‘Ready to take action’: Local leaders represent Savannah at 2nd Georgia Climate Conference

Our Changing Climate

ATLANTA (WSAV) — In a conference room packed with at least 400 people, a supersized aerial image of a flooded U.S. Highway 80 flashed across three screens.

Most in the Savannah area know the road as the one that connects Tybee Island to the city. 

“A hurricane didn’t come through there, that’s just king tide flooding,” explained the University of Georgia’s Dr. Marshall Shepherd to the audience.

“From what I understand from people working on the coast, people that live there say that they haven’t seen these types of things happening with such frequency,” the director of UGA’s atmospheric sciences program continued. 

“That’s what worries us as scientists —  how fast things are changing.”

Last week, leaders from the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors across Georgia joined Shepherd as they congregated to discuss the state’s future.

The coastal communities, cities and counties can attest to [the reality of climate change], because when those major disasters that are related to weather come to our part of Georgia, we feel it in a very deep way.”

Dr. Mildred McClain, Executive Director of Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice

Two key questions to promote better understanding of climate change were on the agenda of the 2019 Georgia Climate Conference, held on November 7 and 8 at Atlanta’s Emory Conference Center Hotel. 

Those questions: What does a changing climate mean for the Peach State?What can its leaders and residents do to solve problems resulting from climate change?

At the second event of its kind for Georgia, panelists covered a number of topics over the two-day conference, including the impacts of climate change on Georgia’s agriculture and forestry; the importance of continuing to strengthen resiliency against future natural disasters, especially in the face of more powerful and devastating hurricanes; and what Georgians think about climate change.

“This conference is fundamentally about elevating the discussion around climate change, recognizing that sure, there are challenges that our state faces on climate, but also tremendous opportunities with people from so many different stakeholder groups, so many different industries from the policy side, the academic side, bringing everyone together to collectively imagine positive steps forward on the issue of climate in Georgia,” John Lanier, executive director of the Atlanta-based Ray C. Anderson Foundation, told News 3.

“It’s a really important thing to be doing,” Lanier said.

By all traditional and historical measures, things are going well in Georgia, according to Doug Hooker, executive director for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Hooker was one of several speakers at the conference. 

“However, all of us are here because we realize the traditional and historic measures have rendered a very incomplete picture of our world,” Hooker said.

“Indeed, we are here because we realize our future demands new ways of thinking, new ways of planning and new ways of being.” 

Hooker told an audience that between the years 1945 and 2000, the state of Georgia has experienced three significant droughts. 

“However, since 2000 alone, we’ve had five, including the one that we’re currently in,” Hooker said. 

“If you didn’t know that we’re in a drought, please know that we’re very much in a drought.”

Local leaders represent coastal Georgia at climate change conference

Other leaders discussed topics like building climate-resilient Georgia communities and the impact of the changing climate on Georgia’s ecosystems.

It’s very heartening, even when maybe the national atmosphere around climate change isn’t quite as open-minded and as positive, that we here in Georgia are ready to take action.”

Elizabeth Hunter, Assistant Professor, Georgia Southern University

Included in the mix of scheduled speakers were a handful of experts from the Coastal Empire, including Nick Deffley, director of the City of Savannah’s Office of Sustainability, who spoke on a panel about where Savannah falls in the conversation surrounding clean energy.

Deffley shared with the audience Savannah’s recent climate change forum held for mayoral and city council candidates — news that received a round of applause.

“This is just exciting,” Deffley told News 3, “thinking about changing some state policy, really becoming more progressive and acknowledging climate change and the challenge that we have in the next few decades, and how quickly we need to move on that.” 

Also attending the conference from the Savannah area was Michael Blakely, Chatham County’s floodplain administrator. 

“Through my tenure in dealing with floodplain management and conservation, there’s been a lot of talk,” Blakely told News 3.

“But this was the first conference, the first meeting that I’ve experienced where there’s been some drive toward implementing, making things happen, and I think that’s the biggest difference here.”

Georgia Southern University Assistant Biology Professor Elizabeth Hunter, who’s also a steering committee member for the Georgia Climate Project, was also in Atlanta.

She and one of her graduate students came to represent Georgia Southern, and Hunter also spoke at the conference about some of the university’s climate change research.

They focus on animal species that are potentially threatened by climate change.

“It’s very heartening, even when maybe the national atmosphere around climate change isn’t quite as  open-minded and as positive, that we here in Georgia are ready to take action,” Hunter told News 3.

Dr. Mildred McClain, executive director of Savannah-based Harambee House and Citizens For Environmental Justice, also gave a rousing speech during the final day of the conference. 

She explained to News 3 that she attended the conference to help “sound the alarm that climate change is real.”

“The coastal communities, cities and counties can attest to its reality, because when those major disasters that are related to weather come to our part of Georgia, we feel it in a very deep way,” McClain said.

These issues only exacerbate already existing conditions that have not yet been addressed, making the jobs of those battling climate change that much more difficult, she explained. 

“We want to draw attention to the coast, because our policymakers really reside here in Atlanta, and we want them to know that we have a strong voice, that it is based in science, it is based in research, but most of all, it is based in our reality that we live on a daily basis.”

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