As John Garcia points out, there’s no shortage of reasons to combat climate change. Extreme weather events, wildlife losses and poverty are all expected to become more common as the world continues to heat up, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Ask the owner and brewer of Lookout Brewing Co. in Black Mountain why he’s taking his own stand on the issue, and Garcia shares a more personal motivation. “Just a couple of degrees change, and now the hop world changes — and without hops, I don’t really like beer that much,” he says. “My IPAs will suffer, and if IPAs will suffer, then I’m against it!”
Garcia’s interests led him to sign the Brewers’ Climate Declaration, a petition started by the local chapter of national advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby. But the global scale and broad effects of climate change leave room for activists of all passions. The Asheville Climate Justice Rally, taking place at the Vance Monument from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20, brings Garcia’s group and 14 other area organizations together in a call for change.
Led by the Western North Carolina chapter of national nonprofit The Climate Reality Project, the rally will feature a lineup of speakers such as Anita Simha with the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, Lucia Ibarra of Dogwood Alliance, the Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri from the Creation Care Alliance, UNC Asheville assistant professor Evan Couzo and Sunrise Movement member Shane McCarthy. Informational tables, voter registration, live art and musical performances will also be included.
Beyond those local collaborations, the rally is being organized in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike, an outgrowth of the Youth Climate Strike movement started last year by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Over 2,800 actions across the world, all taking place on Sept. 20, aim to “disrupt business as usual in order for people to know that this is a really serious moment,” says rally co-organizer Ashley McDermott, who also heads the Asheville chapter of the national Sunrise Movement.
“[The climate crisis] can be very overwhelming and can leave a lot of people feeling like they don’t know what to do or that they’re hopeless and don’t know who to connect with,” McDermott says. “These types of bigger demonstrations are a great way to bring more people into the movement and build a community.”
All hands on deck
The diversity of approaches represented at the upcoming rally marks a new phase of the climate movement, suggests local Climate Reality Project co-chair Kelsey Hall. With global awareness of the crisis at an all-time high in the wake of last year’s U.N. report, which sets 2030 as a target date for drastic reductions in carbon emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, she says advocacy groups must refine their missions and learn to support each other’s efforts.
“One of our biggest challenges was the fact that — and it’s certainly not a negative thing — there’s already a lot of groups here who are doing very similar work,” Hall says about founding the local Climate Reality Project chapter in March. “Our struggle has been to figure out our niche, what our goals are and where the space is for us to have the most potential for change.”
Hall’s group decided to focus on environmental education outside of what she calls “the Asheville bubble.” Although based in the city, Climate Reality Project members have given presentations in Cherokee, Franklin and Marshall over the past several months. “We didn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel or take away from any of the other amazing work that’s being done in Asheville,” she says.
Similarly, McDermott emphasizes that the Sunrise Movement, which only established a local chapter in February, has differentiated itself through concentrating on young people. “This is an organization that is built specifically on letting youth lead the charge, telling their personal stories of how they’re feeling the effects of the climate crisis right now and that it’s existential,” she says.
Long-running local groups are also tweaking their tactics. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a co-sponsor of the Sept. 20 rally, has been preserving land in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee since 1974, notes Angela Shepherd, the organization’s spokesperson. But in recent years, SAHC has partnered with national organizations such as the Wildlands Network and The Nature Conservancy to view projects through the lens of climate resilience.
After working with those nonprofits to analyze animal migration patterns and the expected impacts of climate change, Shepherd explains, SAHC is prioritizing properties along wildlife connectivity corridors. The resulting networks of protected land, she says, preserve the “stage” for wildlife “players” to find suitable habitats.
“As things are heating up and different patterns are starting to emerge, it helps to look at that national scale,” Shepherd says. “This is how things are moving in a big picture — what can we do in our little tiny slice? Where can we fit into those puzzle pieces?”
Divides to conquer
Steffi Rausch, lead organizer for the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter, also aims to build a coalition for climate action. A large part of her group’s work, she explains, is bringing together people who have traditionally viewed themselves as being on opposite political sides.
“The left believes that whatever they say, at least in this town, to our conservative legislators, that they’re not going to listen to them,” Rausch says. “We’re trying to help them step out of their skin and get comfortable with having a good dialogue.”
Rausch points to a June meeting at Garcia’s Lookout Brewing Co. between mostly liberal local brewers and Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents most of Asheville in the U.S. House, as an example of that dialogue. After the brewers shared their reasons for supporting the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, she says, McHenry — a vice chair of the congressional Small Brewers Caucus — expressed both willingness to listen and caution about the political realities.
“A lot of people thought they’d be butting heads with this guy, and in turn, he really got a lot of people thinking,” Garcia recalls. “[McHenry is] a member of a much bigger organization, the Republican Party, and he can’t jump out there with these ideas. … You have to have the whole community behind it, because his voice is just merely an extension of his voters.”
That’s a lesson Rausch encourages other groups to keep in mind. “We fully support the efforts of the Green New Deal and Sunrise Movement because they have brought notoriety to the subject, and that was greatly needed,” she says. “However, I do think it has unfortunately become sort of a political football, being more partisan.”
McDermott counters that Sunrise is a nonpartisan effort. While Democrats are more likely to be at the forefront of climate discussions, she adds, both major parties have been to some degree compromised by donations from the fossil fuel industry, and her group has strongly criticized national Democratic leadership in recent months over its unwillingness to support a climate debate for presidential candidates.
What no activists should be willing to compromise on, McDermott continues, is the need for immediate action. “At the end of the day, according to the U.N., we have 11 years to transition away from fossil fuels,” she says, referencing the IPCC report’s conclusion that a 45% cut in carbon emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 is needed to avoid the worst effects of warming. “Incremental approaches aren’t going to work and aren’t going to get us to where we need to be in time.”
Shepherd with SAHC hopes that the rally will create a greater spirit of teamwork among climate activists. Just gathering together in the midst of the region’s mountains, she says, should remind people that the stakes are too high for division.
“We have our conservation focus; other environmental organizations work on different aspects. For us to all come together — that’s where solutions are found, when we’re working together as a team,” Shepherd says.
Meanwhile, McDermott sees the event as a springboard for further activism. Sunrise, along with local nonprofit Community Roots and other groups, is coordinating a walkout from local schools and businesses earlier on Sept. 20. During that action, marchers will ask Asheville City Council to pass a resolution declaring a climate emergency. Students from at least five local high schools, A-B Tech, Lenoir-Rhyne University and UNCA currently plan to participate, she says.
“We’re not OK with just waiting for things to shift,” McDermott says. “We’re seeing what we can push forward in the meantime, and hopefully we can get Council and the mayor on board with that.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.