How I got Involved in the Climate Movement and Why
There is this idea that when you retire from the work world you will take a break – travel, take up artistic endeavors, take classes or just “veg out” and do nothing. Yet there are other people who use the additional time to get involved with a cause or a volunteer effort. A few years after I retired I was looking for some way to get involved using my skills and to keep active. I was trying to find a meaningful volunteer “job.” Health experts say that’s good for the brain too. And retirement can be very isolating unless you get out and engaged. Our son was in his twenties and I had become very concerned about climate change and the impact it would have on young people. That helped motivate me to look into volunteer work with a climate organization.
I learned about SanDiego350 from a friend who gave it a great recommendation. When I heard they were putting on a climate march late in 2014, I decided to join in. People gathered at the San Diego Community Concourse for the People’s Climate March. Over 1,500 of us marched to the County Administration Building. This was part of a national day of action to raise awareness about climate change. There were people there of all ages with signs and banners. A volunteer asked me to sign up and I logged my name, address and phone number on a clip board he was carrying. When we got to the County Administration Building there were speakers and music. I was glad I marched that day and it definitely sparked my enthusiasm to get involved.
After the march, I was contacted about coming to a monthly meeting. At the meeting volunteers described the various teams and ways to get involved in the organization. At that time there were maybe five different teams people could get involved with. Now there are more than twelve teams and the organization is growing.
SanDiego350 is loosely affiliated with 350.org and there are approximately 400 groups around the world working to address the issue of climate change and climate injustice. You may be wondering about the name “350”. Human civilization evolved and flourished in an environment with less than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. It is now at 416 parts per million and we are seeing the devastating effects of this increase. The Real News Network tells us that the CO2 hasn’t been this high in millions of years. We’ve all seen the impacts of increased droughts, wildfires and mega storms that bring flooding to many communities. Although a PEW Research Center Survey indicates that two thirds of Americans think the Government should be doing more to address climate change, there is still little being done to address this problem.
The mission of SanDiego350 is “building a movement to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and climate injustice through education and outreach, public policy advocacy and mobilizing people to take action.” The organization is led by volunteers. Our various teams engage participants in this work. These include policy teams like Transportation, Building Electrification, State Legislation, Food and Soil, Climate Action Plans and Renewable Energy. We involve youth in our Youth 4 Climate Team. We have two teams dedicated to eco justice including our JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Team. And finally we have our Raise the Alarm, Membership Engagement, Fundraising and Marketing Teams. These groups all have different goals and roles for people who get involved.
Our Theory of Change is highlighted here:
- Governments and corporations will not take the necessary action to reduce the impact of climate change and climate injustice on their own due to the entrenched economic and political status quo of fossil fuel dependence, corporate power, and economic, racial and other injustices.
- An organized movement rooted in people power is needed to build up social and political pressure for change by galvanizing public support, countering the power of vested interests, and showing that alternative pathways to a thriving global community are possible, desirable and needed. Escalated pressure is required to achieve change in the rapidly shrinking window for effective action.
- Our efforts – education and outreach, public policy advocacy, coalition building, and mobilizing people to take action – strive not just to reduce GHG emissions, but to build political power with allies to create the better world we know is possible – together.
After a brief period with the Planet Based Diet Team, a group working on agricultural issues including food waste and encouraging people to eat a more plant based diet, I shifted to the Public Policy Team. I had worked for the City of San Diego for many years and had experience working with elected officials, and I knew about how things got done in the City. So the Public Policy Team was a pretty natural fit. After a short time attending meetings I jumped in to volunteer on various projects and soon I was asked to be a Co-Chair of the Team.
Public Policy Team: The San Diego Climate Action Plan and Community Choice Aggregation
At the end of 2015, the City of San Diego adopted a landmark Climate Action Plan (CAP). These plans assess a city’s carbon emissions and then identify strategies for reducing them. The state of California has established strong goals for the reduction of carbon emissions and these plans are essential to meeting those goals. After the San Diego CAP was adopted one of my first efforts, in coalition with other environmental groups, was to advocate for Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) often referred to as Community Choice Energy (CCE).
This was identified in the CAP as a strategy to move to 100% renewable energy. It would also give us a choice of energy providers since at that time we had only one monopoly energy provider in San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E). Utility companies had and still have a vested interest in keeping fossil fuels in the mix of energy use and CCAs were established as a way for local governments to move more quickly to purchasing clean energy. It was our job as advocates to educate policy makers about CCA and get them to adopt it.
In his recent article “3 Reasons local climate activism is more powerful than people realize,” Professor Adam Aron discusses the evolution of community choice aggregation. Achieved as a local policy advocacy success in Massachusetts in 1997, by 2022 it had “spread to 1800 local governments across six states” and reflects how a good idea can be contagious.
The campaign in San Diego began with the creation of a broad based coalition of environmental partners. The coalition work was central because we knew it would be an uphill battle against fossil fuel interests, and a broad-based coalition would give us more political power and demonstrate that the community supported it. SanDiego350 and the Climate Action Campaign, another environmental organization, were the central players in this effort.
The coalition included community based organizations, faith groups, planning groups, businesses, and environmental justice groups. We contacted community organizations, met with them, did presentations, got letters of support, and allowed for different levels of participation. We also made sure to provide regular updates on our progress to the organizations that were more peripherally involved.
Education was essential since this was a new concept for most people. Educating community planning groups, with their advisory role to the city, was crucial. We set up meetings with these groups and asked them to support CCA and to write letters to the Mayor and City Council in support. We had meetings with the Mayor’s staff as well as council offices. We set up a petition in support and collected thousands of signatures at our events and climate marches. We took time during our rallies to have people call the Mayor’s office and urge him to support CCA. We asked people to write letters of support and conducted rallies and media campaigns.
We also reached out to notable figures in the community to support the effort. Most significantly and early on we got Bishop George McKinney with St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ, to publicly support the effort in a local paper and later to author an OpEd in the New York Times about it as well. Bishop McKinney (1932-2021) was referred to as a “towering figure” in the San Diego religious community, and in particular the Black religious community, and his support was an important part of the success of our outreach.
San Diego has a strong mayor form of government and the Mayor is the one who advances policy in the city. Therefore, it was essential for us to convince our Republican mayor to bring CCE forward to the City Council to consider and approve. Only then could it be implemented. Meanwhile, his colleagues in the business sector, often aligned with the local utility, were warning of the risk of adopting CCE and pushed to slow down its adoption.
The Climate Action Campaign, a key partner in this effort, used their annual CCE information conference as an opportunity to spread information about how it was working in other cities. To that end, they brought in the Republican mayor of Lancaster, CA to highlight the benefits of CCE in his city. We knew our mayor was attending the conference and would also talk to the Mayor of Lancaster about his experience.
When a feasibility study was released in 2017, our members spoke at public meetings where it was discussed and wrote articles to stress the positive elements. We continued to keep the issue in the press. It was also important to push back against the high prices of our electricity provider and the efforts of Sempra Energy (the parent company of our local utility SDG&E) to undermine our campaign.
In February, 2018, the San Diego Community Choice Alliance (SDCCA) created a website to amplify our work and to stress the importance of having a “choice” in our energy provider. The new website explained how, if approved in San Diego, Community Choice Energy would bring a new energy option to residents and businesses that could propel the City toward its Climate Action Plan goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.
At the end of 2018, the Mayor finally endorsed CCE and provided the crucial decision that allowed the city to move forward. The City Council adopted it soon after and by the end of 2019, the City of San Diego, in a Joint Powers agreement, joined with the cities of La Mesa, Encinitas, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach to form San Diego Community Power. In north county the Clean Energy Alliance, another CCE program, was established to serve the cities of Carlsbad, Del Mar and Solana Beach. Both of these programs have grown and added additional jurisdictions since they were started. Joining a CCE program is now one of the most effective ways cities can reduce their carbon emissions.
Other projects of the Public Policy Team have included ongoing advocacy for a better regional transportation plan that includes more transit, and support for state legislation that advances climate solutions. Our volunteers attend meetings and make public comments and organize meetings with our state representatives to urge them to support climate legislation. We also train volunteers on how to lobby our elected officials for the measures we support. As a group we have also advocated at meetings of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to stop expanding freeways and to advance more mass transit options as a way to get people out of their cars. This is essential since over 40% of the carbon emissions in the San Diego region come from transportation. More recently, as a part of the San Diego Building Electrification Coalition, we have been advocating for cities to move away from so called “natural gas,” which is in fact 85-90% methane gas (one of the most potent greenhouse gasses), and electrify municipal and residential buildings as a way to further reduce carbon emissions.
Why Climate Change Advocacy is Important (for the Planet, a Sense of Agency, and the Community)
In November 2022 in opening remarks to the COP 27 Climate Conference,
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.” He also asserted that “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”
The effects of the climate crisis are intensifying everywhere with the global south being hit the hardest. Those countries that have contributed the least carbon emissions are suffering more than the global north which produces far more. Island nations are disappearing as sea level rises. And even in the global north, changes are evident; for example, normally mild Portland, Oregon reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer of 2021. Canada experienced record high heat as well. Pakistan and other parts of Asia have seen record high temperatures and been hit with massive flooding. Europe too was hit with floods and then record high heat. This past week, even California, best known for its drought, was flooded by an atmospheric river which brought massive amounts of rainfall and flooding to San Francisco and other parts of Northern, Central and Southern California.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was historic and was the most significant effort yet to address climate change in the United States, but it is clear that our governments aren’t doing enough. Anyone who has children must worry about their future and young people everywhere are afraid of what lies ahead. These are the reasons I got involved in the climate movement. I wanted to take some action. I had time and skills to contribute.
Working in the climate movement has given me a sense of agency, and an opportunity to work with others for a common cause. There is a sense of community. I’m taking action and I’m surrounded by others taking action as well. Our organization is allied with many other organizations and more people taking steps to advocate for change. So there is a sense of movement and that we are making a difference.
Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who started the student strikes in Europe several years ago, stopped attending school because she wondered about the point of going to school when there was no future for the planet. In an address to the World Economic Forum in 2019, she expressed her concern
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
Current movement strengths and where activism is headed
In my experience, the climate movement has been growing and there is an increasing diversity. It’s no longer just a movement of older white folks. More and more young people are getting involved and they are a diverse group. They also have vast amounts of energy. They inspire the rest of us to do more.
There is also a much needed and increasing focus on centering equity in all our work. Low income communities of color that have been neglected in the past must be given priority as we move to electrify our buildings, plant trees and invest in parks and bike lanes. Developing better transit is also essential. To make significant changes, the climate crisis must continue to be linked with social and racial justice. We’ll need to talk about how climate change is impacting our daily lives. While each of us should do what we can to limit our carbon emissions, a more important focus is on the systemic change that is needed to move away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Most carbon emissions have come from the oil and gas industries. They will continue to delay action that infringes on their profits. That’s why we must continue to build a larger and even stronger movement to pressure those in power to take action. There are so many ways to do that. Making phone calls, writing letters, attending city and county meetings to speak up for what is important are all ways to make a difference. It is so important not to look away.
I share the sentiment expressed by Rebecca Solnit in her book “Hope in the Dark.” She talks about how crisis often brings out the best in us — and that often paradise is not the end but the journey.
“Recent strains of activism proceed on the realization that victory is not some absolute state far away but about the achieving of it, not the moon landing but the flight. A number of ideas and practices have emerged that live this out. The term ‘politics of prefiguration’ has long been used to describe the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made.”
To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Lane, J. (2023, January 28). Climate action is my calling. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/climate-action-is-my-calling/