Environmental activists consider policy solutions to climate change

By ISABEL THOMAS | November 14, 2019

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On Nov. 9, Support Her Election, Hopkins Democrats and the Center for Social Concern hosted a policy symposium featuring a panel on climate change. Moderator Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, member at large of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, was joined by panelists Rosa Hance, vice chair of the Maryland Sierra Club’s executive committee, and Allison Vogt, deputy state director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). 

Hance’s first exposure to environmental advocacy in her community was through a local Sierra Club chapter. Hance learned that the Environmental Protection Agency had rolled back regulations, allowing upstream coal plants to dump toxic wastewater into the Potomac River. This wastewater flowed downstream to her community. 

“You don’t have to have a degree to know that [a lack of clean air or water] isn’t right. We needed a citizen perspective as well as an expert perspective,” she said. 

Her activism roused her neighbors to action. As a result, the permit for the coal plants aligned with the strict demands of the community. 

Vogt, on the other hand, never questioned whether she would become an environmental activist. As part of TNC she works to reduce emissions and address the impacts of climate change. In particular, she helps to ensure that the Chesapeake Bay remains clean. 

“Environmental issues aren’t actually in their own little corner,” Hance said. “It’s so foundational to other issues.”

It is predicted that flooding will occur more often in Baltimore, Annapolis and D.C., while saltwater will awash farms. Vogt explained that while Dorchester County is now the fourth largest county in Maryland, by 2050 it will lose so much landmass to rises in sea level that it will become the 14th largest county. 

The economic impacts couple with impacts on species habitat. She claimed that Maryland acts as a “superhighway” for species finding hospitable areas as climate change erodes their old habitats.

Vogt also noted that most coal plants take advantage of a seeming lack of political power by locating themselves near minority communities and that conditions like asthma can result from pollution. 

Hance shared that the local chapter of the Sierra Club campaigns for a transition from coal-derived energy to renewable energy and supports the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which provides workers in the coal industry with training during the transition. Additionally, the chapter provides testimony for bills proposed in the Maryland State Assembly. 

“[Now climate change] colors even the most traditional conservation work. We have to think about how the world is changing,” Vogt said. 

TNC strives to prevent the impacts of climate change from worsening by funneling resources to the state governments. The organization believes state-level policies, such as using renewable energy, serves as a test run before the federal government implements and expands programs.

Hance suggested that further action can only lead to a better outcome. Successes like the toxic wastewater vignette motivate her to continue advocating for better treatment of the environment. Vogt emphasized how public pressure can influence the federal government. She believes the U.S. must lead other countries in addressing climate change.

Additionally, she asserted that while Maryland has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nominally drawing a percentage of total energy from renewable sources, the state government has not done enough.

“It’s great to have that flag on the moon saying, ‘this is what we’re about,’ but if you don’t actually deploy the renewable energy, there’s no tangible change,” she said. “We need to see an uptick in deployment.”

Hance suggested that rather than landscaping or putting pesticides in yards, people might purchase fewer disposable goods and turn to composting biodegradable items. If where people live prevents them from composting, she encourages writing letters to those in waste management to advocate.  

Hance believes individuals are powerful — everyone can make incremental changes that sum up to a larger impact.

In Vogt’s opinion, voting is key to further discussion of climate change and conveying to elected officials what an individual considers important. Incorporating climate change into everyday conversations, she suggested, ensures that climate change isn’t a deferred issue.

“To the extent we can raise the profile of climate as this issue that really underscores everything else — I think that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s time,” Vogt said.

Heather Bagnall, an Anne Arundel County resident and Maryland General Assembly delegate who represents District 33, and Cynthia Williams, a resident of Howard County, agreed that greater awareness and action are necessary. 

Following the panel, in an interview with The News-Letter, Bagnall emphasized the importance of the role of policymakers in magnifying the voices of younger generations without undermining their efforts.

“I feel like it’s my job as somebody who has some level of power to create a platform and then... get out of the way,” she said. “I try to make sure that I’m always elevating, handing the microphone off, making those voices louder and doing everything in my power to recognize that these are informed, educated, valid voices because it makes their path easier and it makes my ability to support good policy easier.”

Bagnall also explained how the rhetoric of climate change and its packaging differs between the federal and local levels. For her, it is easier to communicate messages at a local level. The main difficulty lies in convincing the community that national initiatives affect their individual lives. 

In contrast, Williams believes that meaningful progress has not been made at the local level. 

“I think that the message isn’t getting across as much on the local level because we don’t have as many resources,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter. “Even trying to have a conversation is difficult because canvassing is difficult.”

Williams also suggested that the approach to address climate change since the last federal elections has worsened, calling the Environmental Protection Agency the “Environmental Destruction Agency.”

The key for policymakers to inspire effective climate change action, according to Bagnall, is to prioritize climate change without overwhelming citizens with apocalyptic imagery. 

“As policymakers we have to walk a very fine line, because the big picture is quite dire, but messaging a dire picture doesn’t energize people,” Bagnall said. “[Addressing climate change] has to be critical and urgent, but not paralyzing.” 

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