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“Decision-makers” kick-off Greentown conference

September 10, 2010

(This article is part of a series of postings based upon our attendance of the GreenTown Conference in Grand Rapids.)

Considering how climate change is already impacting our lives and devastating the lives of millions of people living in less powerful countries, the presence of such a conference at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Eberhard Center is a local step in the right direction. As the stream of opening speakers took the podium, each acknowledged the imminent reality of climate change and the need to address it now–not at some nebulous point in the future.

Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead, a 501C3 non-profit with the mission of promoting “the development of ecologically sustainable and healthy communities” led off. Greentown is a program of Seven Generations Ahead that has the goal of discussing “actionable ways to make communities greener, healthier and more prosperous.” Greentown conferences have been staged in the greater Chicago area since 2007. Grand Rapids came on board in 2009. Cuneen sees Greentown as a forum for  “the municipal sector, the private sector and community leaders–the decision makers.”  This mix of the powerful is underscored by a walk through the lobby outside the conference rooms where the event’s sponsors were highly visible: GVSU and Aquinas College (both offering majors in sustainable business), Pioneer Construction, Rockford Construction, East Jordan Iron Works, Consumer’s Energy, Pizzo Ecological Restoration and MiBiz. Other underwriters included the Kellogg Foundation, Holiday Inn and the architectural and engineering firm, Fishbeck Thompson Carr and Huber. Oddly, no local, state or national environmental organizations were among those represented.

John Harris, principal of  A5 Group, an advertising and PR agency with locations in Chicago, St. Louis and Grand Rapids.He graciously acknowldegd all of the above sponsors and hyped the debut of two books for sale in the lobby: one by Grand Rapids’ business leader, Peter Wege, and the other a picture book (its main character is a former Navy Seal who puts his expertise to work saving the Great Lakes from invasive species.) The cover of the GVSU hand-out promoting its Applied Sustainability program has this NativeAmerican proverb on its cover, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”  When Tom Haas, GVSU president, took the podium, he echoed that sentiment with an anecdote about his granddaughters’ fishing adventure at the family cottage on a quiet Michigan lake.

George Heartwell responded by saying, “We live in extraordinary times. We have never experienced an economy like the economy today. It’s like standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into a bottomless void. We are coming to grips with the fact that climate change is a reality. We are experiencing changes, fundamental changes in climate in the country that will last for generations to come. (We have) considered the word adaptation a dirty word. The fact of the matter is we are already being forced to adapt to climate change. We have record rainfalls, heat waves that are claiming lives and changes in the rural areas of crop cycles. We simply need to address the whole question of adaption and identifying vulnerabilities.” al approach. cities go about saving the world.

This quiet question also came to the writer’s mind: when affluent America goes about creating a better world for its children, will other children, in its less affluent neighborhoods and in developing countries, continue to pay the price? When Mayor Heartwell and Jim Sygo, Deputy Director Environmental Protection, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE, formerly DEQ) laid their messages out, that question gained more volume. Sygo started off with a powerfully relevant report on the impending impact of climate change on Michigan’s people and wildlife:

1. A five to ten degree increase in winter temperatures.

2. A seven to thirteen degree increase in summer temperatures,.

3. More frequent flooding and more heavy weather events.

4. Eight to ten weeks extension of the growing season.

5. Significant decline in ice cover on the Great Lakes and inland lakes.

6. Impacts to wildlife because of shrinking spruce and fir forests and increasing aspen and birch forests, more birds to compete with migratory songbirds; a greater moose range and more forest pests and wildlife diseases.

7. Shifts in aquatic species, oxygen depleted waters, lower productivity in the aquatic food chain and spread of aquatic invasive species.

He then provided a summary of the weak responses the state has made so far: creation of climate action plans;  collecting greenhouse gas emissions data; the State employee ecodriver program; a green chemistry initiative; and adoption of building codes that meet national standards for overall energy improvements for new buildings. These responses seem weak considering the urgency and magnitude of the task before us. He finished his talk with an appeal to the profit motive. “Michigan’s natural resources are a $20 billion dollar a year industry. $12 billion in forest industries and $8 billion recreational.”

Like Mayor Heartwell before him, Sygo made frequent mention of adaptation. The writer finds this troubling as it seems our efforts should be on reversing climate change through radical systemic change rather than figuring out how to adapt to a ruined world–and making a profit while doing so.

He then enumerated the State’s responses so far:  creation of climate action plans;  collecting greenhouse gas emissions data; the State employee ecodriver program; a green chemistry initiative; and adoption of building codes that meet national standards for overall energy improvements for new buildings. These responses seem weak considering the urgency and magnitude of the task before us. He finished his talk with an appeal to the profit motive. “Michigan’s natural resources are a $20 billion dollar a year industry. $12 billion in forest industries and $8 billion recreational.”

Wrapping up the introductory session, Martin Chavez, three term mayor of Albuquerque New Mexico and  “The Nation’s Greenest Mayor” stated, “There is no comprehensive energy policy in the US. The local and state governments, that’s where it’s getting done. It’s in the private sector, that’s what’s getting it done. If you want to make money, it’s in clean technology. That’s the future. The financial bottom line. We have to balance budgets.”

Chavez is balancing his “budget ” as he now works for ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global-reaching nonprofit organization that emphasizes private sector partnerships–not regulation– as the answer to environmental challenges.

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