’t a Climate Denier. He’s Worse. – by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, 11/05/19
  11. U.S. Climate Alliance Governors Oppose Administration’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – press release, United States Climate Alliance, 11/04/19
  12. U.S. Withdraws From Paris Accord, Ceding Leadership To China. – by Ariel Cohen, Forbes, 11/07/19
  13. Virginia Democrats campaigned on their Green New Deal and fighting climate change. And won. – by Umair Irfan, Vox, 11/06/19
  14. What is the Paris Agreement? – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change