"The environment: It's not just for tree-huggers."
That could be the 2010 motto for the Asheville Hub Alliance, a local think tank that was formed several years ago as part of a visioning project focused on economic growth. The group's mission has evolved over the years, and most recently it has embraced the notion of helping develop a green economy, Sustainability Coordinator Michael Leahy explains.
This year, the Hub is focusing on two initiatives: the Reading, Riding and Retrofit program, championed by former Asheville City Council member Robin Cape and aimed at improving energy efficiency at our local schools; and a climate action plan that combines saving the planet with saving (and creating) jobs. "We're bringing together the decision-makers and looking at all these sustainability indicators for our area — air quality, food supplies, land use and resources, water quality and supply, transportation needs. We're seeing where we rank, and then considering our local goals," says Leahy.
Soon after the new year began, Xpress sat down with Leahy to learn more.
Mountain Xpress: In a nutshell, how would you describe what the climate action plan is about?
Michael Leahy: If we're really going to cut our greenhouse emissions by 50 to 80 percent in the next 40 years, let's plan for what kinds of businesses we can start right now to take advantage of that. Let's quit pointing fingers and arguing about whether climate change is happening or what's caused it and get together to find solutions.
Solutions that also help create jobs?
Ultimately, we're trying to create jobs, and that's what sets us apart from the usual environmental groups. … Taking inventory is the first step, and students from Warren Wilson College and UNCA are helping with gathering the data. We will be creating a community report card and a greenhouse-gas databank, and working with the city, county, and local businesses and nonprofits to create a climate action plan.
You've already collected a lot of data.
Yes, and one of the most worrisome statistics we've learned so far is, despite the knowledge and awareness about climate change, individual energy consumption is still going up here. But if we could stabilize our consumption and some other habits, we wouldn't have to go back to the Stone Age to save the planet. When you first start thinking about climate change, it's overwhelming: How can I stop taking hot showers, and how can I totally avoid plastic? Every day, people can do everyday things, but we also need — especially in our policies — something to happen on the government level.
So the action plan involves both individual effort and something the Hub has done from the beginning: collaborate with local organizations and governments, and draw on the resources we have, such as the National Climatic Data Center and Renaissance Computing Institute.
Ours is a pragmatic approach. We know we can't stop development, so our No. 1 priority is getting people into the same sandbox and collaborating on what we can do. We're trying to do regional planning, but trying to simultaneously plan for droughts and floods — two problems presented by climate change in this region — is challenging. But there are really cool low-tech ways to handle these things, like being less wasteful and more efficient, and doing better at managing our resources — doing things like grandma used to do.
How does that connect to job creation?
A local organic-farming group, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, has estimated that only 1 percent of the food eaten here is grown locally. How can we get that number up? What else can we do? We seek to create jobs from "import substitution" — producing more here (food, energy, clothes, building materials) than we import; and, from the green/creative economy, selling creative and ecological services online that don't need to be produced anywhere.
You mean taking advantage of all these local resources, including our organic-farming community?
Yes. When we see what we need to be doing to be more sustainable, we create — and keep — more jobs here. We can grow local businesses. We've got the ethic and the American can-do spirit and the climate data and the artistry right here. This region can be a trendsetter. We can create a fusion of the new green economy and the creative class here in Asheville. We are focused on creating jobs, better educating our children, and making our region more self-reliant.
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