Georgia Climate Conference explores what's at stake for state

By Kimber Williams and Quinn Eastman | Emory Report | Nov. 14, 2019

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Held at Emory, the Georgia Climate Conference drew diverse interests and industries to share ideas about how to minimize Georgia’s risks and maximize the state’s future in a changing climate. Photo by CatMax Photography.

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Questions of what a changing climate means to Georgia — and how to address it — drew a diverse crowd of more than 400 scientific experts; political, agricultural and business leaders; social justice activists and academics to Emory University on Nov. 7-8 for the Georgia Climate Conference

If it was an unusual gathering of interests and industries — sometimes seen as opposing sides of the climate debate — that was by design, said Daniel Rochberg, instructor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Rollins School of Public Health and co-founder of the Georgia Climate Project, which hosted the event. The state-wide consortium was founded by Emory, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia to improve understanding of climate impacts and solutions in Georgia.

“Climate change affects all of us in Georgia and affects all of us differently, so it’s important to hear from all of those perspectives,” said Rochberg.

“The baseline assumption is that our climate is changing and we need to be clear-eyed about that and think about what risks it presents and what opportunities we can reach for in minimizing that risk,” he said. 

To stimulate conversation and share innovative solutions, the conference engaged experts and leaders from a sweeping range of perspectives. That included elected officials from both sides of the political aisle, state employees and mayors, public health researchers, university students and farmers, representatives from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and state-wide industries, and those focused on work ranging from environmental justice to natural resource management.

Moving forward, Rochberg says it will be important to find common ground as the state struggles to address what he called “one of the century’s defining challenges.”

Toward that goal, the Georgia Climate Project, which includes nine academic partners, has pushed to foster strong conversations that cut across traditional dividing lines of politics, race and geography to support conversations that build networks and foster practical, science-based solutions, allowing Georgia “to move forward as a leader in climate change,” Rochberg said.

The project also supports the mission of Climate@Emory, a university-wide initiative that aims to advance climate change scholarship, teaching, fostering partnerships and engagement at Emory and throughout the world. 

Partnering for solutions 

In opening remarks, Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences and geography at the University of Georgia, acknowledged that the impacts of climate change are being felt as never before. “The extremes are becoming more extreme — people feel them more than the averages,” he said.

From drought to catastrophic storm damage, few have felt those extremes more acutely than Georgia farmers. Donald Chase, a third-generation farmer in Oglethorpe, Georgia, acknowledged that while farmers witness weather variations all the time, changing weather patterns are wielding an economic impact.

Sharing photographs of cotton fields and forests devastated by intense storms, Chase also described how a friend’s peanut crop was recently too dry to dig up. Casey Cox, a sixth-generation farmer at Longleaf Ridge on the Flint River in Southwest Georgia, agreed. 

“We’re facing challenges we never faced before. Hurricane Michael last year completely altered my perspective on resiliency,” Cox said. “We have to think longer-term, bigger picture.”

Within a changing climate, “we have new challenges that (my father’s) generation didn’t have,” she said. “We are really looking at a very different future for agriculture and for Georgia.”

New technologies, tools and approaches are helping. Chase invested in large solar arrays for less favorable plots of land, and Cox described using smart irrigation systems and self-driving tractors guided by GPS systems to help increase precision, efficiencies and crop yield.

“We’re producing twice as much peanuts on the same land,” she said. “It not only makes environmental sense, it makes economic sense.”

The economic impacts of climate change are already being confronted by businesses and industries across the state. And many have taken progressive action.

Jay Gould, president and CEO of Interface, described the company’s new sustainability mission, “Climate Take Back,” an initiative that has made them the first in the flooring industry to produce all of their products as carbon neutral.

“Stop seeing carbon as the enemy and start using it as a resource,” urged Gould. “Let’s transform industry into a force for the future we want.” 

Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, described his industry as both an economic driver in the state and “an awesome carbon sink.” Every tree planted sequesters additional carbon dioxide, he said, noting that Georgia was one of the first states to set up a carbon registry, allowing businesses to buy offsets and encourage additional tree planting. 

Emory also was highlighted for its innovative WaterHub, an on-site recycling system which utilizes eco-engineering to clean waste water for non-potable uses on campus.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the facility is capable of recycling nearly 40 percent of campus water needs, reducing its impact on the municipal water supply and inspiring other universities to explore following Emory’s pioneering example. 

Climate, health and justice

But across industries and interests, voices rose in unison to decry the widening political divide that makes it more difficult to have conversations about climate change and respond to it.

In fact, many argued that sustainability – and resiliency – should be concepts that help bridge that divide. Chris Clark, head of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, called for moving climate change toward becoming a bipartisan or nonpartisan issue. 

“The business community in Georgia has a critical role,” Clark said, citing past involvement in addressing air quality concerns and water conservation. “We’re the sensible center.”

The impact of climate change on health — and its disproportionate effect upon the least powerful populations in the state — drew some of the largest, most impassioned crowds.

As the number of extreme heat days per year increases in coming years, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations will feel the most immediate impacts, said Anne Heard, a former deputy regional EPA administrator. As one example, Heard cited the Friendship Towers subsidized apartment complex in Atlanta, where residents sued management over broken central air conditioning.

Weather extremes are already influencing our health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From flooding disruptions at hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers to shifting seasons — longer summers, shorter winters — that bring an explosion of pollen-related illnesses, “climate change has a huge and direct impact on public health,” said Claudia Langford Brown, a health scientist with the CDC’s Climate and Health Program.

Across Georgia and beyond, those impacts are being taken seriously. Valerie Mac, an assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, discussed her research into heat-related illnesses among farmworkers and wildland firefighters.

Major David DeGroot also described how a team of doctors at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, recently established a “heat center” to pinpoint ways to prevent heat-related deaths across the Department of Defense.

Human rights activist Mildred McClain, who co-founded and serves as executive director of the Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice in Savannah, Georgia, called for communities to respond to the gathering changes by making community-based investments in planning and infrastructure.

“In the climate change choir, there’s a section missing — we have to bring things down to where we live,” McClain said.

“We cannot address climate change without addressing the issue of justice,” she added. “Unfortunately, those who will be hit the hardest and first by the impacts of climate change are likely to be the poor and the vulnerable. We’ve got to do something about that, providing emotional and practical help for adaptation and resilience.”

To help expand that conversation, next year Emory is scheduled to host a conference focused upon environmental justice, announced Melissa Smarr, assistant professor of environmental health at Rollins School of Public Health, who co-moderated a panel on “Climate Equity and Justice.” 

The 2020 Southeastern Regional Environmental Justice Conference will be held at the Emory Conference Center on April 13-14, 2020. The purpose is to bring together community organizers and leaders with faculty and students in this region, creating a forum to discuss some of the successes and challenges in overcoming disparities to build healthier communities, Smarr said. 

For more information, email melissa.smarr@emory.edu.