A common thread that runs through much of the work being done today to address climate change is optimism for tomorrow.
Van Johnson, mayor of Savannah, describes this work as a unique opportunity to create a better future.
“What will we say 50 years from now about what we did in 2021?” Johnson asked the audience of the Georgia Climate Conference, which concluded Friday on Jekyll. “What will they say about our efforts? Did we go far? Did we not go far enough?”
Johnson gave the keynote address on the second day of the conference, which brought together around 350 attendees representing all levels of government, nonprofits, advocacy groups, scientists, concerned citizens and others.
The event, hosted by the Coastal Resources Division of the state Department of Natural Resources, featured dozens of presentations and speakers who shared a variety of work being done in Georgia to address global warming issues.
“It’s going to take all of us working together,” said Jill Andrews, chief of coastal management for CRD during a session focused on building resilience through state policies and guidance.
Georgia will soon be the first state in the nation to have a completely resilient coast based on FEMA’s natural disaster recovery framework guidance when the DNR wraps up a disaster recovery and redevelopment planning process begun years ago.
The plan covers all coastal counties in Georgia.
“We were able to not just look at long-term recovery from disasters but incorporate climate change into these plans,” said Jennifer Kline, coastal hazards specialist for CRD and a lead organizer of the conference.
Certain communities are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and other climate-related concerns are impacting infrastructure, and the burden falls to local governments to address these challenges.
One area of concern is the maintenance of septic systems, particularly in coastal communities like Glynn County. But unclear state laws create an impediment to this work, said Katie Hill, a research professional for the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
“What we have here is a situation where the entities with the most responsibility for regulating the direct use of septic systems … don’t have standards in place that direct or allow them to regulate this use with sea level rise in mind,” she said.
Local governments are on the front lines of sea level rise adaptation, but many are unsure where the bounds of their authority lie, Hill said.
“This uncertainty can lead to inaction, and the longer we wait the harder it’s going to be to contend with the impacts of sea level rise on septic systems,” she said.
Jazz Watts, who grew up in Glynn County and who serves as a community advisor for the Vulnerable Coastal Communities Initiative, said the most at-risk communities are often those of color.
“Right now in Glynn County there are four superfund sites and 15 hazardous waste sites,” he said. “The communities that are near those sites are communities of color.”
Some families living in areas of the county most prone to flooding and to drainage and sewage back-up have been dealing with those issues for decades, Watts said.
Those working on climate resilience in vulnerable communities should prioritize listening to residents and gaining their trust, he said.
“We can learn a lot from the people that are on the ground,” he said. “We may have the data, we may have the knowledge, we may have a lot of things. But what we may not have or do not have is the experience of what they’ve been through, of what it actually feels like to be in those positions.”
The murder of his cousin, Ahmaud Arbery, in 2020 unveiled for Watts many inequalities that continue to exist in that community that he calls home. And structural racism cannot be ignored in these conversations about climate change, he said.
“Even during the pandemic, what came was a realization that it’s more than just about people being in an unfortunate space, but it’s about the systems that are also oppressing them and holding them in those spaces,” Watts said.
It falls to those working to address climate change to create a better future, he said.
“We need to say what we are going to do to change things and make a difference so we fix this, so the next generation doesn’t have to keep dealing with the same issues and the same problems over and over and over again,” Watts said.
Johnson, in his keynote, looked optimistically toward a brighter tomorrow.
“It’s by the heroes in this room that the world is saved,” he said. “And those coming after us 50 years from now may never know your name, but they’ll know your work and they’ll know your work because they will have a community that’s resilient. They will have the community that’s sustainable.”