A disconnect: climate change and the environment at the state legislature

By Maria Saporta

For a state where many of the top elected officials don’t believe in climate change and question whether humans play a role in pollution, Georgia environmental leaders actually hope the 2015 General Assembly will be a good one.

Whether it be reinstituting a buffer for development on marshes along the state’s coastal areas, or whether it be exploring a permanent source of state funding for transit, or whether it be allowing for the third-party financing of solar panels on people’s homes, the 2015 legislative session could leave the environmental community happier than it has been in a long time.

That seemed to be the consensus at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable (SART) meeting Jan. 9, held this month at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

That’s when three legislators — Sen.-elect Elena Parent (D.-DeKalb); Rep. Pat Gardner (D-Atlanta) and Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) — spoke about what they expected would happen during the session.

“Transportation is going to be huge this year,” Taylor said. “The Lt. Governor is going to push transit very heavily this year. There’s going to be a push for a funding mechanism.”

Later Taylor explained that what’s driving Georgia to focus on transportation is the lack of funding from Washington, D.C. From his vantage point, MARTA still has to overcome the perception at the state capitol that it is just for poor people. But he said that is beginning to change.

“From an economic development point of view, we have lost significant corporate relocations here because of our gridlock,” said Taylor, adding that several companies now are deciding to move their offices next to transit.

Gardner said that support also is broadening.

“There is no opposition from the concrete boys,” she said. “They understand how important Atlanta is to the economy of the state.”

Parent, however, cautioned that most of the discussion around transportation funding revolves around the sales tax, which is most regressive – meaning it tends to place a higher burden on the poor. The legislature is considering lowering the income tax, which does the reverse. If a sales tax is passed as part of a reduction in the income tax, Parent said she would be concerned with the impact that would have on those who could afford it the least.

Another area where the legislators believed there could be significant movement in 2015 was with solar financing legislation – an issue that has been around for the last several years.

Sponsor Rep. Mike Dudgeon has worked with solar advocates and utilities to address various concerns on how to allow third parties to purchase solar panels and sell the energy back to homeowners. The impact of the legislation would mean that installing solar panels would become much more affordable to the average Georgian.

“Mike Dudgeon has been amazing in pushing this bill,” said Parent, who worked on the issue in her former role with Georgia Watch..

Taylor, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation, agreed. “Mike has been tweaking what is an already great piece of legislation,” he said.

Water is always an important issue for Georgia, and because of the multi-decade disagreements between Georgia, Alabama and Florida – issues have often been outside the control of the legislature.

Florida’s lawsuit of Georgia has ended up with a Special Master, who will recommend how the water should be divided between the states.

Gardner said this lawsuit is particularly significant, and that Gov. Nathan Deal has hired a new legal team to make sure Georgia is ready to respond by Feb. 5.

Parent said it is fortunate Georgia adopted aggressive water conservation measures a few years ago to show that it wanted to be a good steward of a limited resource.

“The projections for population growth are staggering,” said Taylor, adding that metro Atlanta’s population is estimated to grow from 5.7 million to 8 million – creating even greater reliance on the region’s limited water supply.

A related issue is that the ban on Aquifer Storage expired at the end of 2014. A Senate Study Committee likely will introduce legislation to address the issue to limit bacteria, pathogens and other byproducts getting into Georgia’s aquifers – of which hundreds of thousands of state residents rely on for drinking water.

The elected leaders at the SART program did anticipate that the state legislature would criticize federal clean air regulations with Taylor saying there would be “would be a lot of pushback from my Party on that.”

But Parent pointed out that those regulations really were “not within our purview” – although she acknowledged that national organizations would be opposing any stricter regulations that might be passed by President Barack Obama’s administration.

climate change poll

A look at how Georgians view climate change (Source: Sierra Club)  Click to enlarge

After the SART meeting, the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club sent out an email to its members letting them know of the teaching opportunities that exist among top state leaders.

The headline read: “Georgia Officials Out of Touch with Reality of Climate Change.”

The basis of the email was a recent article that had appeared in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution that reached out to more than a dozen key state leaders to ask their views of climate change and the role humans play in that change.

The Sierra Club email went on to say that according to its own polling, state leaders are out of step with their constituents – 81 percent who believe climate change is happening.

Now it’s up to us to help inform our state’s leaders.

“There is much work to be done to educate our elected officials on the issue of climate change,” the email read. “One thing is certain: States will be making decisions on issues of critical importance to both our health and the health of our environment. As we enter the 2015 legislative session, please consider contacting your state officials to let them know how you feel about climate change and our environment!”

So let’s keep our fingers crossed that the General Assembly will be gentle with the earth in 2015.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

3 replies
  1. David Kyler says:

    In addition to the
    important disconnect on climate change reported by Sierra Club, Georgia
    officials needed to be schooled on other interrelated issues they seem to be
    reluctant to consider. These are outlined on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Center-for-a-Sustainable-Coast/141003446180

    -Liquefied Natural Gas
    (LNG) is now proposed for distribution worldwide from a precarious coastal site
    at Elba Island near Savannah in Chatham County.A problem ignored by our officials (state AND federal) is that much of
    this gas now comes from fracking operations that release heat-trapping methane
    at dangerous levels. According to authoritative sources, the latest research
    concludes that so much methane escapes when fracking is done that it completely
    negates the carbon-reducing advantages of burning gas instead of coal or
    oil.Therefore, facilities like those
    proposed at Elba Island will add to climate-overheating problems, NOT reduce
    them.When I pointed this out to the
    Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee, noting that sea-level rise caused by
    continued global warming is the biggest threat to our tidal marshes, they
    looked at me as if I were speaking Chinese. Then they summarily approved the
    marsh permit needed for the LNG exporting facility.
     -Woodchips exported by
    Georgia are also adding to heat-trapping global-warming gases, compounding
    problems of climate change. Not only that, but the clearcutting of Georgia’s
    commercial forests wreaks havoc on our water quality and wildlife, including
    fisheries that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in business, supporting
    thousands of Georgia jobs. As the world’s single greatest source of these
    woodchips, Georgia is not being held accountable, and ill-informed or cynically
    short-sighted public officials (take your pick) cavalierly boast of this
    destructive export industry.
     [A campaign of colleagues
    at the Dogwood Alliance is addressing this woodchip issue, and we will be
    assisting as needed. To learn more on this issue, go to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1OKfbS1RI6sH7Ib1BDPE9BDrwHJ9TJ35x2FvOgU6YIlU/viewform?c=0&w=1.
    ]
    Until Georgia officials
    are far-better informed and working on behalf of our authentic,
    responsibly-defined public interest, we can expect continued bad behavior in
    the name of woefully misled “progress.” This kind of progress Georgians can do
    without. When denying facts serves the campaign financing goals of so many
    officials, no wonder we suffer from their willful ignorance.
    ~ David Kyler, Center for
    a Sustainable CoastReport

    Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    David, you write like a preacher. Of course, climate change (formerly known as global warming) has now taken on all the aspects of a secular religion so, since you are as avid acolyte, your writing style shouldn’t be a surprise.
    Until you conclusively prove (with unadjusted statistics and open, complete peer review) that your alarmist theories are fact, the State will be well advised to ignore you and your brethren.Report

    Reply
  3. Melanie Pollard says:

    I found this article while searching for information on tree loss in the SE. David, have you written on this topic? 

    I’m a co-founding and director of Atlanta Protects Trees, a group whose mission is to protect the existing specimen trees and canopy of Metro Atlanta. We are a new, growing group with branches starting throughout the different neighborhoods, NPUs, and municipalities throughout Atlanta. 

    Last Wednesday, we organized a press conference with Senator Elena Parent, Rep Karla Drenner, and DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon to speak out on behalf of the disappearing specimen trees. The conference was held at 145 Norwood Avenue in Historic Kirkwood where, possibly this week, DeKalb County’s Champion White Oak along with 5 other specimen White Oaks, Hickory, Red Oak and Tulip Poplar, and a native, hill-top meadow, will be destroyed for 11 homes. Thirty moretrees will cut for a detention pond, needed, ironically, because so many other trees will be cut and replaced with so much impervious surface that storm-water runoff, currently absorbed on site, will need to be captured in a detention pond.

    We have strong support to protect this rare site, a prime example of what we are losing with the new urban re-development trends where very large homes are built on relatively small lots—the existing trees are cut, and there is not even enough room to replant.  We have worked hard with the neighborhood supporters to collect in 2 weeks time, $5,000 in pledges, and hundreds of supportive signatures to create a nature education park. The developer, Reid Rankin Knox, a key associate with Bows Real Estate, originally was willing to discuss selling the property for a park, but has not returned calls in the last two months, and appears be proceeding with with clearing the site of trees. The legislators and Atlanta Protects Trees are asking the City of Atlanta to protect this rare historic site, which was intended to be a park when the Kirkwood neighborhood was formed. It was called “Oak Park” on a 1907 plat, likely because the trees were of significant size even then.

    These 100-to-possibly-300 year old trees could never reach such size and in such good health in the metro area without the rich, now dwindling old-growth soils and companion trees. Land clearing and grading destroys old-growth soils that contain complex networks of mycorrhizal fungi, and other microorganisms that work in partnership with trees to keep them healthy — “It takes a forest to raise a tree.” 

    I saw recently a satellite study done on global tree-loss and the SE is one of the hardest hit areas in the world. This presents a major problem in that the trees that are disappearing daily in our city will ecologically not be able to return at present size and health due to development densification with impervious surfaces and the removal of the old-growth soils. I feel, as do many other groups I’ve followed, that the South East is in a crisis and stands to loose what is profoundly speaking, one of the world’s most precious ecosystems.

    We would welcome an article on this topic and the new paradigm we are reaching where trees must be viewed, like air and water, as a public resource to be protected as such.

    Many thanks, MelanieReport

    Reply

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