Climate change as crisis and opportunity for systems change – “This Changes Everything” film screening and panel
Humans interact, adapt, and cope with societal challenges through living breathing stories that stream through our hearts, minds, and communities. What stories are we telling each other about the global and local impacts of climate change? What if climate change is not just a crisis, but a chance to change our stories about how we live and interact in relation to each other and our planet? This question is one of the most compelling ideas to come out of the book This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate by journalist and author Naomi Klein and the accompanying documentary film, This Changes Everything.
The film was screened at the Bell Museum of Natural History on April 8th as part of the Sustainability Film Series sponsored by the University of Minnesota Sustainability Education Department and Institute on the Environment. Domination, rather than relationship with nature, deep extraction of resources, environmental racism, renewable energy and the power of ordinary people taking extraordinary action to address environmental injustice were themes addressed in the movie. As a student worker in the Sustainability Education Department, I helped choose panelists and organizations who came to table in order to take a deeper look at these issues and to illustrate how we are capable of taking our story in a new direction. The groups we invited to table are on the front lines of activism to reshape our direction towards renewable and just energy systems and political action to counteract the overwhelming power of those profiting from the fossil fuel industry that feeds off of our collective voracious consumption.
Our panelists included experts in economics, policy, and activism:
Jay Coggins is a Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota focused on environmental economics and environmental policy. He has published widely on questions related to clean air and water policy, with an emphasis on the role of market mechanisms in achieving environmental protection at low cost. Jay came to the film to tell the side of the story that says that good economic policy and grassroots activism can address climate change, challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry, while leading millions out of poverty.
Melissa Hortman, a six term Minnesota State Representative and solar energy champion, authored a law that requires Minnesota public utilities to get at least 1.5% of our retail electricity from solar sources by 2020 and 10% by 2030, along with a statute requiring the formation of a community solar energy program run by Xcel Energy. Melissa’s work tells the story of the power of government to lead the way in policy and law that empowers communities to take renewable energy into their own hands.
Charlie Thayer is an Ojibwe activist with Honor the Earth and MN 350, two front line organizations tackling climate change and creating citizen disruption of business as usual. He is also a graduate student at the University of Minnesota finishing his Masters of Educational Policy and Leadership. Charlie’s fearless activism tells the story of effectively challenging the status quo, while calling attention to indigenous roles in shifting our story towards environmental justice and a connection to the bounty and limits of our natural systems.
As someone who read This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, and lobbied hard to have the film in our lineup for our 2016 Sustainability Film Series, I hoped the evening would be a catalyst for getting the audience to open up to a new story about climate change – that it is not just a depressing reality that makes us want to bury our head in the sand in despair, but an opportunity to fundamentally shift our ideas about the role of capitalism and consumption and boldly embrace a new paradigm of working with our planet. The Bell Museum lobby was buzzing with excitement before the film as people interacted with our local groups addressing environmental and social issues – MN350, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light and Just Community Solar, and Cool Planet – Neighborhood Fun ~ Action for Our Planet.
As the audience watched the film, they heard a call to challenge the story of business as usual. They saw examples from around the world of ordinary citizens in India, Greece, China, and the US, standing up to protect their land from polluting industries and and to promote systems that honor our relationship to our environment and social justice. Kristen Peterson, a University of Minnesota graduate, commented “what struck me the most was the engagement of the audience. Sitting in the middle of everyone, I thought I heard people brought to tears in some parts and making noises of frustration and laughing in all the places where I felt those same things. It felt like we were all on the same team about this, and the community was so grateful that University programming included this film- people were so engaged! The variety of community members was huge as well, all ages and backgrounds”. This illustrates that people need to feel they are part of a larger effort to address the systemic challenges of climate change to be hopeful that we can be successful.
After the film, the panelists gave their own views of the movie and took audience questions. Melissa Hortman discussed the power of people as she watched indigenous people and small island nations come forward at the Climate Talks in Paris in October 2015 and do what no one thought was possible – push down the 2 degree warming that many agreed on as an upper limit to warming down to 1.5 by saying “we die if our planet warms more than 1.5 degrees”. She commented that “part of what’s stopping the tar sands in Canada is taking the Vancouver port. Whether it’s art, protests, boating, people are changing the government…And that’s very hopeful I think”. Melissa saw adaptation to climate change as a politically palatable way to move towards climate change mitigation. Charlie Thayer focused on the role of indigenous communities that are highlighted in the film that “it is important to ensure that there’s clean water for future generations. It’s more than economics. There’s a spiritual connection between women and the water. Wild rice is a medicine. It’s a prophecy and it’s a delicate ecosystem so even a small change can throw things off”. Jay Coggins emphasized the critical work of organizations like the Sierra Club and MN350 and grassroots activism, but warned that “solving a host of environmental problems is appealing, but let’s not take our eye off the ball: climate threat swamps all others and tying them to climate risks delay”. Audience members at a loss as how to talk about the issue with skeptical or disinterested family members were encouraged to ask them what they value and are willing to protect.
The audience on April 8th clearly cherished the opportunity to discuss as a community the overwhelming topic of how to address climate change. As we look as a society for a new chapter in our relationship to each other and our planet, our hope and vision is that people walked out of the film seeing themselves as a powerful change agent in telling a new story.
Stay tuned in Fall 2016 for conversations on new stories the U campus about the circular and sharing economies!