Summarized by Joan Hoffman, Pushker Kharecha, Kimberly Ong, Anna Orozco


PROBLEMS: warming, executive orders and environmental injustices

The entire climate system is warming! This includes the atmosphere, land, and most importantly the oceans. Oceans are the greatest heat reservoir on the planet and the steady, consistent rise in their temperature since the late 1960s (see here) is clear evidence that the earth is heating up as a result of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that humans have put into the atmosphere, according to Dr. Pushker Kharecha, climate scientist from the Earth Institute of Columbia University. This warming causes irreversible sea level rise and worsens extreme weather events such as droughts, storms, heat waves, and floods, and, if not mitigated, can make the climate intolerable for human society and countless other life forms. It can also cause major food and water supply disruptions around the world.

“We must not burn the vast majority of the remaining fossil fuels buried in the earth,” warned Dr. Kharecha.

Coal, he showed with his colorful pie charts, is currently (and historically) the greatest source of carbon emissions. This is disturbing information when considered in light of executive orders favoring the fossil fuel industry issued by President Trump and described by Kimberly Ong, a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lawyer who co-leads the Fossil Free Northeast Campaign. One provides for the expedited review of certain “high priority” infrastructure projects (https://www.nrdc.org/trump-watch/trump-fast-tracks-pipeline-permits-expense-environmental-review), such as oil and natural gas pipelines, and the other is designed to stop the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (https://www.nrdc.org/experts/david-doniger/trumps-climate-destruction-plan-deal-he-cant-close), which would have reduced the use of coal and prevented almost 4000 premature air pollution-related deaths each year, according to the EPA (https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-overview-clean-power-plan). (NRDC is challenging Trump’s approval of Keystone XL (https://www.nrdc.org/experts/anthony-swift/nrdc-and-allies-sue-trump-administration-over-keystone-xl) and Trump’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan (https://www.nrdc.org/experts/david-doniger/nrdc-fights-back-epa-starts-trumps-climate-rollbacks) in two separate lawsuits.) Further, warned Ms. Ong, we should be aware that a very plain-sounding executive order is in fact quite detrimental to environmental and climate protection. That order requires agencies to repeal two existing regulations for each new regulation it puts in place (https://www.nrdc.org/experts/michael-jasny/trumps-new-executive-order-regulations-pure-kafka). This executive order both goes beyond President Trump’s authority under the Constitution and does not permit consideration of the need for or benefits of the regulations to be eliminated. Ms. Ong reported that this order will undermine NRDC’s long but almost successful struggle to regulate the transportation of crude oil by rail. (NRDC is also challenging Trump’s “2-for-1” executive order. (https://www.nrdc.org/media/2017/170208))

That the burdens of climate change and pollution do not fall evenly on populations, whether across the globe or within New York City, was a point emphasized by all three speakers. Dr. Kharecha warned that scientists have observed some especially weak points in the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, and that if the most vulnerable parts of the ice sheets are lost, the oceans could rise by at least 10 meters (33 feet) worldwide, which would be particularly devastating for the many coastal populations of developing countries. The poorer communities in New York City also experience disproportionate pollution and costs of the effects climate change, such as SuperStorm Sandy, according to the community organizer and policy analyst Ana Orozco of UPROSE, a Sunset Park Brooklyn community organization that fights for environmental and social justice. Like many other poor communities, especially communities of color, Sunset Park has polluting industries close by, along their shore line, and the incidence of asthma and cancer increases among those living closer to these plants. Hurricane Katrina provided an example of the common pattern of environmental injustices. Low income people and people of color lived in the more vulnerable areas, received inferior assistance during the storm, relatively poor help after the storm, and were gentrified out of New Orleans due to the nature of the rebuilding.

STRATEGIES: information, legal battles, activism, organizational participation and individual actions

The speakers came to share information and inspire resistance to efforts to damage our climate and our neighborhoods. Dr. Kharecha explained that climate activists had created a nonpartisan public interest group to help people reach and write to their representatives (http://citizensclimatelobby.org). Ms. Ong’s reports of the NRDC’s legal challenges to the Trump administration were encouraging. In addition to suing the Trump administration over its approval of Keystone XL, its rollback of the Clean Power Plan, and its signing of the 2-for-1 executive order, NRDC is also suing the EPA for withdrawing the mercury protection rule (https://www.nrdc.org/media/2017/170201) and for suspending protections for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee (https://www.nrdc.org/media/2017/170214), a decision the administration reversed after NRDC’s lawsuit.


Ms. Ong also acknowledged that the range of problems we are facing can seem overwhelming, and she recommended that people focus their energies on a particular issue that drew their passion and engaged them, for no one can do everything. She explained how the NRDC made decisions on how to allocate their limited resources and energy. They try to choose battles that affect many people, where their participation can add value, where the organization has opportunities to represent communities that are typically underrepresented, and where, if won, the experience can serve as a model for other battles. Ms Orozco emphasized the importance of discussing with others how we can revision our economies to provide us the means to make a living in a manner that is healthy for our minds, spirits and bodies. She pointed out that our current arrangements were created by human beings, and that we can certainly create alternative arrangements that would be healthier for everyone. An audience member mentioned the divestment from fossil fuel campaign. A book, Viking Economics, which explains how Nordic people reorganized their economic system to benefit their populations was recommended by the teach-in organizer, Professor Joan Hoffman, Emerita of the Economics Department and the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Program.

Individual efforts that all of us can make that came up in the discussion included eating less meat, using less plastic, avoiding plastic bags, energy efficient cars/buildings/homes/light bulbs, and of course sharing information. While all of these measures are well and good, ultimately a shift away from the fossil fuel extraction economy is imperative to stop climate change. All of the speakers recommended activism and becoming engaged with some organization whose activities allow individuals to multiply their efforts through group participation.

Links that can multiply your efforts by joining them with others;

People’s Climate Movement, DC Climate March (has buses and subsidies for students)


350: Active Global Climate Movement; Supports DC Climate M Arch



Take Action NYC


#NODAPL the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Movement



Children’s Climate Change Lawsuit



Scientists Supported Citizens Climate Lobby



Student Organization Supporting Divestment From Fossil Fuels