Rising Risk and Rising Tides: Can We Catch the Wave?

Rising Risk and Rising Tides: Can We Catch the Wave?

Since its creation in 1970, Earth Day has helped bridge the gap between people and the planet, connecting us to the ground we stand on. For Extreme Weather Earth Day 2013, it is vital we reaffirm that connection as we confront global challenges and increasingly common extreme weather events in our own backyards.

At a recent conference, Gina McCarthy, the Obama administration's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, articulated two priorities for us as a nation and community: finding solutions to problems of climate change, and getting kids outside. These macro and micro pieces fit together and can help show the way to a more sustainable future.

My mother likes to tell the story of my first speech, which I gave when I was three and which included a plea for more parks in our community. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, in an inner-city neighborhood; our playground was a vacant lot full of metal pipes and glass, and that speech was the beginning of my personal activism and connection to the outdoors.

Ultimately, the community, with a huge contribution from my mom, succeeded in getting a new park built. And, thanks in part to that experience, I was drawn to issues of poverty and inequality as I got older. I really didn't reconnect with environmental issues, however, until I found myself working at a statewide anti-hunger organization. Our agenda included getting food stamps accepted at farmers markets so as to encourage fresh food choices for all families, regardless of income. At the time, I didn't identify as an environmentalist, and yet my work was absolutely connected to the environment. That perception, that people working for a better planet are somehow different from those working to address poverty, inequality, or other social issues, is all too common — and one we absolutely need to address if we hope to build an engaged community that spans all interests and sectors.

Getting kids outside is crucial to that movement because children today are far less likely to be connected to the living environment than their parents or grandparents were at the same age. And if kids don't feel a connection to the environment, the critical work to create a sustainable future won't have a constituency. My activist mom and my anti-poverty work connected me to "place and planet," even though my access to green spaces as a kid was limited. But not everyone has that experience. So while we work on the very big issue of climate change, we also need to remember the smaller, concrete goal of getting kids off the couch and outside, where they can begin to appreciate the connection between the environment and all the challenges, social and environmental, confronting our communities.

After several years at the anti-hunger organization, I went to work for Common Cause, where I experienced firsthand how money in politics was blocking progress on environmental issues — whether it was the failure to hold landlords in New York City accountable for lead poisoning, the long struggle to pass a bottle bill in the face of the soda industry's opposition to such legislation, or Big Oil blocking progress on renewable energy alternatives that would help reduce our carbon emissions and slow global warming.

Today, in my role as executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, I've come full circle. Recently, for example, I traveled to Chicago for the Council on Foundations' annual conference, where I had the good fortune to meet and network with funders, community activists, and reformers who see the connections between and among their different areas of interest. I organized and participated in sessions that applied a global lens to issues of climate justice, food insecurity and efforts to create a more sustainable agriculture, and media reform (or lack thereof). These sessions crystallized for me how the solutions to many of the challenges we face lie in our ability to connect individual experience to different sectors and broader global goals.

As Earth Day 2013 approaches, the part of the United States I call home is still trying to recover from Superstorm Sandy, while Louisiana and post-Katrina New Orleans, where EGA will hold its fall retreat later this year, is rebuilding at a heartbreakingly slow place and losing the equivalent of a football field to rising sea levels and erosion every forty-five minutes. Other parts of the country are locked tight in the grip of drought, while a recent spate of natural disasters worldwide, from forest fires in Australia to massive flooding in Argentina, remind us that the "new normal" isn't just economic reality; it's something environmental funders, NGOs, and people in communities everywhere need to come to grips with. If there's a silver lining in all this, it's the growing awareness of climate change as a serious problem that will cost millions of people their homes, their livelihoods, and the certainty that extreme weather events are something that happen to other people.

Still, even this moment of urgency will fade unless we succeed in connecting individuals with the issue of climate change and a vision for a better future. And doing that can be as simple as getting kids outside, letting them stick their toes in real mud, and reminding them that they are part of the environment. It is us, and we are it.

So this Earth Day, let's think about where we are and where we need to go. Here are some resources to get you started:

  • the Earth Day Network has created a Faces of Climate Change tumblr to personalize the challenge that climate change presents while uniting people around the globe behind a powerful call to action;
  • on Monday, the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle will celebrate the grand opening of the Bullitt Center, the "greenest commercial building in the world," and will offer educational tours of the building to the public;
  • college-age youth across the country are joining the grassroots online community at PowerShift and showcasing their efforts to get university endowments to disinvest from coal;
  • the insurance industry is beginning to "get it";
  • the Pulitzer Prize committee has recognized Inside Climate News with a Pulitzer; and, of course,
  • EGA members are funding efforts to get kids outside.

Indeed, our Tracking the Field (executive summary, 8 pages, PDF) research shows that a growing number of environmental grantmakers are making these connections. Among EGA members, grants that were strategically focused on communication nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010. The EGA funding community also sees the connection between sustainable communities and agriculture, with more than $13 million funding this intersection of issues in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, we also saw a 63 percent increase in funding, to $76 million, for environmental education and youth organizing (or roughly 7 percent of EGA members' grantmaking). But gaps remain. We continue to see too few dollars going to environmental justice, which saw one of the largest drops in funding during the Great Recession and in 2010 received less than 2 percent of EGA member grant dollars.

We are also reaching out to new constituencies. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan recently helped EGA members begin to rethink community resilience at the city level. And our board has committed to engaging us globally — a direction that is both selfish and selfless. As former President Bill Clinton once said: in helping others and the planet, we truly are helping ourselves.

So this Earth Day, let's think back to when we were kids and making our first connection to the outdoors — a connection that most of us cherish deeply. And let's commit to matching the vigor of our outreach and advocacy efforts to the intensity of the extreme weather events that seem to have become the "new normal."

Rachel Leon is executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.