Time is Now for Climate Crisis Activism and Removing Barriers

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, was one of the few adults to speak during last month’s Global Climate Strike, the worldwide protest that drew millions of youth to demanded action on global warming.

Now that those events are over, Yearwood said the moment is at hand for those young activists.

“This is their lunch-counter moment for the 21st century,” Yearwood said, referring to the 1960 Woolworth’s department store sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., that is considered a seminal act in the fight against segregation.

Wearing a hat with the words “12 Years,” Yearwood explained that grassroots activism and protests are needed now because of the powerful forces impeding change and the relatively short time remaining to adequately mitigate the climate crisis.

“There are times when our country doesn't do right. There are times when people have to speak up and put their bodies against the machine to grind it to a halt,” Yearwood said during the Oct. 4 Rhode Island Energy, Environment & Oceans Leaders Day hosted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. The 10th annual event was held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

Speaking to a mostly white, middle-aged audience made up of local environmental nonprofits, researchers, policymakers, educators, and representatives from green-energy businesses, Yearwood said young people today are energized to tackle the climate crisis but also anxious and even scared about the consequences of a warming world. The climate perils are causing some young people to avoid having children, while others talk of suicide, he said.

They are “yelling and screaming” for things to happen, Yearwood said, “and we’re not listening to those screams.”

The solutions, he explained, should break down the silos that separate issues like Black Lives Matter and environmentalism. An activist-driven, nonpartisan movement based on justice and love is needed to inspire demonstrations and climate legislation, Yearwood said.

He noted that the climate crisis is the umbrella cause to lead a multicultural, grassroots-based, people-of-color-led movement that addresses poverty, health care, gender equality, racial justice, and gentrification, among other issues.

“The one thing about climate is that it impacts all of them,” Yearwood said.

Cheryl LaFleur, former CEO of National Grid USA and most recently retired chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), spoke of a top-down approach to tackling the climate crisis. Her three wishes start with a national policy and/or goal that all states and businesses can use to create climate-related plans and policies.

LaFleur spoke of the missed opportunity of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, failed legislation that would have established a national cap-and-trade plan for greenhouse-gas emissions.

“It wasn't everyone’s favorite thing,” LaFleur said. “It was controversial, but It was a national target to rally around and begin to figure out how to get there.”

Her second goal is to employ all existing and future technology to fight the climate crisis. The ultimate goal is to build a power grid that runs on renewable-energy and energy-storage systems. To get there, she said, the nation must first replace coal-fired power plants with lower-emission natural-gas power plants, especially in coal-heavy states.

“Let’s not leave that tool in the tool box as a way to get to the future,” she said.

LaFleur therefore supports more fossil-fuel infrastructure such as natural-gas pipelines. She said new infrastructure should also include high-voltage power lines to connect offshore wind facilities and circulate power from large “centralized” energy facilities.

LaFleur was appointed to FERC in 2009 by President Obama. After serving two terms, she wasn’t offered an additional term. Media reports suggested that her nomination was scuttled by her clashes with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., over her support for expanding electricity capacity in New York — a plan Schumer claimed would drive up utility bills. LaFleur also clashed with fellow FERC members over her wish to account for fugitive emissions when considering natural-gas projects.

Although LaFleur raised questions about gas leaks, she didn’t often vote against natural-gas infrastructure projects during her time at FERC, prompting criticism from activists.

At last week’s event, Brown University professor Timmons Roberts told LaFleur that he agrees with 95 percent of her ideas but objected to her support for natural-gas development. LaFleur noted that 32 percent of the nation’s energy still comes from coal, and, despite projections for renewable-energy distribution networks and proposed expansion for wind energy off the East Coast, she noted that only one offshore wind facility has been built.

“We have a long way to go if we are going to use that (source of energy),” she said.

LaFleur, a native of Massachusetts, was recently appointed to the the board of directors of ISO New England, the operator and energy forecaster for the regional power grid.