Choose Wisely

Al Gore and other climate heroes gathered at an event last night that, among the existential talk of doom and gloom, offers some hope

September 24, 2019

1:56 pm

“If you don’t have climate anxiety, you’re not paying attention.”

So said Sophie Anderson, the 16-year old founder of Extinction Rebellion, an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience “in an attempt to halt mass extinction.” The venue was onstage at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, as part of “Choose Us,” an evening of climate-action all stars, ranging from Sophie and four other teen climate activists (as young as 14), to former Vice President Al Gore.

In opening remarks, Dr. Anne Klaeysen, Ethical Culture’s leader, noted that Gore, long a climate activist, had delivered a climate-oriented slide presentation at this same venue before he was Vice President, in 1991. Upon his return last night, Gore delivered a keynote that wove together wise and sage observations with the alarming and devastating notes you would expect from one of the world’s leading experts on the climate crisis.

He noted that Haudenosaunee people (an indigenous tribe from upstate New York) would never make any major decisions without first reflecting on how it would affect seven generations further down the line. Today, he noted, we make decisions bearing in mind only how it will affect a quarterly performance.

Gore also observed that “the reason we have the wrong policies is that we have the wrong policymakers.”

But there were also notes of optimism in his speech, noting that Ethiopia had just planted a record 350 million trees in 12 hours, and that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel in two thirds of the countries on earth, a dramatic rise that he sees reaching 100% in the not-too-distant future.

That feeling of optimism carried over to the panel-moderation session, when he introduced and interviewed the five up-and-coming teen activists (all of whom are women), including Xiye Bastida, of Earth Guardians, who astutely noted that one of the reasons the movement has been so successful is that there is no hierarchy in the movement.” Also on the panel were Naomi Holland, Founder of Sunrise Columbia, and Alexandria Villaseñor, 14, who founded Earth Uprising, and who sat by herself in front of UN Headquarters every Friday for the last 41 weeks. Through rain, sleet, sun, and “even the polar vortex.”

A common theme among the activists onstage was persevering for what they believed in, though it could often feel lonely and isolating doing this work. Jamie Margolin, 17, founder of Zero Hour, noted that she and her two friends who first got involved with this work were, to their peers, “weirdos,” but they carried on with the work anyway, and last night the five women were in the spotlight, being interviewed by perhaps the country’s foremost climate champion.

Following the panel, the evening continued with three more speakers. Dr. Katharine Wilkinson gave a TED-talk style presentation that gave us more reasons to be hopeful, as she showcased the work of her team at Project Drawdown, which is a collection of some of the best solutions that can help reverse the effects of the climate emergency. It was not lost on the audience that so many women were taking leadership positions in the climate movement, something that Wilkinson, too, observed, in quoting former Ireland President Mary Robinson: “Climate change is a manmade problem, with feminist solutions.”

The evening closed with two speeches by men on opposite coasts: New York City Council member Costa Constantinides, who represents, among other areas, Queen’s “Asthma Alley,” and whose fiery talk noted that he was actively trying to turn Rikers Island (the city’s notorious prison) into an island of renewable energy: solar, wind, and even a waste-management water system. “Since the White House won’t act, it’s up to us. It’s up to cities. It’s up to states.”

And the last word was given to Hawaii’s Henk Rogers, founder and CEO of the Blue Planet Alliance, whose stated mission is to “end carbon-based fuels” altogether.

Given how much legitimate and actually threatening doom-and-gloom news is out there as relates to the climate crisis, last night’s “Choose Us” event was reassuring that this existential challenge can be navigated, as long as we choose wisely.

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