National Sierra Club President addresses Arkansas environmentalists

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 523 views 

Those who care about environmental policy should be satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election, said Ramon Cruz, president of the national Sierra Club.

Equity, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the presidential election were some of the topics Cruz discussed in his keynote address for the fifth annual Arkansas Environmental Policy Summit. The virtual summit Friday (Nov. 13) included multiple breakout sessions on issues related to energy, water and electric vehicles. It was hosted by Arkansas Audubon, Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas Sierra Club.

“For four years, we led a resistance campaign to safeguard much of the environmental protections that have taken five decades to build and that [President Donald] Trump and his lobbyists have tried to dismantle left and right,” Cruz said. “Even with Trump in office, there are many things to be thankful and satisfied with.”

He noted an intact wildlife refuge in Alaska and that the Keystone Pipeline has yet to be built. Also, more coal-fired plants continue to be retired even with “all the subsidies and help the Trump administration it put behind,” he said. “Many of your efforts have not been futile, and during this time we have doubled our support base from 2 million to 4 million supporters and doubled our network of volunteers and activists.”

Cruz, who was elected president of the 128-year old environmental organization in May, said the government hasn’t put the well being of the people first amid the COVID-19 pandemic and that it should not be a political issue. He said an organizer leader in Utah recently died from COVID.

Leading up to the election, the pandemic forced the organization to shift away from its typical door-knocking and rallies to Zoom parties, phone banking and letter writing, he said. It had more than 35,000 activists reach out with almost 2 million voters, wrote 1.3 million letters, made 5 million calls and sent 20 million text messages.

“Together with other organizations, we have built a movement that has brought the importance of the climate crisis to the foreground and has centered the efforts on racial equity and justice and was able to elect a president with a clear mandate on these issues,” Cruz said.

The Puerto Rico native also provided a presentation of the organization’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion. The Sierra Club has worked to advance the organization’s movement toward equity over the past several decades, and he described its work over the years, such as environmental justice in the 1990s or dismantling racism training in the 2000s.

“As you all know this summer was a summer of reckoning after the horrendous murder of George Floyd,” he said. “It allowed us to provide a way to frame and analyze how systemic racism has affected all areas of our society and our institutions and all our organizations. And, of course, Sierra Club is not exempt of that. No organizations have really been spared of this.”

He discussed the organization’s history with racism and explained that this wasn’t a move to erase history but “a journey and that it’s an evolution, and we’re moving forward.”

In 2019, the Sierra Club started to develop a multi-year equity plan with three goals and recommended actions. It is expected to create a more inclusive culture, develop training for staff and volunteers, and put a focus on equity and justice. Some behaviors include work to dismantle white supremacy, combat racial oppression, and shift decision-making power to more to black and brown, he said.

The organization created a steering committee to develop a leadership structure, and it invested $5 million to support black, brown and indigenous people, he added.

“It’s not to separate and create division but to be sure that people are being supported in that journey and have spaces to discuss all this,” Cruz said.

In a separate breakout session, panelists discussed the Arkansas Public Service Commission, and the work it’s done with recent solar energy projects.

Donna Gray, executive director for the regulatory agency, said it had received 11 applications to construct solar plants with more than 1 megawatt of generating capacity over the past nine months.

Casey Roberts, senior attorney for the Sierra Club, highlighted the background leading up to the commission’s decision on net metering in the state.

Also, the adoption of electric vehicles was a topic of another breakout session. Hieu Le, who leads the Sierra Club’s involvement to push for all vehicles to be electric by 2050, noted that nearly 60% of transportation emissions can be attributed to light-duty vehicles.

Some of the challenges concerning this effort to shift to electric vehicles include up-front vehicle costs, lack of charging infrastructure and public awareness. However, Le expects changes when former vice president Joe Biden becomes president in 2021. Biden looks to increase the charging infrastructure by about 500,000 across the United States, said Le, noting that this should accelerate electric vehicle adoption.

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