Putting a Face on Climate Change

Climate March small

(Published originally on RAC.org.)

Fourteen years ago I was a local coordinator for the national Million Mom March for sensible gun legislation. At an environmental conference a few months later in Washington, DC, I addressed the group saying that what we needed was a march to protect our planet.

At the Million Mom March we invited families who had lost a loved one to gun violence up to the stage on the Washington Mall. One by one they shared their stories about a parent, a brother, a child who had been killed. Over time, we’ve come to understand that gun violence is an issue of public health. Similarly, I thought at an eco march, we could have individuals whose lives and health had been impacted by environmental degradation and assaults on their air, land and water, tell their stories—all in an effort to put a face on climate change.

Over the past twenty years I’ve been speaking and writing about environmental issues, in particular about the threat of climate change. In all that time it has always been a tough sell. If you see a homeless person, a hungry person or an infirm person, you know there’s a problem. But with climate change, if you can’t see the problem or make an immediate cause and effect connection, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. Al Gore spoke about humans’ complacency when it comes to global warming in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. He compared it to the cautionary tale of tossing a frog in a pot of boiling water. The frog doesn’t jump out right away because it’s a slow boil.

Over the years I’ve presented on panels with indigenous peoples from low-lying island nations where sea levels are rising, who have lost their livelihoods and/or have been displaced from their homes—climate refugees. I’ve addressed numerous groups and spoken about at-risk people, and I could tell from the audience’s faces that they couldn’t relate to them or to the faraway places they lived. Many of them couldn’t even relate when I talked about our local neighbors: children with asthma, adults with respiratory illnesses and families living in environmental blight. But all that has changed in the past few years. Many of us are now living in vulnerable communities; we’ve become climate refugees. To those who take refuge in NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), beware; climate change is coming to a neighborhood near you!

Ironically, even though more frequent and severe storms, flooding, drought, disease, dangerously high temperatures and wildfires as a result of extreme weather events, are creating more homeless, hungry and infirm people, and leading to catastrophic loss of life, we still haven’t taken the kind of strong action needed to combat climate change. The climate change deniers, including many U.S. politicians still don’t see the dire need to address this issue. The U.S. continues to contribute disproportionately to the world’s carbon pollution. And by not taking responsibility, our unsustainable energy consumption and wasteful use of resources is contributing to global environmental injustice.

On Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people of all ages and from diverse communities including: public health, scientists, faith, veterans, farmers, immigrants, workers, indigenous peoples and our neighbors whose lives have been ravaged by hurricanes and superstorms, will gather together on the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March.This will be two days before the UN Climate Summit 2014, which will convene world leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector to mobilize support for negotiating a global, legally binding treaty in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to provide poor and vulnerable populations with significant support to build climate-resilient communities. The march is our wake-up call that climate change is real and that it needs our immediate attention because we are at the tipping point. According to the majority of the world’s scientists, we have already exceeded the safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are therefore experiencing human-caused global warming right now.

There won’t be any speakers at the People’s Climate March the way there was at the Million Mom March in 2000. There won’t be any organized way for people to tell their stories as I had suggested fourteen years ago when I first began thinking about a march like this. But sadly, all these years later I realize that we don’t need to single anyone out, because if we were to put a face on climate change today, the face would be of you and me.


Just as important as showing up for the march on September 21 is what we are going to do on September 22 and beyond. Check out the events before and beyond the march. Calculate your carbon footprint. Take action to live more sustainably. Get engaged in the issues and vote for legislators who support a healthy, clean, sustainable environment!

To combat climate change, we need to create change.

Sign up and join us at the People’s Climate March!


The Power of Pete

me and Pete

Pete Seeger will forever be referred to as a legend. The word legend is defined as “a person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.” But there was nothing exaggerated about Pete Seeger. He was the real deal. In fact, Pete was something much greater than a legend. He was an engaged citizen who believed individuals taking action, even on the smallest level, could save the world. Pete believed in the power of the people.

I first met Pete sixteen years ago at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, the zero-waste, bio diesel- and solar-powered music festival at Croton Point Park on the shores of the Hudson River in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. He was scheduled to give a talk about his electric battery powered cherry red pickup truck in the designated Energy Area. My husband and daughters and I went to the talk and afterwards I told Pete that I was an experiential, environmental educator and that I had recently built a homemade solar cooker using cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and glass. While building a solar cooker turned out to be a fun and educational science fair project for our daughters, it was so much more. Using the power of the sun, a solar cooker can be an essential cooking tool for communities living in developing nations that don’t have access to electricity or safe ways to gather firewood, often a dangerous task particularly for women.

Pete got really excited about the solar cooker project and asked if I would teach a workshop on how to make them at the Clearwater Festival. He said to give him a call to discuss it. He wrote a note to me along with his phone number on my Clearwater Festival program booklet. A few days later I was calling Pete Seeger. “Hello, is Pete home? His wife, Toshi, put Pete on the line and we worked out a plan to bring the project to the Festival.

The following spring I led a workshop on how to construct a solar cooker and spoke about its benefits as a healthier cooking alternative for people and the planet. Throughout the day as Festival participants passed by, we gave out solar cooked nachos and a healthy version of s’mores, along with a quick lesson on the importance of  renewable energy. It was what you call a real teachable moment. One of the reasons Pete was so enthusiastic about the solar cooker project was because for him it was always about hands-on education leading to advocacy.

The power of Pete was that he knew that in order to disseminate a message you need to engage people in a way that they don’t feel they’re being hit over the head. Best case in point was Pete’s passion to clean up the Hudson River, a local issue for him since he lived by the river. He, along with a few friends began their Clearwater mission in the 1960s when the Hudson was saturated with raw sewage, oil pollution, pesticide runoff and toxic chemicals such as PCBs caused by industrial manufacturing. Pete felt great despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River. Key to the mission was to connect people back to the river; to create majestic sloops from which people could experience the beauty of the river, and that also served as environmental sailing classrooms; all in an effort to move them to want to preserve it. In fact, my introduction to Clearwater was sailing on a sloop with my daughter and her class on an experiential field trip. Through the years our family has continued to be Clearwater Festival regulars; we presented other eco programs, volunteered in various capacities, and sung and strummed along with Pete. Pete touched millions through his songs, but personal moments with him were especially empowering. We will greatly miss his humble and purposeful presence.

Throughout history, music has been a catalyst for change, a medium for protest and a way to deliver a message of hope. (Clearwater website)

For Pete, music was integral to the mission because music brings people together and creates community; hopefully, a community that will take action and create change. When Pete addressed an audience, he would interject spoken messages of peace and environmental stewardship. The power of Pete was that he knew he had a captivated audience and that while they were singing along, they would learn something too. As Pete said, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

But he also knew that music alone was not the solution. For Pete and countless dedicated individuals inspired by him to act locally, the incredible work they did to clean up the Hudson paid off globally as well, as it led to helping to pass landmark environmental laws, both state and federal, including the Clean Water Act.

Being an environmental activist has always been challenging, and while we’ve made great strides, it’s hard not to feel discouraged in light of the omnibus spending bill that was recently passed by Congress, which essentially undermines environmental regulatory actions and environmental justice.

For Pete’s sake, we need to let our legislators know that the laws that protect our environment, do make a difference. For Pete’s sake, we need to take personal responsibility as stewards of our planet. For Pete’s sake, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to have a fighting chance against the devastating effects of climate change.

More important than being a legend, is leaving a legacy.