Joel Clement, Climate Activist

Keynote Speaker, 2021 Source Sustainability Awards


Thank you so much Amara, and Greetings from the ancestral home of the Wabanaki people, the people of the dawn, here in Wayne.

And thank you to the Wabanaki people for their stewardship of these lands since time immemorial.

If there is one thing that gives me strength, that renews my spirit when it flags, it is this little plot of land here in Wayne, and I try to steward it thoughtfully, as generations of Wabanaki did before the white man came along.

I’m delighted to be here to kick things off for the 2021 Maine Sustainability Awards, because the amazing awardees who are being honored tonight feel the same way about Maine’s lands, waters, and people. I’m in the virtual company of kindred spirits.

And this event is taking place at an auspicious time, as really important steps are being taken this week to address the many crises we face in Maine and around the world, from climate change to social justice to public health and a biodiversity crisis.

So with your indulgence, and in the interest of placing this event in the course of history, I’d like to describe what this week has wrought:

Maine Climate Council has mapped out a road map for achieving Maine’s ambitious and necessary climate change goals – from addressing our emissions to supporting frontline communities — and today governor Mills joined 11 other governors to ask the federal government to ban the sale of CO2 emitting cars and trucks by 2035, and heavy duty rigs by 2045. This is an essential step to cutting national emissions and somehow it caught me by surprise that it’s now in the public discourse – so, a momentous day.

Tomorrow and Friday the Biden Administration is hosting a climate summit that will put the US back on the climate action map after the dismal denial and delay of the Trump Administration. And the Biden team is coming in hot – they’re in the process of making commitments for this week’s climate summit that are far and away the most ambitious and comprehensive goals we’ve seen. Truly, this administration is pushing the envelope in a way I never expected to see happen in DC.

Today is also a somber but hopeful day, as we process yesterday’s guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder. While this verdict gave us some hope that justice may one day be served, it feels like the first of many important steps necessary to overcome the social justice crisis in our nation. As a climate hawk, I know that winning the climate change fight will require equity and empathy. No justice, no peace, no future.

And there was another important milestone this week. As we all grow so damn tired of isolation and just want to see the smiles around us instead of masks at a distance, every adult in the US can now sign up for a vaccine. Under-served communities still struggle to get the shots, developing countries are still without aid, and frustratingly, a lot of people are declining to get the shot and protect the people around them, but this is still a pretty remarkable thing. In an incredibly short time, and despite a neglectful President Trump in 2020, scientists created a vaccine and it was rolled out across the country. These are tough times, but think about what that means – that our old friend science is once again bailing us out, and free, socialized medicine is bringing us the goods. Imagine if that could be the norm even after the pandemic.

There is another crisis that gets a bit lost in all the talk of climate action, and that’s the biodiversity crisis. We are losing species at such a rate around the world that its changing the way ecosystems function, the way plants are pollinated, and the way we eat. But its also altering things as simple or mundane as the sounds we hear when we wake up in the morning. Because I know how fast we are losing migratory birds, I’m on edge this time of year. When I don’t see birds I wonder if this is the year they won’t come. I guess I’m a bit gloomy sometimes, but what can I say, I’m a sensitive guy! So this morning, when the first big mixed flog of warblers woke me up and I ran outside with the binoculars, I experienced a renewal of faith.

So it’s been a week, and these reminders of what’s possible give me hope that we can actually tackle this nasty climate change problem.

The scientific consensus is that climate change threatens catastrophic impacts if we don’t limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC tells us that to have a fighting chance of doing so, we have to cut global emissions approximately in half within this decade, and then continue to drive them down to net zero by mid-century.

Until this week I was having a hard time imagining how we could do this. I’ve been writing articles about various different pieces of the puzzle  – how the US Interior Department must transform, how we must elevate indigenous knowledge holders in the Arctic, how the new Administration must confront the politically powerful fossil fuel industries, how governments must support frontline communities who, as always, suffer the greatest from threats like this.

This is the work in the trenches that needs to happen, but the necessary just didn’t seem to add up to the possible.

But today, as I was awoken by that flock of yellow-rumped warblers, as science delivered that second vaccine shot into my arm, as the nation imagined social justice, and as the Biden Administration teased that it intends to announce a goal of cutting our national emissions in half by the end of the this decade – just as experts say we must!, I felt the world expanding just a bit.

These developments this week reminded me that nothing stays the same forever, and if things are gonna change, why not do everything we can to make sure that change is in the right direction?

This is a message that tonight’s honorees don’t need to hear, they’ve shown us how to do it. They’ve shown us that individual action makes a difference at a time when I think a lot of people are feeling completely powerless.

Each one deserves the award because of their remarkable dedication and accomplishments, but also because they are our guides, our energetic innovators and change-makers, they are carrying the lantern through what sometimes feels like a very dark night.

For this, I thank each of them from the bottom of my heart, and I ask that all of you consider your role as we transform our energy economy, address a biodiversity crisis, erase inequity, and provide for the most vulnerable.

This is what Public service looks like, and I always find a way to sneak this into my talks – we need more of you in public service.

It doesn’t have to be the federal or state government – although I can attest to the fact that government jobs can be an incredible way to bring policy change – but we all do have a role to play. Tonight’s awardees have shown us how it can happen at the local level or more broadly, but each of us can pitch in.

Some of you may have chosen or are considering federal service, and may I note that at my old agency, the Department of the Interior, some 50% of the workforce is retirement eligible – which is generally true across much of the federal government.

There is an opportunity now to infuse the federal government with innovative new ideas formed during a time of transformation, to reinvent the way we serve both taxpayers and the lands and waters we depend upon. For that, we need our youth innovators to consider federal service.

This is also a time of invigorating opportunities in State government, as leaders like Governor Mills are leaning in on climate action and working with partners to develop a vision of the future that we can all live with.

And then there is your town or neighborhood. Rural Maine in particular could use a lift right now. We Mainers, with some exceptions, are traditionally quite reserved but during difficult times or times of change, we need positive voices of change to rise above the chorus of hate and anger that fills the void from the margins when regular folks don’t step up. Consider running for a town or county office, or attending public meetings that these days seem to be overwhelmed by very negative, selfish people.

It’s hard to do, it takes energy, but every now and then you remember why you do it, you feel change happen, and you’re lifted into the clouds by the possible.

This week I had my reminder. The honorees tonight are your reminder. Let’s take inspiration from them and see if we can turn the necessary into the possible.

Thanks again for inviting me to speak with you tonight, and congratulations to tonight’s dedicated honorees!

April 21, 2021

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