White House Leadership Summit On Women, Climate And Energy

This commentary, authored by Katie Walsh, originally appeared on EDF Climate Corps.

After an incredible week of EDF Climate Corps Training last month, I had the opportunity to speak at the White House for an inaugural one-day summit on Women, Climate and Energy organized by the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House Office of Public Engagement.

I joined a distinguished group of 100 women from business, research, government and the nonprofit sector to discuss our work in climate and energy. I provided the closing address highlighting the need to bridge silos by opening up our climate change ‘narratives’ to better engage diverse audiences as well as use tactics that push the envelope on climate change action.

Debating Solutions – Not Science

Newly appointed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz opened the summit with a statement that I couldn’t agree with more: “I’m not here to debate the undebatable; climate change is real and urgent and science demands a prudent response. Now the question is: what are the solutions? This is the legitimate debate; let’s debate the solutions, as opposed to the drivers.” On top of the list of solutions he noted the Obama Administration working on is energy efficiency – in buildings, appliances, vehicles and the industrial sector. Efficiency gains provide win-win solutions. An example is the more than $2 trillion dollars to be saved from appliance standards revisions along with the associated carbon emission reductions. Another example is the $1.2 billion in energy efficiency savings EDF Climate Corps fellows have identified in that last 5 years.

Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Acting Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted the implications of the U.S. experiencing the second-highest amount of extreme weather on record in 2012. We were reminded of the recent readings taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii which found that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had passed 400 parts per million. Though this number has significant meaning as a number that represents a genuine threat to civilization, it barely created a ripple in mass media when it was announced in mid-May 2013.

Taking Action

Heather Zichal, the White House’s top aide on energy and climate issues spoke about the successes of Obama’s first term – the improvement of vehicle fuel economy standards and changes in the mercury and toxic pollution standards for power plants. When asked by an audience member on what steps we could all take – Ms. Zichal responded that most immediately we need to ensure that Gina McCarthy, Obama’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, makes it through the nomination process. The Environmental Defense Action Fund recognizes the potential of her future leadership – having already run ads on McCarthy’s behalf in nine media markets for the last several weeks.

With the challenges laid out before us – extreme weather, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and inaction by Congress, attention turned to solutions that we are taking in our states, cities and communities. Cecilia Estolano spoke about the need to mobilize low-income and communities of color – without them, she said we cannot expect broad-based support for climate change legislation or solutions. She spoke about the importance of empowering communities by conducting and providing them with vulnerability assessments. Communities need to be aware of their vulnerability “as a tool to be able to map out how to become more resilient.” Reverend Sally Bingham of the Regeneration Project (and an EDF board member) also discussed the role that religious organizations and institutions can take for preservation and mobilizing their congregations to action.

Results and Next Steps

Afternoon breakouts were focused on education, workplace and community with more than 20 women gathered in each session to discuss steps that they have implemented and challenges that might be overcome through collaboration. In the report back from the sessions, suggestions were made to form working groups, to create policy recommendations from ‘the 100 women of the White House Summit on Climate and Energy’ and to advocate such steps as opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Lead organizer of the summit, Heidi Vangenderen, said that the White House intended to convene the summit again next year.

Overall, my sense is that the summit achieved the goals that the organizers set out for it – to put the right people in the room to find areas of intersection in our work in climate and energy. I was pleased by the representation of leaders in environmental justice but found there to be an acute lack of private sector leadership. Engaging in dialogue with the oil and gas sector in particular would have been valuable as they are key players in making any headway in climate change action. While it was uplifting to hear the diversity of solutions initiated at the state and city level to show the way forward on climate, we must not forget the need to engage in broad-based actions to raise the visibility and urgency of the climate crises. Climate change disrupts any notion of business as usual, and we need tactics that are equally disruptive – to shift power and take action to dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

About Katie Walsh

Katie recently graduated with dual master’s degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Tufts Urban Environmental Planning and Policy School. She will spend summer 2013 as an EDF Climate Corps fellow with the City of Philadelphia.

About EDF Climate Corps 

EDF Climate Corps (edfclimatecorps.org) taps the talents of tomorrow’s leaders to save energy, money and the environment by placing specially-trained EDF fellows in companies, cities and universities as dedicated energy problem solvers. Working with hundreds of leading organizations, EDF Climate Corps has found an average of $1 million in energy savings for each participant. For more information, visit edfclimatecorps.org.

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