An Inconvenient Truth in a convenient vacay location
By Robin Happel
Climate Reality Leader & Copy Deaditor
Those of you who know me know I’m from Tennessee, and those of you who don’t know me should know that I will always stan Al Gore. Al Gore is almost unique among Tennessee politicians, and among Southerners in general. (In his words, “I’m the only vegan cattle rancher you know.”) Until our dearly retiring, deeply Republican Senator Lamar Alexander decided to roll out an ambitious ten-point climate plan earlier this week, Gore was largely a lone voice. (For folks not from here, ‘global warming’ is right up there with ‘gay’ in g-words you can’t say as a Tennessee politician.) Nevertheless, our pal Al has been fighting the good fight since even before he technically won in Florida, and yes I will die on that hill, which coincidentally may be one of the few hills left in Florida if predictions of sea level rise are accurate.
Over the course of three days, Al Gore, Rev. William Barber II, Robert Bullard, and other luminaries of the Southern environmental justice movement spoke on climate justice and their own journeys as activists. Pete Davidson, in a surprise cameo, also urged us to take urgent action. “Pretend the climate is a girl you’re in love with – she’s engaged now, but there’s still time!”
Getting up at 8:00 am on a Saturday in the middle of spring break was admittedly a struggle, I did get a certificate, a pin, and a bunch of Al Gore-approved vegan food, which is not a bad haul considering the training was free. With almost two thousand people attending, this was also one of the largest Climate Reality Leadership Corps trainings to date, an encouraging sign that the South is finally coming around on climate change. My corner of Tennessee has been living the environmental version of Final Destination for the past couple years with historic droughts, followed by deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, Hurricane Florence, and finally ongoing floods throughout the state. Gore spoke poignantly about how his ranch was currently flooded, and how many other parts of the South have recently gone through multiple once-in-a-thousand year downpours from Hurricane Harvey and other storms.
Globally, extreme rainfall now occurs four times more often than in 1980, and Americans could see an additional 400% increase in extreme downpours by the end of this century, which is the kind of thing I can now rattle off after having Al Gore and Ken Berlin talk at me for over six hours straight. (This is not a complaint – as an environmental law student, Ken Berlin is our Beyoncé.) But, sadly, a lot of what Nerd Beyoncé and Al Gore had to say was pretty brutal. If we haven’t already hit critical climate tipping points, we’re probably about to. One possible reason why Florence was so devastating is that the jet stream is changing course due to climate change, which held the storm in place longer. Already, parts of the Mideast and India are approaching temperatures too hot for humans to survive outside. Experts predict that heat waves and other extreme weather events could create hundreds of millions of climate refugees by the end of this century. (Also, since this was pretty grim for an article with “spring break” in the title, here are some less grim photos of Atlanta!)
It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom and the mental image of rambling around Flintstones-style in some post-apocalyptic future, but it’s also important to remember that climate change isn’t something we’re powerless to stop. Rev. Barber II, one of the leaders of the modern Poor People’s Campaign, is incredibly optimistic, and his sermon in Ebenezer Baptist Church was an uplifting reminder that our generation should stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and remember that activists across the South have historically done more with less. “Harriet Tubman got five hundred people out of slavery – she didn’t have Twitter!”
Originally Dr. King’s home church, Ebenezer is hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, and Barber and other ministers spoke poignantly about how communities of color have been disproportionately burdened by pollution through various forms of environmental racism. Carrying the torch of Bayard Rustin and Dr. King, Rev. Barber II is a thunderous voice for tolerance throughout the rural South, and spoke powerfully of how environmental degradation, voter suppression, and other social evils intertwine, and how his moral fusion coalition can counteract each of them. “If your lights go out because you can’t pay your light bill, we’re all black in the dark,” he quipped, echoing other calls for affordable, clean energy throughout the South. “If we close the division, we will deliver the nation.”
Maybe it’s naïve to believe that the South can change, but the momentum I’ve seen in the past few months is unlike anything in living memory. And, after spending spring break listening to a vegan cattle rancher and a pro-gay Southern Baptist preacher, it really feels like anything is possible.
The second day of the training also coincided with Fridays for Future, the global youth climate strike. (My Friday class actually got cancelled, but I was still laying out in spirit.) If you want to take to the streets yourself, consider joining the March for Science or an Earth Day march later this spring, or joining the New York Metro chapter of Climate Reality.