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Street interviewer: Is there anything about our climate future that makes you feel optimistic?
Speaker 3: I feel like there are some people who are going toward there, but there's still some stuff going on, so I'm split. I'm not sure that they'll actually save it in time, but they also could.
Speaker 4: I feel really unoptimistic. Ever since I was really young, I was scared about climate change. I don't necessarily feel like enough is being done to change that.
Speaker 5: I feel better about it, especially younger people I think are talking about it more with more importance.
Speaker 3: With COVID everybody who could do anything about it was doing it, but with this, we have like six years and no one's doing anything.
Street interviewer: Do you hope something happens by the time you're an adult?
Speaker 3: Yes, I do.
Street interviewer: Do you think it will?
Speaker 3: Maybe and maybe not.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and welcome to the show. Maybe and maybe not. Will humans seriously face the facts of our changing climate before those young people you just heard become adults? That is certainly the question of our time. Let's just take stock of a few lead stories in the news right now. Southern California was put under its first ever tropical storm morning this weekend. Tropical Storm Hillary made landfall in Mexico earlier today and is headed north. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake just shook parts of the area. California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency due to concerns about catastrophic and life-threatening floods, as well as tornadoes.
Parts of Arizona and Nevada are also bracing for potential flash floods. Maui meanwhile is still reeling from the deadliest wildfire in US history. At least 114 people have died. The toll is expected to rise significantly. Thousands of people have been displaced. In Eastern Washington near Spokane another wildfire is spreading and prompting evacuations. I could go on in this fashion, but we all know the scary news about extreme weather and disasters. We've been hearing it all summer and public opinion surveys suggests that a greater share of Americans consider climate change an urgent problem than ever before. What do we do with our anxieties about the disasters that have been coming at us all summer?
It's very easy to feel like our fate is sealed and there is increasing concern among climate activists and experts that that fatalism about the climate it is as much of an impediment to action as denial has been in the past. This week we are going to focus on potential solutions. We're going to meet some people who will share stories of what they consider to be progress in their communities, contributions they have made to both fixing our climate and adapting to the reality in which we live. Our phones are going to be open for this whole show, and we hope to facilitate a conversation amongst all of you about how to shake off fatalism and think about what we can all do. Here's a question.
Can you point to something in your community or your own life that you would call a climate victory, a change that you've made or that's been made in your community that you're proud of? Help us see what's going on around the country, even stuff that's imperfect and maybe especially stuff that's imperfect that maybe is a start. What have you seen? What have you done? Your stories of climate victories in your communities and your lives. As we take your calls, the first person we will meet is herself in the headlines this week, Rikki Held is a 22-year-old native of Broadus, Montana, and she is the lead plaintiff in the historic lawsuit, Held v. Montana.
Rikki and 15 co-plaintiffs, all between the ages of 5 and 22, sued the state for violating their right to a clean and healthful environment which is a right enshrined in the Montana State Constitution. On August 14th, a judge ruled in their favor. The ruling has been called by some one of the strongest on climate change ever. It's the first case of its nature to go to trial at all. There are several similar cases that have been filed, but this was the first one to go to trial, let alone to win a positive ruling. Rikki Held joins me now to talk about it. Thanks for this time, Rikki.
Rikki: Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Wright: Your testimony as lead plaintiff was about your family farm. First off, just tell us about that farm and try to make us all understand where you grew up and what that place meant to your family or means to your family.
Rikki: Yes, I grew up in Southeastern Montana near Broadus like you said. My family we have a ranch and motels in town. Just growing up out there was amazing. I'm right here right now. Just being really part of the ranching operations and even when I was four, out moving cattle on horseback and being able to jump in the river or climb trees or take care of barnyard animals. It's wonderful being from here.
Kai Wright: It's a cattle ranch for those of us not from Montana or from such areas. That's the idea is this great big space where cattle are roaming. The Powder River runs through the ranch. You testified about a series of floods and droughts as the lead plaintiff in the case. The river is both your water source for the ranch and a threat when it floods. Can you explain what you told the court about how those events affected your family?
Rikki: Yes. Being a plaintiff in this case, I've gotten to tell my personal story and that includes more water variability. That includes the Powder River is dried up one year enough to stop flowing, and it's also flooded especially when there's higher than normal temperatures in winter, early spring, and then a bunch of ice melts and there's flooding and that's undercut our banks and undercut fences and yes, we do rely on water and so we rely on snowpack in hills, but that's not lasting into the summer with wildfires both directly and indirectly.
Sometimes they'll burn down power lines, like we had this one time where 70 miles of power lines were burned down, and so that affected our ability to get water up to our tanks in the hills to our cattle. With drought, there's less grass. Cattle have to travel farther. It all works together in the system. Especially being from a ranch community, we rely on the land so much for our livestock and our crops and just our livelihood. You can really see those impacts.
Kai Wright: What are the consequences? For the flooding and the wildfires that you're describing, what are the consequences for the ranch when that happens?
Rikki: At one level it's your home and that's your whole life. At another, it's the basic financial and economic losses and ranching is hard anyway, and then facing all of these changes and the unstable climate system, it just furthers that. Sometimes the summers are just so smoky all the time and we get air quality alerts and are having extreme heat days. You just have to keep working through that. With our motels in town that's affected by the Yellowstone flooding that closed down highways or less wildlife that affects our hunting season reservations. It all works together.
Kai Wright: An interesting factoid about you that I learned in reading about you was that you have been an environmental scientist since you were 15 years old. You participated in a long-term study of the Powder River. Since it runs through your property, you helped take measurements for the study and are you were cited in a journal article on this river, which is really cool. I also read that as you were learning about climate change in that age in high school, you didn't think it affected you personally because you didn't live near an ocean. Tell me about that and what made you think differently about it.
Rikki: Right. When I was in high school, when I first learned about climate change, it at first seemed like this thing on the other side of the world that was affecting glaciers, polar bears, and sea level rise. I thought it was a huge issue even then, but I guess I learned more. I did my own research, started connecting what I was seeing on the ranch to this very real issue, and I made it a lot more personal and then and through this case, I've been able to tell my personal story and understand it inside of this more broad global narrative, but everyone is impacted by climate change. Sometimes it's hard to think about it that way, but even with the wildfire smoke, all you guys there were affected by the smoke from Canada this year and we're all affected because of our societies depend on these stable environments.
Kai Wright: Right. The lawsuit was possible because of an amendment to the state constitution from the 1970s that says Montana residents have a right to a clean and healthful environment. Before the lawsuit, were you aware that you had that constitutional right?
Rikki: No. I remember jumping on the first call with OCT, Our Children's Trust, after I reached out to them and they explained what the lawsuit was, and that we had rights in our constitution, such as to a clean, healthful environment, besides all the rights to life, and liberty, and land, and all of that. I just thought it was a perfect case because of those rights protected by generations before us. In the 1972 constitutional convention, people from all over the state were there and ranchers, educators, clergy, and lawyers, and businessmen, they all came together to protect those rights because we care about our land and our people, and so I guess with this case we're trying to continue that as the future generation, to protect it for now and the future ones ahead.
Kai Wright: A lot has been made of your youth, the fact that you're all youth in this lawsuit and others. Why is your age relevant to the conversation? Why does it matter that you are young people fighting for this right to you?
Rikki: Youth are disproportionately affected by climate change. We had experts in our court case testify to that with physical health for one, more likely to be affected by air pollution and extreme heat for some examples. Then youth don't have a say in our government systems, can't vote and aren't in positions of power. I was 18 when we filed this case, and so I've been lucky that I've been able to vote now and have more of a say. We really are doing this case because young people don't have voices and future generations don't have voices, and we need the courts to protect those rights and our governments to take responsibility and do what's best for its citizens.
Kai Wright: We need to take a little break. Rikki, I hope you'll stick around for just a few more minutes. I want to ask you a few more questions after the break. Rikki Held is a 22-year-old environmental scientist from Broadus, Montana. She is the lead plaintiff in Held v. Montana, a case brought by her and 15 other young people working with the legal advocacy group, Our Children's Trust. On August 14th, a district court ruled that the state had in fact violated Rikki's right to a clean and healthful environment. Coming up, we'll talk a little bit more about that case and we'll start taking your calls. Do you have a climate victory in your community you want to share? Stay with us.
Regina: Hi, my name's Regina and I'm a producer with the show. You may remember that last year we started the Notes from America Summer Playlist. We collected submissions from you and curated a playlist that everyone could enjoy. Well, summer is here again, and I'm happy to announce we're launching our second summer playlist. A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with the guys from a band called Wake Island. They talked about how music has become such a powerful outlet for identity, filling a need as a search for their place in the Arab-American diaspora.
Now it's your turn. What's a song that represents your personal diaspora story? Here's how to send us your response. Go to notesfromamerica.org and look for the record button to leave us a message. Start with your name and where you're recording from. Then tell us the name of that song, the artist, and a short story that goes along with it. Feel free to include a little bit about your background as well. Make it your own, and please make sure that your recording is at least a minute long. We'll gather all the songs and your stories in Spotify playlists that will drop regularly all summer long. All right, I think that's everything. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk, and I can't wait to hear from you.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. This week we are facing our anxieties about a summer of extreme weather and climate related disasters, and we're talking about progress, where we can find some cautious optimism so that we don't end up stuck in fatalism. I'm still joined by Rikki Held, who is the lead plaintiff in the case Held v. Montana. It's a suit brought by her and 15 other young people who sued the state for violating their right to a clean and healthful environment and have won an important ruling in the last week.
Rikki, I want to ask you about the state's response to your victory. The State Attorney General's office is appealing the ruling and has called your suit a publicity stunt. They note that similar cases have been dismissed from state and federal courts, and they're confident they'll win on appeal to the State Supreme Court. How do you respond to that criticism, that this is a publicity stunt?
Rikki: I don't know. I guess, I just know that this is the right thing to do because the state of Montana's known about climate change. Humans caused climate change since the 1960s. We have technologies to switch to more renewable energy sources that would protect our state and beyond Montana as well. It would reduce electricity costs and health costs because people aren't being affected. I don't know how you can argue, but we presented a week of evidence and the state had their chance to do that, and they presented for part of the day.
You just can't argue with what our experts testified to, because we had such a strong story with all the personal plaintiff testimony and with our experts talking about the best available science we have on the climate science, and what the impacts are to youth especially with health and mental health impacts and all of the opportunities we have moving forward, and that Montana can rely on like wind, water, and solar, and how much it would benefit our state. No, it's not a publicity stunt. This is coming out of our Montana values, and our laws, and our constitution.
Kai Wright: Where do you fall on this realm of optimism versus doom and gloom and fatalism around climate change? This is pursued as an act of great optimism, so I think I know, but for those of us that we're going to spend the rest of this show talking about how do we feel about climate change and what does it mean for how we then act? What would you say to folks who are feeling fatalistic about it?
Rikki: How I feel about it is it is terrifying. Sometimes when you let it all rush in and think about it, I think about all of the things that you hear on the news all the time, and it just is still happening and we're in the midst of this crisis, and we do need to do something about it, but sometimes it's good to let that fear sink in and realize that this is a problem, but that isn't going to help us move forward and so we just need to think about actionable steps that we can take moving forward. This case was a great example of that.
It's the first time that a court has declared the state fossil fuel policies unconstitutional, and there's going to be other cases going forward, and there are actions that we can take as individuals, or states, or at a more global national scale that we need to take because this is the world we live in, and we want to protect it. It is good to stay optimistic, and I am, and I have a lot of hope for our future, especially taking action and working with so many amazing people who are looking out for our future. That's what gives me hope.
Kai Wright: Rikki Held is the lead plaintiff in Held v. Montana, a case brought by her and 15 other young people working with the legal advocacy group Our Children's Trust that sued the state of Montana for violating their right to a clean and healthful environment on August 14th. A district court ruled that the state had in fact violated Rikki's rights. Rikki, thank you so much for this time.
Rikki: Thank you so much.
Kai Wright: I have been asking for you to call in with your stories of other kinds of climate progress in your community. You have certainly responded. There are a great many of you on the phone. I'm going to just start taking a few of them now, and in a minute, we will be joined by Liza Featherstone, who has written an article in The New Republic that is helping us think through this tension between optimism and fatalism as well, but let's start with Carrie Ann in Chicago, Illinois. Carrie, welcome to the show.
Carrie Ann: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Do you have a story of climate victory in your community, Carrie?
Carrie: Yes. When I was in college in upstate New York, I organized with a bunch of other students on my campus, and we pushed the college to join an international corps. The whole point of all of it was to talk about climate change in every single classroom regardless of the content area. We were successful. Our college joined the accord and what that wound up looking like in our community, is for our college campus we started talking about climate change in studio arts, and in writing, and in gender studies classes, and we started to build a more intersectional understanding of the solutions that exist and also the way we're approaching solutions and how lots of different roles in our community can help develop and bring in support for creating a resilient future together.
It was really cool because even though we had only passed it at the college level, we were in such a localized community. A lot of the effects of starting to talk about climate change at that level made its way into high school classes and then also there was a boom of work happening in the community all of a sudden. Where we were doing all types of cool stuff to help fight or mitigate climate changes effects for our local community.
Kai Wright: Wow. It was catalytic. You took one action. It had an advance, it had a victory, and that led to more action.
Carrie: Yes. I think when we talk about how to build hope, it was we were really loud about we want to talk about it and it was catalytic because we were talking loud enough, and that gave our community enough hope to be like, "Oh, we can actually do some of this stuff."
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Carrie. Let's go to Scott in Longford, Connecticut. Scott, welcome to the show.
Scott: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: What's your climate victory story you want to share, Scott?
Scott: Well, it's related to climate change, and it's also related to globalization, but here in Connecticut, we have the wonderful Connecticut River that runs all the way from practically Canada down through New Hampshire and Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. We're lucky down in southern Connecticut to have the Connecticut River as a tidal estuary. It's one of the most productive and untampered with river systems on the whole East Coast and, unfortunately, several large river systems on the east in New England, et cetera, have been hammered by an invasive aquatic plant called water chestnut.
It comes from Asia, and that's the globalization part how that was brought in but also with water temperatures warming and water levels rising, it's spreading. We've got a bunch of us for several years who have been out harvesting this harmful plant. It puts out these crazy seeds that are the size of a walnut with these sharp thorns on them, really big. They would puncture a tire if a car rode over it, or certainly a water shoe or sandal, et cetera. They're really bad. Each seed can generate eight or so florets of plants, and each one of those florets will put out about eight more seeds, so unchecked they really go crazy. It's done a lot of damage in the Hudson River system, and we've been harvesting. Go ahead.
Kai Wright: You've been harvesting them, cleaning them out and I have to say that it outstrips my understanding a little bit, Scott, but the point is that there is an invasive thing and you've been able to get it out of the environment. Thank you for--
Scott: We're getting out there in small boats. We have to lean over the side of the boat, haul that stuff in with our hands. It's dirty, it's ugly but then you have to fill the boat up with it and go get rid of it. Sometimes we have some assistance with trucks. It's a lot of hard work, but we're making the river a better place. We call ourselves unsung heroes.
Kai Wright: Well, now you are a song hero. Scott. We have sung you on the radio nationally taking care of your local river. Thank you, Scott. As we continue to take your calls, I'm going to be joined now by activist and author Liza Featherstone, who wrote an essay for The New Republic earlier this summer that really got my attention in which she argued The Case Against Both Climate Hope and Climate Despair. That was the headline of the essay, and she joins me to explain what exactly she wants us to feel. If it's neither hope nor despair. Hi, Liza. Thanks for this time.
Liza: Hi, Kai. Thanks for having me. I should say usually writers say, "Oh, yes, I don't write the headlines," but I actually did write that headline, so I have to own that. [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: All right, well, listen, well, first off, anything that you heard in either Carrie or Scott there that you want to respond to in terms of how we're feeling about climate change right now?
Liza: First of all, I think this is so generative because we rarely ask the general public, what is a climate victory in your community or something that you've been a part of? After just a couple minutes we're hearing the most amazing stories. It definitely, I think, reflects how little of that is picked up normally in the media for some good reasons and for some bad reasons that we tend to focus on the worst disasters that are happening because they are very newsworthy and important. [chuckles] Then that piece of people are winning and doing something about this every day, when we lose track of that, it's like no wonder so many people are suffering from climate despair and climate anxiety. [chuckles]
The case against what many in the climate movement are calling doomism. Doomism is the sense that there is nothing we can do. The fixes in the climate apocalypse is coming. I think that's a narrative that's been criticized for a long time and gained some respectability a few years ago with Jonathan Franzen and some other literary guys who started writing these essays about how they were just giving up. Those arguments were widely criticized by climate scientists who argue absolutely not there's a lot that we can do and are doing about this problem. The affect is very contagious and pervasive and very understandable because we are seeing almost a daily loss of life from some climate disaster or another and it's devastating.
The case against climate hope, what I mean by that is there's a writer named Mary Louise Hagler, has a great term hopium [laughs] which is the way that when faced with a serious problem, hope can be just anesthetizing as the climate movement wants to motivate people, get their attention, how serious this problem is. A lot of the positivity, and especially coming out of the tech world, that we can solve this, we can do anything, can have anesthetizing effect and what we really want to see, I think, as a climate movement and as members of the human race is a realistic approach, which is recognizing our feelings of grief and anxiety are very valid that this situation is extremely serious.
That recognition should motive us to take action like all the great people that you just talked with and that taking action isn't just an existential sisyphian thing that we do to make ourselves feel a little better. Taking action is actually really working. Not that we can stop the worst effects of climate change. Those are already here. We can save many of our civilizations, we can save many lives, we can save many ecosystems and many species, and we are doing that. It's a balance. Our feelings need to lead us to this balance place.
Kai Wright: You argue in the piece and give me the thumbnail version of this in just maybe a minute or so, that we've made progress in the last couple of years that were unimaginable in the recent past.
Kai Wright: Make that case in 60 seconds.
Liza: Completely. In past, even democratic administrations if we got a regulation that saved a species or two the environmental movement would be like, "Yay, this is an amazing victory." We have seen the Inflation Reduction Act and also the Bipartisan Infrastructure Acts, which invested billions and billions of federal money into decarbonizing our economy. We're going to be seeing the effects of that more and more as that comes online. New York State, we just want a significant victory in the Build Public Renewables Act to use public money. Actually, that builds on the victory of getting so much investment from the Inflation Reduction Act because we can use that money to build public renewables in New York state and it creates a blueprint that other states can use as well.
I would say these are the things that really couldn't have been anticipated five years ago. The scale of that would not have been imaginable. The good news is we're way beyond this building awareness. If you think about it, five years ago a climate victory would be, well, we created some awareness. That is totally not good enough but, fortunately, we are actually way beyond that. I think that's really important.
Kai Wright: We need to take another break. I'm talking with Liza Featherstone, whose essay in The New Republic earlier this summer argued The Case Against Both Climate Hope and Climate Despair. We're going to take your calls after the break. It's going to be all about you. Tell us your story of a climate victory. Stay with us.
It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome back. This week, we're trying to shake off the paralyzing eco-anxiety that many of us have developed over the course of this summer of extreme weather and climate disasters. We're doing that by sharing stories of progress and action on the climate crisis. I'm still joined by author and activist Liza Featherstone. Liza and I want to hear more of your stories of climate action. Let's start with Wes in New Hampshire. Wes, welcome to the show.
Wes: Hi, thank you for having me, Kai.
Kai Wright: Thank you for calling. Do you have a climate victory to share?
Wes: Well, I'd like to hope it's a victory.
Kai Wright: Okay, good enough.
Wes: I spent 35-plus years teaching environmental science and I started an energy program that trains students for careers in energy efficiency. I saw what you're talking about firsthand for many students, who went from either not understanding or denial to throwing their hands up in the air. To me, I've always felt better about things when I can take responsibility for myself. That's what I've tried to teach. I wrote a book called Warm and Cool Homes about five net-zero houses that heat, cool and electrify for less than $500 a year in New Hampshire, and made a series of videos which basically show people how they can do some or all of these things to their houses, and take responsibility for their own actions.
One of the things in writing the book I found was that all of the people I interviewed who had houses like this felt really proud that they were doing something positive. A lot of times people think, "Well, I can't solve the problem, so there's nothing I can do." What I'm trying to point out to people is, there is something you can do by taking responsibility for yourself and the carbon you do or don't emit and go around to schools and libraries and speak about this.
Kai Wright: I'm going to stop you there, Wes, just for time, because we got a bunch of callers, but thank you for that contribution. Let's go to Lawrence in Chicago. Lawrence, welcome to the show.
Lawrence: Hey. Well, thank you very much, my friend. I appreciate your time. I just want to first say, if I may, very briefly, I want to thank Liza and Rikki for their contributions to this thought effort and where we go. On one end, as a 65-year-old man, I apologize that my generation didn't do enough early to bring this to a head, such that with climate change occurring rapidly, we would give the new generation an opportunity to be at the seat of the table to change this paradigm. That being said, victories, in my ward in Chicago, I'm in Berwyn, we recently were declared a natural disaster based on rain and flooding. One of the things I've been encouraging our people to do is plant more trees and vegetation to absorb the water runoff. That being said, that is a victory.
Subsequently, on the carbon footprint, I've been studying my own home to learn how to naturally ventilate the house even with 108-degree heat index to still be comfortable without using air conditioning. The other thing, as an architect for the federal government, one of the things that I've been concerned with, my friend, is that the models to reduce energy footprint are outdated. They're 4, 5, maybe even 10 years old, and that has got to change. The data, as we're occurring right now is at a critical level, if you will, I'll say it that way, and we're not modelling that when we try to reduce footprint for energy use and consumption.
Kai Wright: Lawrence, just because I'm short on time here, just a quick on that last point. Is there a victory in that, that you want to share in terms of fixing that problem?
Lawrence: Well, as an advocate, because part of it is, I think about my grandson, and where the next generation is going. I keep telling the federal government that the data is outdated, if you will, and we need to update that.
Kai Wright: I'm going to stop you, Lawrence, but advocating for a change, which I agree, advocacy is itself progress. Let's go to Joyce in Portland. Joyce, welcome to the show.
Joyce: Hi, thanks for having me on. There's many things that have been victories here. I'm part of a group that for 50 years have worked to get nuclear power out of this state. We're still working on that and have been successful so far. I was part of the group that planted 10,000 native trees in Oaks Bottom and created what was a landfill into a wilderness area. Personally, in my own home, by taking this 100-year-old house and insulating the walls, putting solar on the roof. I went from using 1,000 gallons of oil a year to heat this house to this year it was 100, and I'm sure I can even do better.
Kai Wright: Okay, go, Joyce. Thank you so much for that contribution. One more person we asked to call in this week is Jesse Marquez, who created the Coalition for a Safe Environment in Wilmington, California. Jesse, welcome to the show. Are you there for me?
Jesse: Yes. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Kai Wright: Jesse, first off, Wilmington is right in the path of the tropical storm that is bearing down on Southern California right now. I believe you are currently traveling and not in the area, but are you in touch with people back there? How are people feeling and preparing in Wilmington?
Jesse: Actually, I arrived last night, so I'm back in town, not a problem.
Kai Wright: Okay, are you safe?
Jesse: Just to clarify, Wilmington is a community within the city of Los Angeles.
Kai Wright: Got you.
Jesse: We are one of the harbor coastal communities and the Port of Los Angeles is physically located and borders Wilmington.
Kai Wright: How are things right now? What are you concerned about or ready for for the community?
Jesse: Well, on the good side, in 2018, our organization received a grant to prepare a Wilmington Emergency Preparedness Plan, which was finished in 2020. In preparing a plan, it addresses all aspects of potential disasters, natural disasters, industrial disasters, climate change impacts so that we have had a campaign now for a couple of years, in sharing the information that we've learned, sharing how to prepare, sharing how to address these things once they occur, how to network with other people. By having this document available, all this outreach has worked with our community in understanding what they needed to do.
I'm happy to say that, yes, residents paid attention. Yes, they've been listening to the news, and that they were preparing for the tropical storm, even doing simple things like taking down a canopy in the backyard, your umbrella with a table where you have your little breakfast in the morning, stocking up on extra water, but then we also brought out to them, when power goes out, you have to be prepared with power. Make sure you have flashlights, backup batteries for the flashlights. If you have a heater that's electric, make sure that there's enough power for that. If you don't have electricity, there's an alternative for that.
Kai Wright: There's all kinds of things that folks had to do, and they did them. We heard a climate victory story from you there, even as disaster comes at you. Wilmington is right by the Port of Los Angeles as you pointed out. It's surrounded by refineries, by major freeways, and other environmental hazards. The community is overwhelmingly Latino. Part of why we wanted to talk to you is that over the past 20 years, you and your neighbors have been effectively organizing on behalf of environmental justice for your community. I wanted to bring that into the conversation. I know in particular, one of the projects that caught our attention was the Wilmington Weather Station. Can you describe what that is and why you would consider it a victory?
Jesse: Well, remember I just mentioned the Wilmington Emergency Preparedness Plan. In the process of researching that, we realized that our community needed to have access to information in real time as it's happening now. What happens if the TV stations, radio stations go out? Does the community have any other resource to go to? Well, we do. We have our own weather station in our office. We have backup power, so we don't need to be on the grid. We will always know what is available here. Even our weather station is connected to the website and connected to the internet.
We even have backup power to the internet so that we can keep on ticking as long as possible. From the weather, we also realized when we were putting it together, we wanted to have a website, but no one ever goes to a weather station website. We needed to make sure that we had things that people needed to know, and that's where climate change also came into it, and natural disaster. We have links. If we're talking about tropical storms, there's a tropical storm link, there's a hurricane link, there's an earthquake link. We have all these resources there on our website and in our station that people, students, in fact, even a teacher told us one time when she looked at our agenda of what links we were having, you don't have anything for teachers and students.
Then we had to go back and we found nine more links for teachers and students, and we added that to our weather station. We also had another little community science victory in terms of research. We wondered, well, what is the average temperature of Wilmington? What's the average temperature of Los Angeles? What's the average temperature of California? What's the average temperature of the United States? Then when we got the numbers, we had found a little state of shock because it showed that Wilmington's temperature was higher. Now, how can Wilmington's temperature be higher? We're right by the ocean. We're right by the coast. Winds blow in.
Then we realized the industries around us. On three corners of Wilmington's border, we have a refinery. On the south end, we have the Port of LA and Port of Long Beach. On the northwest, we have the sanitation department there. Well, we discovered that we are an example of a heat island effect, which means all these industries generate more heat in your community, so your temperature is higher. When we're talking about climate change and increasing heat, then our community is going to suffer more because we are already above average on what our heat impacts. Heat impacts not only affect us in terms of public health. They're dangerous because we have four refineries in Wilmington. Every one has exploded anywhere from two to five times in the last 20 years.
Kai Wright: Exploded as in had caught fire.
Jesse: Caught fire and exploded. When I was 16, I lived in Wilmington on the border of Carson. City of Carson had an oil refinery there. At 5:00 PM that afternoon, there was an explosion. Mama just called us kids to come and have dinner. As we were running down the hallway to get to the dinner table, we all fell because of that shock wave from the earthquake. Mom and Dad said, "Hurry up, let's go in the car. We got to leave because we're not going to stay there to see what's going to happen. Go grab grandma next door." We started getting in our car. A second one exploded. Now we were trapped. We couldn't get in our cars, we're going to hold hands, run to the corner and keep on running for the next seven, eight blocks to get to our auntie's house.
Then a third one exploded larger than the others. We had to run to the backyard. My father yells at me to help my three brothers over the back wall fence. My dad was helping my grandmother, my mother, who was also seven months pregnant over that fence. I jump over as the last person, I get ready to run away. I hear a woman's voice, "Boy, boy, please turn around. Boy please turn around." I turn around. There's this blonde woman holding a baby in her hand. The baby's blanket was burned. The baby's face was burned. She threw the baby over the wall like a football. I caught the baby, and she yells at me, "Please, please run as fast as you can. Don't turn around. Save my baby's life." There is no hospital in Wilmington. I eventually ran to a clinic in Wilmington--
Kai Wright: Jesse, I'm going to have to cut this dramatic story short because we're running out of time because I know that that is your origin story as an environmental justice activist. Can you in 60 seconds or so, give me, because a story like that reflects just how hard it is to have optimism in the face of environmental injustice, in particular, the equity questions in particular. What is your takeaway for people who care about that issue about how we stay not fatalist? Again, I got about 60 seconds for you here.
Jesse: You do what we did, we thought what could we possibly do? The Emergency Preparedness Plan was the solution. We needed to understand the dangers. We needed to know what were the recommendations for each one. We prepared charts, posters, handouts so that our community would be aware of what they could do. Then we got involved in public policy where we supported AB32 in 2006, the Global Warming Solutions Act. Then we became part of the advisory committee. As part of the advisory committee, I made a recommendation that came as a result of our China shipping lawsuit, that all ports should plug into electric shore power.
Kai Wright: I will have to stop you with those examples, Jesse. I appreciate it. The point is political action. That is an excellent segue for final thoughts from you, Liza, because a lot of your work is in electoral politics. From a perspective of political action, here as we close the show, what fatalism in that category, that seems like a place where I feel quite fatal in terms of the inability to make elected officials care.
Liza: Well, I think that is actually changing. It was certainly conventional wisdom for a long time among Democratic operatives, even among further left people that you can't really make elected officials care about climate issues because voters don't care enough was the conventional wisdom. I was just looking at some polling going back for the last 11 months. When people say, "What is the most important issue to you?" People who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, for the last 11 months, climate has been their most important issue.
Kai Wright: For these past 11 months.
Liza: For these past 11 months. I don't think this has ever happened before. It seems like a very good opportunity to build on all the kinds of victories we've been discussing, given this is the most salient issue to Democratic voters right now, more than inflation, more than all the things that we believe are more important than to people. I think that this is a lot to build on. The politicians are going to start caring because the voters are going to vote on this issue.
Kai Wright: We got to leave it there. Liza Featherstone's essay in The New Republic is titled The Case Against Both Climate Hope and Climate Despair. We'll put a link in the episode description for the podcast drop of this episode. Liza, thanks so much for this time.
Liza: Thank you. What an honor.
Kai Wright: Thanks to everyone who called in. You can keep talking to us at notesfromamerica.org. Just look for the green record button and leave us a voicemail. Andre Robert Lee is our executive producer. I'm Kai Wright and I will talk to you here next week.
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