Sacramento council ignored climate activists. Will they listen now that California is burning?

It felt like déjà vu.

Four hours into the Oct. 22 Sacramento City Council meeting, when the podium finally opened up for public comment on items not on the agenda, 21-year-old Logan Dreher urged the council to declare a climate emergency.

“I don’t think that I should be here tonight, have to stand before you and demand that my elected officials protect my future and protect our world,” said Dreher, an organizer with Sunrise Movement activist group.

The room was nearly empty, just as it was Sept. 24 when activists similarly waited until after 9 p.m. to speak. That night, too, they called on the city to formally recognize the dire reality of climate change.


“I’m going to ask that such a declaration actually be brought back to the city council. Because we are living in a climate emergency,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said then.

A month later, the proposal still had not made it onto the agenda.

Young climate activists saw their concern forgotten like it was a fringe issue — days before inferno engulfed the state just as it did last year and the year before.

Generational divide

Myriad factors underlie California’s susceptibility to fires, not just climate change. Still the weather patterns influencing this week’s inferno are “almost certainly tied to global warming,” said climate scientists interviewed by The San Francisco Chronicle.

How much you care about the role of climate change in these disasters partly depends on age.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans age 18 to 34 worried “a great deal/fair amount” about climate change, compared to 56 percent of those over 55. Even among Republicans, younger people are more concerned than older people, according to the Pew Research Center.

Every generation has its divides. The baby boomers fought to end the Vietnam War, where the government was drafting their peers to die for an unclear cause. If we don’t do enough to act on climate change, damages will be deep and irreversible -- like nuclear war.

“I’m angry that we’re not more angry,” tweeted Sacramento resident Giovanna Guevara, 32, on Monday.

“What a lifetime we will live. We will see so much change and destruction. I’m not ready. It makes me resentful of our elders for promising so much but leaving so little,” Sacramento Parks and Recreation Commissioner Lilly Allen, also 32, tweeted on Sunday.

Chris Brown, 63, a baby boomer climate activist, says young people are “going to face the worst of it compared to people who are older.” Brown is an organizer with Sacramento Climate Coalition, which he said has led the push for a declaration of climate emergency.

Science is settled

The science establishing that average global temperatures are rising is settled. While scientists are still studying the specific ways climate impacts us, we know enough to understand that it is not an individual concern.

Climate change increases the risk of extreme river flooding, worsens air quality and creates deadlier heat waves. In Sacramento, already known for flooding, hot weather and dirty air, that’s a huge concern — especially for the young, the old, the homeless and the poor. Displacement in other parts of California due to disaster will also put more pressure on our already-scarce market.

Steinberg and West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon created a climate change commission that looks at issues like these. But climate change is a destabilizing factor that should be embedded in city council’s regular discussions around most issues.

Sacramento-area residents like Dreher, 21, Supriya Patel, 13, and Ngyolani Henry, 20, are worried about the way climate change will shape their careers, their health, and their personal lives. Their generation will feel the full impact of the crisis and they want to create an urgent local conversation about the issue. That’s why activists are calling for an emergency declaration.

Steinberg is a baby boomer who cares about climate change. He should keep his word and put the climate emergency on the agenda. With Sacramento residents breathing in smoke and suffering electricity blackouts, now is a good time to show up for the conversation.

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Tess Townsend is assistant opinion editor at The Sacramento Bee, where she writes about local issues. She moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area in 2018 and has quickly grown fond of the city’s hometown feel. Prior to joining the Bee, Townsend lived the typical itinerant lifestyle of a local newspaper reporter, bouncing from paper to paper around the country. More recently, she reported on tech companies in San Francisco.