Thursday, February 25, 2016

Looking Back: Paris, Pope and WNY Rise Up for Climate Justice Campaign

September to December 2015 

By Lynda Schneekloth
Sierra Club Niagara Group

December 2015 will be remembered as a significant time for the history of the world and the Earth. Over 190 countries, from the U.S. and China to the small island nations, sat together in U.N. Paris Climate Talks (COP21) to develop an agreement about a global address to the increasingly dangerous climate crisis. The people of Western New York had been preparing for four months for this meeting through the Rise Up for Climate Justice Campaign, sponsoring and attending gatherings, rallies, vigils, films, presentations and a community fast. We knew how important these meetings were and we had sent our message to the world leaders demanding a just and sane agreement. 

This campaign began In August 2015, as the Sierra Club Niagara Group was discussing the shift in the world’s imagination and actions on climate change. Pope Francis had released Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home and its impact has been felt across the world. And the U.N. Climate Talks (COP21) were already in process with individual nations preparing their “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) that is, how much they would cut the emissions. 

What could we do in Western New York to make people aware of the urgency of immediately addressing climate change? How could we reinforce a conversation in our region about the moral imperative to stop burning fossil fuels and transition to clean energy? How could we manage this energy transformation in a democratic manner? From these questions, the Rise up for Climate Justice Campaign was born. Are you for Climate Justice (RU4CJ)? The Niagara Group made a commitment to spend some of our limited funds to support this effort and developed some aspirational goals for the work we had set for ourselves. 

We set out to raise awareness of the upcoming Paris Climate talks – a specific and time constrained objective. We organized public events for education and urged our elected leaders and institutions to push for ethical action from Washington. We used a “Climate Justice Pledge” to open the conversation and to give people an opportunity to take action about the Paris Climate Talks through collective and individual commitments. The Pledge had three aspects: We call on President Obama and the U.S. to lead the world in cutting greenhouse gas emissions; We call on our state and local leaders to take climate action through a just transition; and we call on each of us to take action on behalf of the Earth and future generations. 

The three months leading up to the Paris talks were intense for members of our Executive Committee and the Climate Justice Coalition that emerged. We used the insights of the NY City People’s Climate March (Sept. 2014) and our own local experience to build a diverse and large coalition. We formed a strong relationship with faith groups and together helped organize the Interfaith Climate Justice Community. The Catholic sisters, Creation Care and Network of Religious Communities were the leaders of this sector and together we began our campaign with a Prayer Vigil on Sept. 1, called by Pope Francis as the “World Day of Prayer for the Creation.” 

We contacted our brothers and sisters in labor and shared conversations about the ways in which this energy transformation was going to impact their working lives. The Western New York Environmental Alliance, a coalition of over 100 environmental groups, stepped up and agreed to use their annual Congress on the topic of Climate Justice. The coalition for social/economic justice groups -- Partnership for the Public Good and Open Buffalo -- worked with us and helped engage their members. And the University at Buffalo Law School played an important role through two seminars, including one in which students and faculty member, Jessica Owley, would actually travel to Paris for the talks. 

One of our initial acts was to contact the City of Buffalo Common Council President, Darius Pridgen. We asked for and received a resolution on Climate Justice unanimously endorsed by all member. Council President Pridgen opened our first rally in front of City Hall in Niagara Square with a fiery talk on the necessity of ‘justice’ in action on climate change. The rally was held on September 24, 2015 in support of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit and his address to Congress. 

Rally in Niagara Square [Click to enlarge] Photo: Nate Schneekloth

Whenever possible, we crafted our events to reinforce state and worldwide climate actions to involve our community in the global climate justice movement. 

Between September 1 and December 19, 2015, seventeen different organizations of the coalition held events focused on climate justice: films, presentations and panel discussion, public hearings, hikes and bike rides, art showings and a “Party for the Climate.” The RU4CJ coalition itself assumed responsibility for four major events: the Rise Up for Climate Justice Rally on September 24 with over 400 people attending; a ‘thunderclap’ on the Oct. 10 Day of Action that reached over 73,000 people; The Gathering, a ritual gathering of over 200 people to speak to our concerns and hopes about the Paris talks held on 11/28 as a part of world actions at the eve of the Climate Talks; and on 12/19, Report from Paris where we met with those from our community who attended the COP21 Paris Climate Talks and heard their words of insight, and yes, hope. 

Being hopeful is not to say the agreement is what we had hoped for; the agreement is not nearly enough as it doesn’t even reach the standards set by the former Kyoto Agreement. In fact, if all of the pledges agreed to by nations in Paris are strictly met, the Earth will still experience catastrophic climate change as it will only limit global warming to 3.5 degrees C (6.3 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. This level of warming would result in injustice throughout the world, with the most vulnerable the most impacted, and would leave a devastated planet for our descendants. One of the reasons there is no legal binding agreement is because it is known that the U.S. Congress would never sign such an agreement, a great sadness to all of us living in this country. What is hopeful is that all the nations of the Earth did come an agreement about action; they even identified an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels; they agreed to a review country goals in five years instead of ten, and agreed to annually report action toward their pledge. They have established a framework for action, this is the good news. 

These leaders tried and most of them engaged with a great sense of purpose. We are, after all, the first generation to really understand the catastrophic impacts of global climate change, and we are also, perhaps, the last generation to do something about it. But the negotiators could not step out of their role as heads of state to understand that we, together, share this planet. There will be no winners if we don’t all win. So we, the people, must lead: we must create a massive, global climate justice movement so overwhelming that they cannot help but act. This must be addressed at the international level but must work deeply into cities and regions. This is where most humans live, have the power to take action themselves, and the forum to impact our leaders. Regions like Buffalo Niagara can and should lead the way. 

Computer analysis of the text in the Buffalo News article “UB law students to attend climate conference - Two to present scroll of local pledges in Paris.” Size of the words reflects frequency of citation in the article. [Click Image to enlarge] Image: D. Kowalski

And our Climate Justice Pledge? We gathered over 2000 signatures from our community, 60 organizations, unions and churches, and 20 elected officials. We put these names on a scroll that measured 42’ when opened. The scroll was carried to Paris by UB Law students, presented to Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club in a small ceremony, and in turn, Brune delivered our pledge to John Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States. Our call to President Obama was taken to the talks and the voices of Western New Yorkers concerned with the necessity of immediate action on climate change and climate justice was heard. 

The Rise Up for Climate Justice Campaign is over, the U.N. Climate Paris Talks are over. But the work is just beginning. Join us as we initiate next steps in our local and regional communities to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to increase ‘carbon negative’ actions, and to ensure that this energy transformation is embedded in a just transition and promotes energy democracy. 

Stay involved – Get involved! 

Link to the Buffalo News article: UB law students to attend climate conference - Two to present scroll of local pledges in Paris

For more information, see:; RiseUpforClimateJustice; 

Funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the Sierra Club Niagara Group; Communication Workers of America Int’l; United Auto Workers 9; Buffalo Teachers Federation; Peace Education Fund; Western New York Environmental Alliance. 

With support from The Interfaith Climate Justice Community; Network of Religious Communities; PUSH; Buffalo Zen Dharma Community; Working Families Party; ADK; WNY Peace Center; Western New York Land Conservancy; Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH, Open Buffalo.

1 comment:

Gerry Rising said...

We owe a great deal to leaders like Linda, David Kowalski, Bill Nowak, Jay Burney and Larry Beahan and I for one thank them for ably representing the rest of us who sit on our hands. Sadly, the public response is glacial at best and every time it snows or a pond freezes we find them retreating. Please do keep up your fine work; we need you.