Thursday, July 18, 2024

A breakout group works Saturday at City Hall during the second day of a Cambridge Climate Congress. Most participants felt the congress didn’t achieve enough in its allotted time. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge Climate Emergency Congress intended to last for two days will return for a third.

At the end of nearly five hours of discussion Saturday on a stronger local response to climate change, at what was meant to be the last of two sessions when the Congress was announced in November, three options for recommendations were approved and a “none of the above” vote rejected.

But the assembly failed at John Pitkin’s goal of having the congress be “about implementation and to try to get large organizations and businesses to make specific commitments,” and there were reports the pace of the day forced some planned steps — creating citizen action groups was cited — to be set aside.

As part of the votes, participants were asked if they would return for a third session.

There was unanimous willingness among the 65 or so people still at City Hall, participants Linda Sophia Pinti and Lesley Rebecca Phillips said.

“By about 1: 15 p.m., it was looking pretty clear that we weren’t really getting everything done,” Phillips said. “I think by the end of it, everybody was realizing that even if they didn’t personally want to have another day, that it really made sense to have another session to have the work of the congress really effectively be completed.”

Participants left expecting e-mails summarizing what had been accomplished and setting up a next event, although — based on Pitkin’s estimate — not within the next two weeks.

No specifics

The most popular option, winning nearly 50 votes, was called “vision-based,” “conceptual” and “a broad approach” and didn’t set up specific tasks. Facilitator Patrick Field described it as setting goals for Cambridge in decreasing emissions and helping ease the climate change crisis; for the city to be a leader and a model in easing climate change; to partner with residents and businesses; and to formalize how the city approaches its climate-change work, including whether staff must be hired.

Next, winning closer to 40 votes, was a proposal to create a Climate Emergency Response Board to promote, coordinate and monitor how the city takes on climate change, including setting emissions goals and initiating a community awareness and action campaign. The board would be made up of citizens, city department heads and likely a community outreach coordinator. It would report its progress at annual climate congresses. As the person suggested its final wording earlier in the day, Harvard professor and local political watcher Robert Winters presented this option.

The third option, also winning around 40 votes, was a mix of the others and an agreement they weren’t fully satisfying, leading to the need for a third session.

That result was obvious in the morning when the assembly broke into smaller groups to tackle specific issues. Some of the groups had concrete suggestions — one on accounting, for instance, proposed energy-saving competitions between Cambridge neighborhoods or between Cambridge and its West Coast counterpart, Berkeley, Calif.; another noted the need to look into the cost of a sea wall to hold back rising waters and to develop zoning changes and workshops to promote small gardens and seasonal diets of locally grown food. But overwhelmed by the enormity of their tasks, the draft committee including Field and Winters had already been asked by Pitkin if they would continue meeting after Saturday, and the outreach group had two more sessions planned before they even returned to the main hall.

The climate situation was “urgent, but the process hasn’t gotten us to the point of concrete suggestions,” participant Paul Elwood said.

Problems for and with City Hall

It seemed another step back when Winters noted that the 29 “proposed recommendations for action by the City Council” available to all in a stapled, 20-page document weren’t even voted on or all endorsed by the congress, and some had been opposed. They weren’t “proposed recommendations,” Winters said, but could only be presented as “ideas.”

Although the crowd included city councillors Sam Seidel, Ken Reeves, Denise Simmons and Henrietta Davis, not all participants were eager to rely on government for leadership or help. “If we don’t [emerge] with who will be leaders to hold City Hall accountable, we have failed here,” participant Rita Mednick said. “That we’re even sitting in City Hall is problematic to me.”

As mayor and vice mayor, Simmons and Seidel were key in creating the climate congress. Davis traveled to Copenhagen in December for a climate summit of world leaders.

Davis also provided a bright spot to the day by noting Cambridge was eligible to split a pot of grant money worth millions three ways as one of only three Massachusetts communities that adopted an environmental construction “stretch code” last year.

But Copenhagen was widely considered a failure. When participant Jonah DeCola questioned why the votes presented by Fields and Winters didn’t include Saturday’s group suggestions, he drew a laugh when he said, “This is so reminiscent of Copenhagen to me.”

Science needing a solution

Aside from city officials, the congress drew some 100 people throughout the day, ranging from high school and college students to senior citizens and including Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars, community activists and few local scientists and engineers. While Cambridge Chemical Technologies had an employee in attendance, there seemed to be no representatives from the city’s own IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Nuvera Fuel Cells, Synapse Energy Economics Inc. or GreenFuel Technologies. (GreenFuel laid off about half its staff two weeks ago.)

“It’s such a complex problem, and there’s not one concrete solution. There’s a need for citizen action, there’s a need for business action and there’s a need for city action, and there’s no current means for coordinating all of that,” said Michael D. Corbett, a process engineer from Cambridge Chemical Technologies. “We’re facing a problem that requires fundamental change in the way people live their lives and the way city government is executed, and there seems to be no cohesive way to make that happen easily. We sit down to deliberate what to do, it’s an extremely difficult process and emotions come flaring, and you almost come back to the beginning where you don’t know where you’ve been.”

“There’s a lot of passion behind this,” Corbett said. “I’m just a little afraid that there’s going to be no follow-up … it seems like the city is asking for the community to do it and the community is waiting for the city to tell them what to do. I’m afraid we’re going to wind up here in another eight years with another failed goal.”

“The problem is, I don’t know what the solution is to that,” he said.