United Nations conference in Utah hears pleas to fight global warming individually and by community

(Rob Griffith | AP file photo) An excavator moves rocks and sand in 2015 to aid in the construction of sea walls around the airport on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Climate change poses an existential threat to places like the Marshall Islands, which protrude only 6 feet (2 meters) above sea level in most places. King tides, when the alignment of the Earth, moon and sun combine to produce the most extreme tidal effects, and storm surges cause floods that contaminate fresh water, kill crops, and erode land. As a result, some Marshallese think an exodus as inevitable, while others are planning to stay and fight.

Amid much talk about climate change at the United National Civil Society Conference in Utah, Selina Neirok Leem from the Marshall Islands said something Tuesday that was more urgent and pleading than most.

She said scientists used to predict that rising sea levels from global warming would make her island disappear by 2050. But conditions are worsening, so now the prediction “is 2030. Please take a moment to absorb these numbers — two decades less is what we have.”

Already she says rising sea levels bury much of her islands in floods during storms.

“A few years back, mama, the kids and I had to go sleep at the Mormon Church because we had been warned on the radio about higher flooding.” She remembers asking, “God, is this practice? Will it hurt this much when we might have to leave forever? What to do, Father?”

A panel at the conference urged people not to wait for, nor depend on, nations to act on global warming, but to take action as communities and individuals. Even small steps could make a big difference, panel members said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski recalled that when President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement to fight global warming, the U.S. Conference of Mayors signed a resolution “as a clear message to the world that the United States is still in.”

But she said cities had to face “the reality that we are kind of on our own and had to take action at the local level without the support of federal government. And we have been.”

For example, she said Salt Lake City committed to work toward 100% renewable energy by 2030, as have 150 cities nationally. Toward that, the Legislature passed HB411 this year to allow Rocky Mountain Power to offer city customers more clean energy options.

Biskupski said her blue city in a red state often has trouble persuading state lawmakers to pass such legislation, so forming a partnership with Rocky Mountain Power was essential — and she urged forming alliances whenever possible.

She said the city has worked hard on other initiatives, from adding recharging stations for electric cars to providing funding to add bus service by the Utah Transit Authority.

Actor Luke Mullen — a star on the Disney Channel Andy Mack TV series shot in Utah — called for the world’s youth to take more action, including staging school strikes to prod action.

“I do believe that strikes for the climate are just as important as education. Why should we be studying and preparing for a future that might not come?” he said. He said such strikes in Germany helped prod that government into saying it will ban coal-produced electricity by 2038.

He urged youth and others to take whatever steps they can. “We can give up meat, we can reduce our plastic, we can drive less. There is so much we can do.”

Laura Tobon, a TV star in Colombia, also pleaded for more attention and action.

“My home is burning. Did you know your home is burning, too? For the last few weeks, the Amazon rain forest has been on fire. Twenty percent of the oxygen we breathe is thanks to the Amazon,” she said — blaming the worse-than-normal fires on climate change.

She said she took personal steps such as eating less meat and avoiding use of plastics. “But is it enough? Probably not. But that answer could completely change if millions of us were doing it systematically. Every single action counts.”

Olumide Idowu, a Nigerian who founded the International Climate Change Development Initiative, urged action and not just more talk on the issue.

“Climate change is a time bomb,” he said. “We need to start going local… We need to start looking at: ‘How can I take my responsibility?’”

Leem said people in the Marshall Islands — where many of its 34 islands and atolls now are not even a meter above sea level — “are seeing and experiencing the consequences of climate change and other environmental issues, and we act along with you and along with the rest of the world.”