From left to right: Anne Kapuscinski, Gary Griggs, Alvaro S. Sanchez, Vien Truong and Dr. Tiffany Wise-West — a diverse group of environmentalists. Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez.

A United Nations study in late 2018 revealed we have just 12 years to control climate change and prevent global crisis. For many marginalized communities around the world, the crisis has already come.

The sixth annual Climate Science and Policy Conference, held April 11 at the Rio Theatre, focused on climate justice for the first time. Climate justice is the concept that climate change must be addressed with consideration to the disproportionate effects it has on marginalized communities. 

Panelist and President of Dream Corps Vien Truong sought to show audience members that environmental issues are synonymous with social inequalities. Dream corps is a social justice organization that unites innovators across racial, social and partisan lines. 

“My kids are living 12 years less than kids in more affluent communities just 7 miles away,” said Truong, a lifelong Oakland resident. “The kids in my community have higher lead poisoning in their bodies than in Flint, Michigan.”

The conference sought to inform audience members about climate change and urged them to turn that knowledge into action. 

“For a lot of people, it’s not that they can’t accept [climate change], it’s that they can’t accept […] what we have to do to deal with it,” said panelist and UC Santa Cruz earth sciences professor Gary Griggs. “Like, ‘okay, I buy, it, but I’m not giving up my car.’”

Alvaro Sanchez of the Greenlining Institute discussed the need to address economic division through climate activism, while environmental engineer Tiffany Wise-West shared ideas for local solutions.

Dr. Tiffany Wise-West talks to a concerned Santa Cruz local during the conference showcase. Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez.

After the panel discussion, the participants, panelists and several organizations involved in climate issues engaged in one-on-one “climate conversations” with attendees. The conversations also focused on community impacts of climate change and socially-conscious solutions.

“The good thing and the bad thing is that [climate change] is happening fairly slowly,” Griggs said. “In Santa Cruz, it’s the homelessness or it’s housing for students […] hitting us every day. And those overshadow climate change because that’s not in our face.”

The shift toward thinking about climate change as a socio-economic issue puts it in human terms, which some believe make the issues easier to comprehend and become passionate impassioned about. 

UCSC second-year Sierra Anderson was motivated to attend the conference by her experience in her home country of Indonesia.

“Back there, you really see where your trash goes. It’s not hidden behind any walls or sent far away. It’s thrown in the river, its burned on the side of the road,” Anderson said. “So it would be cool to […] take what they’ve done here to maybe be able to implement it back home.”

Although many of the people who are most affected by environmental injustice and climate change are in faraway places, there are local connections to climate change. 

Along with constant coastal erosion due to rising seas, climate change causes rainier winters and drier spring and fall months in Santa Cruz. This seasonal change creates flooding in downtown, water shortages and wildfires, which will only worsen in coming years, Griggs said.

But feeling personally impacted by climate change doesn’t always translate into enthusiasm. Griggs said another major point he wanted to get across in the conference was that there was reason to hope for a better future.

Audrey Ford, a former marine biology student who works for a climate-focused nonprofit, was impacted by the hopeful message of the conference.

“I basically came for […] validation,” Ford said. “Doing marine [biology], literally all I hear is how fucked we are […] and if you feel like you have no options, people just check out.”

Panelists Alvaro Sanchez and Vien Truong argued that solutions come from people speaking up about their concerns and those in power listening. Sanchez stressed that top-down solutions that disregard the voices of disadvantaged populations aren’t only unjust but ineffective.

“I see a culture that speaks over each other,” Sanchez said to the audience. “The moment demands that we listen. We have to be open and flexible to doing things  differently.”

Truong highlighted the possibilities that came with listening, framing the need for change in a positive light.

“We didn’t get out of the stone age because we ran out of stones. Moving into the future and evolving should not be scary,” Truong said. “Moving into a bold new future used to be the American way […] we used to love and embrace our identity around that. When did we change?”

As the discussion came to an end, the panelists turned to the idea of individual responsibility. Moderator Anne Kapuscinski emphasized the importance of voting, saying that people needed “policies that make it easy to do the right thing.” 

The students who were able to attend left the conference feeling inspired. 

“I want to email half these people and ask for a job or how I can get involved,” Ford said after the panel discussion. “And that’s the way you make change.”

At one point in the panel discussion, Truong addressed the young audience members directly. 

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” Truong said. “Young people in here, I beseech you to speak up.”