Heartwell presentation speaks to environmental efforts, challenges
By Kathy Morrison
Bombarded by dire warnings of the calamities we are facing because of climate change, it is, at times, extremely difficult to see just how we can make a difference. We may worry that what we do personally and at a local level just isn’t enough. The Honorable George Heartwell, former mayor of Grand Rapids, helped to ease some of that worry, in his presentation at the Newaygo County Citizen Environmental Watch and Action Coalition (CEWAC) monthly meeting on Thursday night in a packed room at Brooks Township Hall in Newaygo.
George’s commitment to environmental issues first grew from his love of hiking and spending time outdoors. An early awareness of man’s detrimental role in harming the environment came to him while solo hiking in Smoky Mountain National Park some years ago. Upon seeing mile after mile of dead conifers, he learned from the park ranger that it was “acid rain” that was killing the trees. Reading Bill McKibben's book, The End of Nature, moved him along on his path of concern for our natural world. Then in his early years as mayor of Grand Rapids, George was further inspired to champion the cause after attending a 2004 conference in Sundance, Utah hosted by Robert Redford along with 29 other mayors from around the country.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the featured speaker, presented a slideshow of what would later become the core of Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize winning, An Inconvenient Truth. Since then, George’s commitment to the environment has intensified and he has immersed himself in learning about the issues, the science, and the solutions to climate change. Heartwell was a leader among U.S. mayors in making Grand Rapids a role model in sustainability, despite times when our federal government was reluctant to progressively move forward in tackling these problems.
Addressing climate issues with this solid background, George first spoke about the science: about carbon fuels, about the “greenhouse effect”, about oceanic temperature and level rises, and about all the ways that man’s increased carbon output has disturbed the delicate balance of Nature. No longer in a state of stasis, our Earth can no longer process the increasing volume of carbon. Since man’s heavy reliance on carbon fuels began during the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has risen about 1° C (1.8 ° F).
While a small temperature increase of a few degrees over less than 200 years may sound small and inconsequential, however, it is a big deal. Two-thirds of this temperature rise has occurred since the 1970’s and this increase corresponds directly with rapid glacier melt, the rising of sea level in our oceans and many weather related changes and disasters which are becoming part of our “new norm”.
A rise of 2° C or more could result in vast miles of current coastal areas submerged under sea water and glaciers melted into non-existence in areas where animals and people rely on them for drinking water.
In addition to more severe and unpredictable weather related disasters, enormous shifts in weather patterns will occur that will change where and how crops can be grown, causing food instability for billions worldwide.
While mayor, George Heartwell had the distinguished honor of attending the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris, at which, the Paris Agreement was negotiated. This conference, he felt, was landmark because for the first time in the history of climate conferences, participating members came prepared with specific goals that they were willing to reach in halting climate change. These goals were concrete and measurable, and nations agreed to report every five years on their progress toward attaining them.
In this groundbreaking Agreement, member countries vowed to take steps to keep world temperature levels from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. Furthermore, by the year 2050, it was agreed that carbon emissions would be held at a level that our oceans and atmosphere could absorb, keeping our ecosystem in stasis. Large sums of money were committed by developed nations to support undeveloped nation in meeting their goals, helping them to fund cleaner energy and “leap frog” over their reliance on dirty energy, such as coal.
George was impressed with how wisely planners organized the event to allow for plenty of opportunity for direct networking and collaboration. In the center of the complex sat a facility for world diplomats and dignitaries which was surrounded by concentric circles or “zones” for other attendees. In the “blue zone”, world mayors, including George, met and worked, crafting solutions that they could take home to implement in their own local community. A “green zone” was set up for non-government organizations to brainstorm ideas of how they would play a role in reducing man’s impact on the environment, and yet another area nearby was designated for global industry leaders, lenders, insurance companies, and bankers to find solutions in their arenas that would have a positive impact on the environment.
World diplomats periodically came out to the “zones” to interact with its participants and share ideas and concerns. This structure of “zones” allowed for the collaboration needed to set many wheels in motion. Some of the ideas brainstormed by those in the “zones” have already been implemented and are having a positive impact. For example, some lending institutions will not approve loans to, nor will insurance companies offer coverage to, projects that will have a negative impact on the environment. Many businesses are taking steps to be environmentally sustainable, and often achieve even higher goals because of growing consumer demand.
In Mayor Heartwell’s realm, many cities and towns, such as Grand Rapids, have adopted plans to reduce their environmental impact and reduce their overall carbon footprint. Voters are going to the polls demanding candidates that will make a difference. A meeting of worldwide mayors met before leaving Paris and did further work at solidifying plans to allow cities to move forward in achieving a 1.5 ° C goal, one which would make a larger difference that the 2° C one, which in reality, isn’t stringent enough to reverse the damage done.
To help reverse the damage being done, President Obama signed the Paris Agreement, promising to work immediately toward the goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions. Some 200 other nations also signed what was seen as a landmark, worldwide attempt to commit to slowing the destruction of our earth’s environment. One of the pitfalls of the Paris Agreement, is that it is voluntary and non-binding. To the great dismay of other committed member nations and millions of people worldwide, President Trump, with the stroke of a pen, signaled his intent to withdraw from the Agreement and turn his back on the rest of the world, the environment and our children’s and grandchildren’s future world.
Disheartening as that may seem, Mr. Heartwell’s words still were a beacon of light. He pointed out that many towns, cities, and states are determined to lead the way and live up to the goals of the Paris Agreement, despite the President’s reckless withdrawal. In changing how state and local units of governments operate and plan their energy needs, they are indeed already making an impact on reducing greenhouse gases. In this local movement, George sees hope. It is in the actions taken by individuals, local units of government, business and corporations that the change is happening and will continue to happen.
It was crystal clear from the presentation that his commitment and work on climate issues which started as mayor are not ending anytime soon. His closing wisdom to his rapt audience was, “Paris shows us the way. It is up to us to listen.”
Honorable words from the Honorable Mr. George Heartwell.
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