Roy Richards, chairman of the board of Southwire, delivers the keynote address at the climate conference on Jekyll Island. With his hands spread, he notes how things have tilted since his youth.

Shawn Gillen, city manager of Tybee Island, clicked to a slideshow photo of the island’s causeway covered in flood waters.

Gillen had just spent a few minutes describing some of the flooding impacts of Hurricane Irma in 2017. But this photo was from two years prior.

“This is not a storm,” he said, looking at a road made impassable by flooding. “… This is sunny day flooding on Tybee Island, at its worst. This is a king tide in about 2015. This is what we’re experiencing more now.”

Gillen said he doesn’t need to be a climate scientist to recognize how serious this problem is.

“I know there’s a debate over it. Our friends in D.C. are fighting about it, right?” Gillen said. “I can’t tell you this is a trend in the long term sense of geological time, or is it an anomaly. I don’t know, I don’t care. Right now, this is happening on Tybee more frequently … It’s a problem, now, so we have to address it.”

Gillen was among dozens of speakers who gave presentations Thursday on the first day of the Georgia Climate Conference, hosted on Jekyll Island by the Coastal Resources Division of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The event attracted around 350 attendees representing all levels of government, nonprofits, advocacy groups, scientists, concerned citizens and more.

The purpose of the two-day conference is to cultivate climate change discussions and collaborations across the state that will address challenges created by global warming.

“It’s hard to talk about climate,” said Roy Richards, one of the conference’s keynote speakers and a business leader who has founded several environmentally-focused organizations, including One Hundred Miles. “Climate, climate change, is a subject that is latent with fear of the future. This IPCC report on Monday of this week just layered another level of fear for the future on all of us who are paying attention to these things.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, convened by the United Nations, released a major report this week that laid out severe impacts of climate change that the world cannot avoid as well as some of the human-caused impacts that can be prevented if countries across the globe take immediate steps to reduce global-warming emissions.

Earth’s atmosphere is on track now to continue warming until at least the middle of the century, according the report, no matter what action countries take. This will lead to worsening extreme weather events like serious droughts, heat waves, flooding and rising sea levels.

The report also showed that fast and aggressive cuts to emissions may limit global warming beyond 2050.

Recent events, like extreme wildfires in the western United States and unprecedented flooding in Germany, one of the richest nations in the world, have awakened many to the harsh realities of the effects of climate change, Richards said.

“We live in a time of climate crisis,” he said. “We need leadership. We need a leadership that looks ahead, looks at the causes of these problems, accepts them, talks about them … and who are working actively on strategies to get us around the corner to do something about them.”

It’s thrilling, he said, to attend an event like the Georgia Climate Conference where people are able to engage in discussions about the work that needs to be done.

“We have to do this, because we’ve got children who know that our generation threw the party but their generation will clean up the mess,” he said.

American businesses will have to play a major role in this clean-up process, Richards said, but that work is already underway.

“We have now a financial system in America that is calculating the carbon risks of the investments that are being made and in turn beginning to identify what companies, what businesses will flourish and which ones will fail as we deal with climate change and decarbonize the economy,” Richards said.

The free market system in America can address climate change, he said, and the clean energy boom is the silver lining among many alarming events caused by a warming planet.

“American technology, American ingenuity, American capitalism can address this,” Richards said.

And there's never been a better time to be in the conservation business, he said.

“We live in a moment when we cannot tolerate inaction,” Richards said. “We just can’t stand it. This is the time to implement change, to open doors.”

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