From Fear to Hope:
Amidst Turmoil, Climate Change Action Has Been Happening at Every Level

As I reflect upon this circus of a year, one thing is abundantly clear — life is unpredictable, and if we have the option to do good, we should. This year was full of grief, disappointment, hurt, and fear. We’ve watched hundreds of thousands of Americans die from the COVID-19 virus, protests erupt around the injustices carried out by law enforcement, and a massive shift in daily life for everyone. While much of 2020 was clouded by frustration and loss, there were some brilliant moments of human kindness and perseverance. From drive-by birthday parties to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, we’ve seen adaptation on a grand stage.

One of the most promising stories of adaptation and determination is the story of climate action. As we all know, climate change will not stop because of a pandemic, and for that reason neither can climate action. From the Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice to the growing student advocacy group on my own campus at the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA), climate action has not only been continuously fought for and carried out but is also working with a brilliant synergy.

On a national level, Biden’s proposed plan for attacking the climate crisis uses a holistic approach that will seep into almost every aspect of American life. After inauguration, Biden plans, among other things, to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years and reach national net-zero emissions no later than 2050. His plan approaches climate change through nine major categories, including transportation, housing, agriculture, infrastructure, and environmental justice. All this as the Trump Administration has rolled back decades of environmental legislation and provided little to no relief for environmental crises in this nation and beyond.

Looking at North Carolina where I am in school, Governor Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80 on October 29, 2018 in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Since then, the state has pushed forward multiple efforts to lower carbon emissions and create a cleaner, safer, planet. The plan is broken into four main initiatives with a few different plans and projects. The Clean Energy Plan, monitored by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), aims to reduce the electric power sector greenhouse gas emissions to 70% below 2005 levels by 2030, and attain carbon neutrality by 2050. The Zero Emission Vehicle Plan, monitored by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, intends to increase the number of registered zero emission vehicles in the state to at least 80,000 by 2025. Lastly, The Clean Energy and Clean Transportation Workforce Assessment, overseen by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, works to evaluate workforce demands in North Carolina’s clean energy and clean transportation sector.

These four features of Cooper’s plan for climate change are working together to make big changes in the state. In 2020, the state released a comprehensive climate resilience plan that will help plan and adapt to future changes in the climate, used grant money to fund renewable energy projects and resilience efforts, and established an Interagency Resilience Team that helps coordinate across sectors. The hard work of climate scientists and government officials in North Carolina is helping to keep residents healthy, stable, and safe from climate impacts, and reflects an ongoing push despite the many challenges they faced this year.

In the local area around UNCA, Buncombe County has put forth a 100% Renewable Energy Plan that will help coordinate and implement efforts to mitigate climate change. The goal is to go completely renewable for county operations by 2030 and for the entire county community by 2042. The plan suggests phasing out 99% of hydropower by 2030, decreasing coal output by 33% by 2030, and replacing those energy sources with solar and natural gas. The county intends to install renewable energy systems on government-owned property, lease land to the utility for local renewable energy generation, and invest in energy efficiency, including renewable heating and cooling technologies. The resolution for this plan was signed on December 5th, 2017, but the efforts that came from it are still going on in 2020. This year, Buncombe County, partnering with the City of Asheville, began contracting for massive solar installation across over 40 sites within the county.

In addition, the city of Asheville received a “SolSmart Gold” designation supported by the U.S. Department of Energy for making solar more accessible and safe for residents to buy and produce. The City of Asheville also officially declared a “climate emergency” in 2019, reinforcing the necessity of climate action in the area and emphasizing how the already stated goals for changes and resilience are more important than ever.

As a college student learning about all these initiatives, my immediate question is, “How can I be a part of this movement?”. At UNC Asheville, there is a remarkable amount of passion and effort being put into sustainability. My school has made strides in environmental action with things like a geothermal system underneath the quad, sustainable dining practices, and putting solar panels on one of the dorms. This begs the question, however, of what more we could be doing. The coronavirus pandemic was especially hard on universities as they worked to balance public health and academic success, yet still there are active pushes for more climate action on the UNC Asheville campus.

A small cohort of students (and a few professors) have begun to encourage the university to sign onto the Carbon Commitment hosted by Second Nature. Like the Federal, state, and local climate actions I’ve mentioned, the goal here is to lower our carbon footprint in a holistic way that promotes safety, climate resilience, and sustainability for the whole campus community. In 2020, a group of students, faculty and staff collaborated on a comprehensive tracking of campus greenhouse gas emissions, developed a draft Climate Action Plan, put together a comprehensive Sustainability Report, got personalized letters from over 60 students in support of signing the Carbon Commitment, and met with the Sustainability Council and other administrators to talk about options for our school. In the same way that Executive Order 80 has pushed the state toward actions surrounding climate change, our hope is that this commitment will provide a framework for future climate change mitigation at UNC Asheville.

There are many levels of engagement when it comes to climate action. Whether at the national, state, county, or campus level, there is always room to do more. There is always an opportunity to push harder and think bigger. This pandemic has radically changed the way we think about work, school, and life in general. As we prepare ourselves for vaccines and a life after COVID-19, we must ensure that meaningful climate action is a top priority at every level, federal, state, and even in our college communities. We learned to adapt to the pandemic, now we must learn to adapt to the climate crisis. We cannot wait any longer.

Lindsey Nystrom – Rachel Carson Council Fellow

Lindsey is a junior at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, majoring in Environmental Equity and minoring in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Her RCC Fellowship project is continuing the divestment campaign and working toward a Climate Commitment at UNCA. [email protected]

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