Public Comment

Council Watch: Jesse and Rigel's Climate Change Travel Adventure

Thomas Lord
Friday August 30, 2019 - 04:29:00 PM

The proposed agenda for the September 10, 2019 City Council meeting includes an item titled Approval of One-Time Reimbursement for Sister City Visit to Gongju, Republic of Korea from Mayor Jesse Arreguín and District 7 Council member Rigel Robinson. The two Council members propose using up to $6000 of their "office budgets" to send a delegation to Berkeley's new sister city Gongju.

Apparently there has been some question as to whether or not the trip is a permitted and appropriate use of office budget funds and so the item appears on the "Action Calendar" for discussion before a vote.

What I'm struck by is that the Council member's agenda packet memo contains this section:


I wonder how the Council members think their entourage will travel? 

As I write this, climate activist Greta Thunberg is expected to arrive in New York City sometime on Wednesday. She has sailed across the Atlantic in a small racing boat called Malizia 2. The boat encountered rough seas south of Nova Scotia sending waves washing over the covered pilot area and aft deck as the boat roller-coastered across the water. Fortunately, with those waves came a stiff wind, driving them westward at 20-30 knots. 

Thunberg, well known for starting the School Strike climate movement, will be meeting with activists, attending the UN Climate Action Summit in September, and presumably joining fellow school strikers each Friday. 

Later, Greta will travel to Chile to attend the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the 25th Conference of Parties (COP25). 

It was at the 2018 conference, coincident with the release of the alarming climate report IPCC SR-15, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C that Thunberg rose to international recognition, and ignited a large and growing international school strike movement. Since then, in addition to striking, Greta has spoken at the Davos World Economic Forum and before a quite reluctant and some would say embarrassed European Council. Her message is consistent and simple: Adults, including governments, say they believe in climate science but neither speak truthfully or act accordingly about what climate science tells us. The demands of the strike movement on elected officials is that, at long last, they listen to the scientists, tell the truth, and act as if the truth were real. 

Sailing rather than flying across the Atlantic is one of the ways that Greta walks the talk, so to speak. Having some years ago convinced her mother, an internationally recognized opera singer, to no longer fly to performances - Greta herself declines to fly. The carbon footprint of flying is simply too large. Today's level of air travel is wildly unsustainable. 

Here in Berkeley, it is odd that Mayor Arreguín and Council member Robinson believe that the question of "environmental sustainability" is "not applicable" to their trip. If only the two council members fly, the round trip air travel will emit the equivalent of approximately 7.5 or 8 metric tons of CO2, according to various online flight emissions calculators. An entourage of 4, approximately 15 or 16 tons. 

To put that in perspective, scientists tell us that we must cap carbon emissions now, and that each year of delay makes it considerably harder to ensure the survival of anything like our current civilization. Under such a cap, the amount of emissions per capita available to provide people's basic needs (food, warmth, shelter, medicine) - while also trying to "go green", is about 4.9 tons. An entourage of 4 from Berkeley to Korea will - in air travel alone - consume the entire yearly carbon budget of at least three people. We shouldn't feel too smug, though. At 16 metric tons, the entourage's entire travel emissions would be almost as much as the emissions associated with the consumption of a single Berkeleyan over the course of a year. 

Council will have to judge for itself whether or not to fund the trip but meanwhile, when it's time to write those pesky "ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY" assessments for agenda items, our council members ought to learn to listen to the scientists and at least tell the truth. Then maybe we can work on acting as though the truth were real.