In mid-December – as masked holiday shoppers faced pandemic challenges – world leaders gathered virtually to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement: the historic international treaty on climate change signed in 2015. Although the United States was not represented at the federal level due to the withdrawal from the accord by the Trump Administration, participants were optimistic since President-elect Joe Biden committed to rejoin the climate pact on the first day of his presidency.
Adding to that optimism was the announcement last fall by China – currently the world’s biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming – that its emissions would peak by 2030 and it would reach a net zero target by 2060. (This means not adding more carbon to the atmosphere than the planet’s ecosystems can absorb.) The European Union – collectively the world’s third largest emitter – also pledged to achieve greater results. Major investors, such as New York’s public pension fund, decided to stop funding fossil fuel power.
Yes, these are aspirational goals, but for the first time in years, I feel (cautiously) hopeful. The chance of lessening the predicted catastrophic damage to our only home from global heating by the end of this century has improved with the election of a new President, who campaigned on this existential issue. Biden has a $2 trillion climate plan aimed at eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 and making our country a net zero carbon emitter by 2050 – if he can secure enough support for its adoption.
That “if” depends in no small part on the votes of millions of Georgians. If Democrats gain control of the U.S. Senate by electing Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in our state –both of whom have platforms to address climate change – it may be possible to pass meaningful legislation to cut emissions and enhance clean energy: the energy that comes from renewable sources that do not release air pollutants.
While Biden will be able to pursue significant climate goals through his budget and administrative actions, such as regulations and executive orders, an economic stimulus package passed by Congress is the most cost-effective and comprehensive approach. As the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, we must become an aggressive climate leader. Time is of the essence as the irrefutable evidence and speed of a warming planet become more obvious with every precedent-setting wildfire, hurricane, heatwave, flood and drought.
Dr. Katharine Wilkinson – a climate author and strategist named by Time magazine as one of fifteen “women who will save the world” – believes that there’s something else also desperately needed to deal successfully with the climate crisis. That something else is leadership that is “more feminine, rooted in compassion, connection, creativity and collaboration.” With Dr. Ayana Johnson, she co-edited All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis: a new anthology of writings from more than forty women at the forefront of the climate movement.
When the book was published last fall, Wilkinson told GreenBiz: “We wanted to bring the mighty chorus to life in one place and do it in a way that feels more like the way women are doing this work—which is with linked arms, passing the mic, shine theory [a practice of mutual investment and collaboration], all of that.”
I talked to Katharine recently, as she was transitioning from her role as principal writer and editor-in-chief at Project Drawdown to becoming a co-director of The All We Can Save Project with Ayana. Project Drawdown is the nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach the point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. In 2017, the organization published its inaugural body of work on solutions in Drawdown (drawdown.org), described as the most comprehensive climate plan ever produced.
Thanks to the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, a climate roadmap for Georgia, appropriately named Drawdown Georgia (drawdownga.org), was published a few months ago with solutions for our state’s unique setting and resources. The authors believe that we can cut our carbon emissions at least one-third in the next ten years in five areas: by capturing sunlight to produce electricity, building clean, overhauling food systems, planting trees, and reducing vehicle emissions with electric vehicles, mass transit and other mobility options.
For Katharine, it is empowering women and girls, especially in developing countries, that holds her rapt attention and passion, hence taking a new path with The All We Can Save Project (allwecansave.earth/project). In The Drawdown Review – an update to the original text published last spring – gender equity ranked second among nearly eighty ways to reduce global warming. High-quality, voluntary reproductive healthcare and high-quality education opportunities for women, the most vulnerable sector of the world population, is a substantial, often-overlooked, climate solution.
More than thirty years ago, I met Katharine, then an inquisitive four-year old in the “half-day” program at Atlanta’s Paideia School with my older son, Charles. The school piqued her interest in nature and science, but her epiphany came, she says, when she spent a semester at The Outdoor Academy in North Carolina’s Pisgah Forest: a “totally catalytic” experience. Now, with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the publication of several books, she is setting her sights on developing transformative leadership skills among women and girls, particularly those of color. I have no doubt that she will succeed
Like climate activist Greta Thunberg, Katharine understands that distant targets and grand speeches are meaningless without aggressive action, now. On the recent anniversary of the Paris Agreement, Greta passionately reminded us all that “we the people” are the hope.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown.