By Shoshana Hebshi, Communications Coordinator – Sierra Club Redwood Chapter
When President Trump announced he would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement May 31, it felt like a national day of mourning to many concerned about the future of the planet. But the conversation quickly shifted to efforts by state, county and city governments, businesses, individuals and organizations to uphold and even go beyond Paris’ carbon-limiting recommendations.
“For every terrible decision Trump makes, grassroots activists, frontline communities, local governments, and concerned people across the country are fighting to make sure clean energy continues to grow by leaps and bounds,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement following Trump’s announcement.
Sonoma County is no exception. Seven years ago, environmentalists in Sonoma Valley began an initiative to shift their focus from the national to the local level in addressing the growing challenges of climate change, resource depletion and economic instability.
Sonoma resident Tom Conlon joined a handful of other concerned citizens to form Transition Sonoma Valley, a certified local “initiative” of the international, grassroots Transition Movement to organize and prepare local communities for climate change and economic threats ahead.
TSV was founded on Oct. 10, 2010, and Conlon said it seemed to hit a nerve, growing rapidly by word of mouth, partnership events with existing nonprofits and local press coverage.
“If we try to do stuff by ourselves as individuals, we won’t accomplish enough to solve the really big problems, and if we wait for governments to act for us we’ll be waiting for Godot. But if we come together and act as communities we just might be able to do what needs to be done, just in time,” Conlon said. “That’s what brought us together, and we began hosting films and speakers to teach ourselves about the challenges and the needs for local community building.”
Once the TSV team began examining the efforts of its local government to act on climate change, it discovered some surprising gaps in how local policy was matching up with scientific data. For example, just before the passage of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the City of Sonoma had set for itself greenhouse gas reduction goals that were even more ambitious. That law required California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But like other county jurisdictions, the city had passed a resolution to go even further and faster: 25 percent below 1990 by 2015.
Conlon said the resolution sounded great and attracted worldwide attention to Sonoma, including grants and a climate leadership award from the Obama administration, but by the 2015 deadline, emissions had not declined in the City of Sonoma. In fact, because of rising affluence and a growth in Wine Country tourism, emissions had increased by 21 percent, missing the goal by a whopping 62 percent.
The TSV team saw this failure as an urgent call for new democratic engagement and advocacy. TSV met with Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin and started attending Sonoma City Council meetings to express concerns about this lack of meaningful action on climate, offer constructive recommendations and ask for staff time to work together on it.
“We found that city leaders were very responsive,” he said. “When the City of Sonoma took our advice and switched to 100-percent clean energy for all municipal electricity accounts…we realized this informed, face-to-face approach can be useful around the county.”
In early 2017, TSV stepped out of Sonoma Valley and reached out to other groups, including Sierra Club Sonoma Group. Conlon helped established and co-leads a climate action committee for Sonoma Group, which is working on implementing the TSV strategy in every city in the county.
“The number-one thing we need to do is understand the scope of the challenge we face,” Conlon said. “We can’t manage this human-driven climate crisis unless we start to measure our impact. It’s not just personal impact, it’s business impact, it’s government impact. It all comes down to the decisions people make. When you start to look at the world this way, we are all part of the problem. That means we are all part of the solution if we decide to take up the challenge.”
Sonoma Group’s climate action committee has been nudging city leadership in Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Cotati, Santa Rosa and Windsor to move on their climate action plans and reduce emissions. Vehicle emissions and existing residential buildings are the major contributors of greenhouse gases in Sonoma County, yet recent emissions reduction claims are based on lower output of methane from a decline in county-raised livestock and from trucking garbage to other counties.
Yet, while there’s across-the-board agreement on the need to take action, understanding the complex problem and moving toward viable solutions can be difficult.
“Step one is having (municipal governments) follow through on the commitments they have already made,” he said, adding the City of Sonoma has done that and Healdsburg is moving forward too. That city just implemented the county’s first bike-share program this summer.
Originally these local actions were presented as a package, alongside a new streamlined environmental review option for developers to use on new projects.
A court case is delaying this programmatic EIR process from going into effect, but, as the City of Sonoma has made clear, that lawsuit doesn’t need to halt climate action. Sonoma upgraded old street lights to LED and saved $70,000 a year. This windfall allowed the city to spend an extra $20,000 per year on 100 percent clean power.
The Sierra Club climate committee has designed a fact sheet for each city listing the measures that city has agreed to take and a list of recommendations it should adopt. One of these recommended actions is signing on to Sierra Club’s “Mayors for 100 Percent Clean Energy” campaign, which received a surge of signatories following Trump’s Paris announcement.
Another is for cities to regularly conduct energy audits of their own facilities and fleets to gauge emission levels and find new ways to reduce consumption by adopting best practices and methods implemented successfully elsewhere.
“Our volunteers are having conversations with elected leaders all over the county,” said Conlon. “Eventually we hope to see whole teams of people engaging in each community to raise everyone’s climate literacy. We all need to be working together as a community.”
The ultimate goal will be to meet the annual 5 percent greenhouse gas reduction goals required by the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 while creating a robust economy in sync with those goals and building a better lifestyle throughout the county.
“We can have it all, better mobility, better living outcomes and less carbon pollution,” Conlon said.
Sonoma County activists are not alone in their quest to combat climate change. One county over, members of Sierra Club Napa Group are working in tandem with Napa Climate NOW!, an organization dedicated to educating the public and elected officials on the latest climate science.
Napa Group Chair Chris Benz, also a member of Napa Climate NOW! said the group has met with county supervisors, planning commissioners and state legislators’ staff to discuss goals on emissions reduction in the next 10 years. Members also have presented on climate change to high school and middle school students throughout the county, as well as offered a training for community members on how to talk about climate change.
Napa County will review its Climate Action Plan on July 5, and Sierra Club members will be there to speak up.
Sierra Club members will also participate in a Climate Summit held in Santa Rosa July 31. The Summit, organized by Occupy Sonoma County and 350Sonoma, will be a roundtable discussion of what initiatives groups are engaged in and how to band together as a unified voice for climate action.
In the meantime, every one of us can participate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every day choices can make a difference. Here are three things you can do today, tomorrow and the next day to take action.
- Drive less
- Eat less meat
- Check your carbon footprint at CoolCalifornia.org
If you are interested in doing more, volunteer with Sierra Club Sonoma Group’s climate action team
This article was originally published in the Redwood Needles news (Aug. 1, 2017) and on the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter blog.