As climate change and the effects of extreme weather are accelerating around the world, so too is the local response to what the United Nations has declared “the defining issue of our time.”
The Kalamazoo Public Library has chosen to address climate change — and personal and collective change — through its Reading Together 2020 book selection of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, by Jonathon Safran Foer. And over the past few months local leaders from Kalamazoo County, Kalamazoo Township and the city of Kalamazoo took critical first steps by formally declaring the crisis a “climate emergency.”
While the term “climate emergency” may seem dramatic, Denise Keele says the emphasis is appropriate.
“Absolutely, yes, the term is a wake-up call,” says Keele, an associate professor of political science and environment and sustainability at Western Michigan University. “And I’m seeing a growing interest in politics and activism because of our intrinsic desire to do something about it, to collaborate and connect with others to understand and make meaning out of what is happening on our planet and in our community.”
Keele leads the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition (KCCC), which formed in July to unite local citizens and groups in response to climate and ecological crises occurring all over the world. The coalition encompasses nearly 30 affiliates, including local nonprofit organizations, schools, businesses, climate action groups, municipalities and faith-based organizations.
Among its first efforts, the coalition organized a youth-led Global Climate Strike last September, which started with a march from WMU’s campus and ended at the Arcadia Creek Festival Site, in downtown Kalamazoo. Hundreds of students from local schools skipped class — joining an estimated six million others in 150 countries — to protest government inaction on climate change. The too-warm, day-long event (it was 87 degrees, 16 degrees above average for that date) featured live music and a full lineup of speakers, mostly youth, some as young as 9. The overarching themes: The science is clear. We must act now. All of us.
At the march, Kalamazoo Public Library community engagement librarian Karen Trout revealed KPL’s 2020 Reading Together selection as Safran Foer’s book. For 15 years, the Reading Together program has sought to engage the community through the common experience of reading the same book and exploring its themes together. Safran Foer will be on hand to discuss his book March 10 at Chenery Auditorium.
According to Trout, by experiencing the same book, examining the book’s themes through a local lens and hearing the author of that work speak, people are able to embrace similarities and differences from a common point of reference.
We Are the Weather is “a personal and realistic book on climate change, accessible on many levels, suggesting actions we can collectively take to save our home and way of life,” Trout says. KPL’s selection of the book was in response to a spring 2019 survey of almost 18,000 community members in which 40 percent chose “climate change” as the topic they’d most like to read and learn about.
Following the Global Climate Strike, KCCC launched a series of weekly, one-hour educational programs called Fridays for Future. The programs are held at various locations in the community, and topics have included climate history, politics, carbon neutrality, and climate’s impact on the Great Lakes.
Local governments are also heeding the growing clamor for climate action. Countries, states and cities experiencing increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events are under mounting pressure from citizens to adopt an emergency response. More than 1,300 local governments in 25 countries have declared a climate emergency and committed to drive down carbon emissions, according to The Climate Mobilization (TCM), a nonprofit that develops and advocates for climate-related policies.
In June, Kalamazoo Township became the first municipality in Michigan to pass a resolution formally declaring a climate emergency. A Declaration of Climate Emergency also was passed unanimously by the Kalamazoo City Commission in October, following the unanimous recommendation of the city’s Environmental Concerns Committee. The Kalamazoo County Commission followed suit in December, passing its declaration by a vote of 9-2. The declarations are the first steps in the ultimate development of climate action plans.
“This is a special moment,” Keele says. “With the three emergency declarations, we took the first hard step of telling the truth. All three declarations call for regional cooperation in reducing carbon emissions. All call for full community participation and a just transition, prioritizing the most vulnerable in our community and ensuring they have a voice.
“That is our work. Everything is changing. We are building something totally new. We have choices about how we will do that together. I cannot get over the excitement of that.”
How will people choose to navigate these changes? That is a defining question for the defining issue of our time. Activists agree that it starts with education. In addition to the Fridays for Future series, the Reading Together program has a full slate of events planned on the topic of climate throughout the month of March.