In the past few years, federal inaction on climate change has galvanized grassroots organizations to work toward sensible environmental policy in states that have historically lagged behind.
Georgia is a state with the potential to enact legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as continue diversifying its already substantial energy production by moving to more renewable energy sources. The shift away from fossil fuels has been happening naturally since 2009 as the state continues transitioning its energy production from coal to natural gas sources. Nonetheless, coal remains a major source of electricity generation in the state, contributing 25% of all energy production.
Not only does the state lack significant fossil fuel reserves, but Georgia also has an immense capacity for renewable energy it has yet to fully realize. With an abundance of both natural and manmade bodies of water, Georgia has an immense capacity for hydro-power. There is also incredible potential for offshore wind along its 100-mile Atalantic coast line that has yet to be realized. The potential for solar infrastructure in Georgia also helped the state earn its ranking as the 9th highest potential solar capacity in the United States.
A shift toward renewable energy in Georgia would make an incredible impact on reducing emissions, as the state is the 10th largest energy consumer in the United States.
Despite its potential, Georgia has yet to set statewide emissions reduction targets. This is due in part to the political landscape in Georgia, which is dominated by conservative lawmakers who have traditionally been hesitant to move forward on climate legislation. Currently, Republicans hold majorities in both the House (105-75) and the Senate (35-21). The state has therefore lacked enough political will to enact policy to mitigate or prepare for the severe effects of climate change.
The political hesitation begins at the very top with Governor Brian Kemp,1 who claims to support fact-based efforts but has yet to endorse any specific statewide regulation and claims to favor local solutions despite the universal nature of the issue.
Some municipal governments in Georgia have risen to the challenge however, with major cities like Atlanta committing to 100% clean energy by 2035. Savannah is the most recent example of these efforts — the city recently held a town hall stressing citizens’ desire for 100% renewable energy by 2035, which was attended by many city officials. Public and private industry in the state have also become increasingly engaged in dialogue toward solutions to the climate crisis.
This type of multilateral collaboration is exemplified by The Georgia Climate Project, an effort founded by Emory University to mobilize environmental action.
What is the Georgia Climate Project?
The Georgia Climate Project is a state-wide effort fighting to create a greener future for Georgians. The initiative harnesses the combined powers of academia and industry, to advocate for and fund efforts toward green policy in the state.
The Project seeks to mobilize the economic, environmental, and medical research community to answer a series of key climate research questions called Georgia’s Top 40. These 40 inquiries take into account the complexity of climate change and its effects, addressing preventative policy strategies in energy and transportation, infrastructure, and agriculture as well as adaptive policies for human health, drastic weather changes, and social equity. The project also lists experts on various relevant topics that can be contacted through their website. This is a great way to ensure an interdisciplinary network of researchers are working toward the most comprehensive solutions possible.
Gov. Kemp has made headlines recently for his decision to begin re-opening Georgia’s economy after the state’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Georgia’s Top 40 captures the wide variety of issues presented by a warming climate that have already begun to manifest in the state. For example, shrinking coastlines have already impacted many businesses and communities along the coast, which will only worsen as the climate continues to change.2
“I used to think of flooding as only being a coastal issue. Far be it. I mean, there are people inland who suffer from flooding just as much as we do, and this is something we need to be aware of. This impacts all of America. When you have an increase of two degrees in temperature, that’s going to have an impact” acknowledged Georgian Congressman Buddy Carter.
Climate XChange launched campaign in 2018 through its Climate Action Business Association to speak with small coastal businesses in MA about how they could increase their resilience with increasing impacts from climate change. Read our report here.
Georgia’s Top 40 also includes the effects of climate change that are more difficult to identify, such as the effect it will have upon agricultural and healthcare infrastructure.3 Seasonal farming will continue to become more volatile and usable farmland will decrease as the global temperature rises; while the medical industry stands to face increased demand as vector-borne disease spreads northward and respiratory health deteriorates with warmer temperatures and increased emissions.
Driving Private and Public Engagement
Preparing healthcare infrastructure for the climate crisis will be critical, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown how vulnerable our most crucial sectors are when it comes to saving lives.
Each year in November, the Project hosts the Georgia Climate Conference,4 an event that gathers hundreds of experts from public, private, and non-profit sectors to discuss what a changing climate means for Georgia, and propose solutions to mitigate these consequences.
Stakeholders at the conference have expressed how essential it is that the private sector serves as a positive influence on environmental policy in the absence of federal action.
“The business community in Georgia has a critical role in moving environmentalism into a nonpartisan space,” stated Chris Clark, the Head of the state’s Chamber of Commerce, at the most recent conference.
Details for the 2020 Georgia Climate Conference have not been posted on its website.
In this statement, Mr. Clark is recognizing that the most effective climate action will take into account the opinions and needs of every stakeholder it affects, and that the private sector has a huge potential to contribute to this end.5
The event also allows academics to engage with the community and share their particular areas of expertise with the greater public.
“The conference is a way for us to disseminate what the students learned to a broader audience, because we don’t want this experience to just be between the students,” said Dr. Eri Saikawa, an environmental researcher at Emory University, in an interview with Climate XChange.
This project has spurred action for other grassroots events to spread awareness about and facilitate engagement around the climate crisis. One of these is the Carbon Reduction Challenge, a competition that challenges university students to work with private companies to reduce their carbon footprints in ways that benefit the company financially. In recent years, students have successfully collaborated with major corporations such as Delta, Volkswagen, and Coca Cola. The Delta collaboration was particularly successful, as the effort to remove paper magazines from Delta flights reduced their CO2 emissions by 14,000 tons annually while saving the company $3,000,000/year.
Emphasis on Civic Engagement
The directors of the Georgia Climate Project are aware that in order to implement the vast policy solutions needed to address the challenges stemming from the climate crisis, they need to ensure that a majority of Georgians understand the importance of tackling these issues and the risks of what will happen if they don’t.
As we rebuild our economy in the coming months and years, preparing businesses for the impacts of climate change while mitigating its impacts to the fullest extent will be critical in increasing the resiliency of our communities.
To spur civic engagement, the Project introduced Georgia Climate Stories.6 This interactive map of the state is populated with points that you can click on to view a story about the effects of climate change already experienced by an individual living in that area. This is an extremely effective way to make the issue feel closer to home, as climate change is too often abstracted, when, in fact, it is already affecting real U.S. citizens every day.
“‘We started peaches in 1954 and lost one crop between then and 1983,’” Thomas said. ‘But after that, we lost more and more each year.’ […] not only were the “normal” winters not cold enough, but late season freezes toward the beginning of spring started killing Thomas’ crop” shared Jerry Thomas, owner of Thomas Orchards, just one example of the many Georgian farmers who has already been affected by climate change.
You can read more about how storytelling can be used to communicate the climate crisis here.
Carbon Pricing — a Politically Feasible Solution
Although it is not a blanket solution, a strongly-designed carbon pollution pricing mechanism in Georgia would go a long way in addressing many of these wide-ranging issues. Mitigating the financial strain the climate crisis places upon the state’s infrastructure will require a new revenue source that carbon pricing can supply.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for understanding how the climate crisis is impacting our communities and businesses. That’s why Climate XChange released our report, Communicating the Climate Crisis earlier this year. Read the report here.
Carbon pricing would also provide a market incentive for individuals and the private sector to begin shifting towards cleaner practices. It is especially important that a bill for reducing emissions is introduced in Georgia to complement other environmental efforts that are already underway, such as the many conservation bills that have been introduced this legislative session.7
These bills were recently able to gain traction in the Georgian Legislature due to a lack of new taxes or revenue expenditure, which lead to bipartisan support by enticing the more conservative lawmakers. A well-designed carbon pricing policy could strike a balance between the price of emissions and the revenue reinvested into adapting emitting industries to climate-forward practices, effectively eliminating the cost to private industry it imposes while moving the state toward a green future.
In order to create the political will for comprehensive carbon pricing policy, dialogue between citizens and industry is critical. Blanket legislation that does not take into account the large mining population in the state or take advantage of its vast renewable energy capacity will not be as effective as it needs to be.8 This is why it is so vital that the voices of local citizens and businesses are heard and considered when drafting possible solutions. The Georgia Climate Project provides a space for such a discussion to take place.
The Georgia Climate Project, and the actions of citizens all across the state, is proof that federal inaction on climate has been able to empower American citizens at the state level to find innovative solutions to the climate crisis. Every individual has the power to make a difference in their community, even in the wake of government inaction, and people are beginning to realize this in Georgia.