System Change, Not Climate Change

This month, S.F. plays host to three environmental events with one shared mission: stopping climate change before it’s too late.

San Francisco’s environmental stewardship has always been more than just words to a song. In only the last few years, we’ve banned plastic straws, single-use bags, and styrofoam. We’ve reduced the city’s carbon footprint by 30 percent between 1990 and 2016 and incentivized solar power for homes and businesses. So it’s only fitting that, in the wake of the Trump administration’s war on the environment, San Francisco was selected to host three monumental environmental events this week. Together, a film festival, a march, and a climate summit will attack environmental apathy from a multitude of angles.

The eighth annual San Francisco Green Film Festival launches the discussion on Sept. 6. In venues from the Castro to Fort Mason, 50 new films and more than 100 guest speakers hope to inspire real environmental change.

“It seems overwhelming, like we’re all going to hell in a handbasket,” says Rachel Caplan, the festival’s founder and CEO. “But film is a very powerful, immediate way to bring environmental issues to people.”

From protecting the waters of the Okavango Delta in Africa to re-introducing the Native American tradition of prescribed fires in California, the festival highlights the grassroots efforts of everyday people — in particular, indigenous populations and women — whose acts of bravery can inspire us all.

“We want people to leave the theater feeling uplifted and empowered to make a difference,” Caplan says.

Concurrently, the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice March is on Saturday, Sept. 8. Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland and a lead organizer of the event, hopes those who demand a change in environmental policy will leave the theaters and hit the streets.

“The march is about people power and building community,” Yoshitani tells SF Weekly. “It’s a way we can speak directly to our communities and not have it filtered through the governor’s office.”

Working in coordination with similar events around the globe, organizers say the San Francisco march could be the largest environmental march in the history of the West Coast. But marching is one thing, and creating real change is another. According to Yoshitani, it’s getting off our addiction to fossil fuels, and doing so in a socially just way, that will be our biggest challenge.

“California has made great strides,” she says, “but getting to 100-percent renewables in all communities, especially working-class communities of color, is a much more transformative approach than our leaders are willing to take on.”

Yoshitani advocates for a “managed decline” away from fossil fuels that does not rely on simply stripping jobs away from the poor, but creates a fund to help low-income workers transition away from relying on oil and gas jobs.

“Communities around the world who are most impacted by climate change must receive the benefits of the new green economy first,” Yoshitani says.

And it’s up to the closing act, the Global Climate Action Summit from Sept. 12-14, to get the powers that be to become the powers that do. Organizers for both the Green Film Festival and the Rise for Climate March scheduled their events around this summit, whose primary mission is to hold atmospheric warming to the two-degrees Celcius limit that many scientists contend is all the planet can handle before catastrophe sets in. It would buttress the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, which our out-of-sight, out-of-his-mind president chucked into the landfill.

Major star power is coming for this one, from big-name politicians such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Al Gore, animal rights activist Jane Goodall, and actor Alec Baldwin.

David Miller, North American director of the C40 Climate Leadership Group and mayor of Toronto from 2003-10, believes the Global Climate Action Summit will live up to expectations, promising that “significant announcements” will be made during the summit.

“If the world is going to meet the ambitions of Paris, then the large cities of the world need to ramp down to be carbon-neutral by 2050,” Miller tells SF Weekly.

“Most of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built,” he adds. “The question is how can we make them more efficient, which involves a lot of work, which can involve decent paying, often union jobs. With the right thinking, we can create better jobs, as low-income people, by definition, need better-paying jobs.”

And the work is going to happen locally. Leaders of these events agree that help is not coming from the federal level in any substantial way. Last week, the California Assembly voted to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. It’s a self-protective move: California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, released last week, determined that wildfires would increase by 77 percent statewide if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise.

“There’s an old saying: Either lead, follow, or get out of the way,” Miller says when asked about federal inertia. “They’re certainly not leading, and I don’t think they will follow. The least they can do is get out of the way.”

For those political leaders who refuse to get out of the way, organizers hope citizens will take care of that obstruction in November’s midterm elections. In California, voters will have the chance to take the planet’s future into their own hands with Proposition 3, a measure to protect safe drinking water and improve water infrastructure, and Proposition 6, the hotly debated referendum to repeal the so-called gas tax, which provides vital funding for alternative transportation infrastructure.

As Yoshitani puts it, “We’re trying to inspire people as voters to expect more from their leaders.” But to go hand-in-hand with that, we have to expect more of ourselves.

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