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The Carletonian

Climate Summit: A Step in the Right Direction

<ningful international and national reactions to climate change have been hard fought, few, and far between. Earth can only warm two more degrees Celsius before we begin to see sci-fi level changes in our ecosystems. The world’s oil companies already have enough carbon in reserve to push us to this limit, and yet they keep extracting more, we keep burning it, and the gridlock in Washington isn’t going to slow things down anytime soon.

Increasingly, Americans have turned to their local governments to make desperately needed changes, as seen in the bustling Northfield Area Climate Summit that look place at St. Olaf this past Saturday. The event surpassed its 800-person limit. Northfield community members gathered to discuss the climate change issue, its impact on Minnesota, and realistic next steps that Northfield residents, businesses, and institutions can take to improve their sustainability.

The summit began with a presentation by Minnesota meteorologist Paul Douglas, whose speech, entitled “Climate Change: Natural Cycle or Troubling Trend,” focused on the undeniable facts and scientific consensus behind our current warming trend. We “use the atmosphere as a sewer,” said Douglas, and just because our pollutants are invisible does not make them any less harmful. Douglas also emphasized the need for bipartisanship. As a self proclaimed republican and evangelical Christian, he urged people to look past the politicization of much needed climate reform. He proposed several ideas to engage the business community in climate change, such as a drop in corporate taxes for companies that use cleaner energy, or taxes on excessive consumption.

Kazia Mermel, a Carleton first year, found this point “especially moving,” commenting, “it was really interesting to hear what somebody from what one might consider the opposite side of the aisle talking about something and agreeing with what is often considered a liberal point of view, which kind of made the whole issue more of a human issue than a politicized one.”  

After the speech there was a Community Idea and Action Fair, which featured over thirty informational exhibits from local sustainability groups. Organizations from all over Minnesota were represented, as well as many groups from Northfield and Carleton, like SOPE, RENew Northfield, and Transition Northfield, a local organization mobilizing community members to become more self-reliant, localized, and sustainable. Karen Olson, a leader of RENew Northfield, thought it was “important and powerful” that so many people came to the summit.

“Especially in an issue as divisive right now in our nation as climate change,” she said, making changes on your own “can feel lonely sometimes.” After a sobering speech, the many booths of the Idea and Action Fair reassured attendees that changes were underway.

At the same time, Karen said, her “cynical side questioned the effectiveness of events like this”–meaning, events that throw out an overwhelming and myriad of ways to get involved.

“It makes it difficult to have serious, meaningful discussion,” she said. “The way we fundamentally meet our needs, as a culture, has really got to be rethought. I look at this massive building and the lights and the power and I think how much energy are we consuming to pull this off. If we were under major energy constraints today how would we have run this? I would like to see them add that sort of thing to the design of future events.”

While the event, arguably, could have done a better job of adopting and showcasing the radical changes it advocated for, it did attempt to provide a forum for deeper discussion in a series of breakout sessions following the Fair. Participants could chose from a variety of different discussion topics that pertained to their specific interests, including climate change’s impact on the Minnesota economy, business perspectives on climate and energy, the science of climate change, natural disaster management, inter-faith perspectives on climate change, and sustainable agriculture. Distinguished leaders on these various topics gave the presentations, leaving time for discussions and questions.

In most cases, people came away with answers, new information, and concrete changes they could go home and make today. However, some presentations left something to be desired, like the session I attended on food system that primarily covered new winter farming practices and one man’s foray into permaculture. While these examples were inspiring, there was no time for discussion, and unless I wanted to turn my lawn into a pit greenhouse or perennial orchard, I left the session no closer to a sustainable food system than I went in.

Still, how many quick fixes can one really expect from a sixty-minute presentation? As Karen Olson said, addressing climate change demands fundamental social change. If we look at the Northfield Climate Summit as an attempt to kick-start or accelerate this societal-shift, it likely did the best job it could. If even half of the over 800 attendees left with a greater sense of the need for change and the willingness to seek it, local groups can be vehicles for real efforts to combat climate change.

To keep the conversation going after the event, a website for the Greater Northfield Sustainability Collaborative was launched at Community members and students from Carleton and St. Olaf spent months creating the site, which features all the Northfield organizations present at the Idea and Action Fair, as well as updates on future “green” events.

In this, organizers hope to “facilitate and coordinate sustainability initiatives in the greater Northfield area,” which will hopefully have newfound vigor after the summit. The website also presents opportunities for individuals to join groups focused on “improving the water quality and natural systems of the Cannon River watershed,” as well as promoting “local development of renewable energy resources,” developing “safe and affordable transit options for the Northfield community,” and much more.

Though not a national policy, it is still something we can do today, which is more than our government can offer. At the very least, the Greater Northfield Sustainability Collaborative is a step in the right direction towards tangible reactions to a global dilemma.

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