Environmentalists young and old crowded into city hall Wednesday night, imploring Keene city councilors to take aggressive action on climate change.
But in the grand scheme of City Council business, only a minor step forward was taken.
The ambitious goal put forth by the Keene Energy and Climate Committee is to remove all fossil fuels from the city’s municipal and residential electricity use by 2030, and to have all thermal energy and energy used for transportation come from renewable sources by 2050.
The council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee voted 4-1 Wednesday to send a citizen-submitted resolution that included those goals to city staff, who will draft language for a more formal document. The revised resolution will come back to the committee, with the chance of eventually going to the full City Council for a vote.
During the meeting, community members stressed that the stakes are too high to treat the proposed resolution like business as usual, with the sound of crinkling and folding letters in support of aggressive action filling the room.
Over the past two months, a pair of major climate studies summarizing scores of research have painted a direr picture for the future of the planet than previously presented to the public. A United Nations study from October warned that the world has just 12 years to keep average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, after which hundreds of millions of people would be thrown into poverty from exacerbated natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.
Then, the Trump administration released a study on Black Friday that summarized the findings of multiple federal agencies and scientists, outlining how the U.S. economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year if nothing is done. President Donald Trump responded to the study in a Washington Post interview by saying the Earth’s air and water are at “a record clean.”
Coming off the heels of a contentious public comment session at Wednesday’s committee meeting on a proposed resolution that would raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 (see article on A1), extra chairs were brought in to accommodate area residents waiting in the hallway as pro-vaping advocates and skeptical councilors sparred for nearly an hour.
With more than 20 people coming up to address the five committee members on the climate change resolution, the proceedings would go on for another two hours as like-minded citizens read from prepared remarks.
Led by Ann Shedd, chairwoman of the Keene Energy and Climate Committee, most of those reading letters returned to a recurring theme in support of the resolution to take the city’s energy grid off fossil fuels within the next 12 years: the futures of their children and grandchildren.
While there were a handful of millennials and Generation Z activists in the crowd, it was not until Keene High School Senior Class President Conor T. Hill approached the microphone that the room sat up at full attention.
The 18-year-old Winchester resident and president of the Keene High Sierra Club brought new life into the hearing, first with some light comic relief.
“I wrote a letter up, and I went around gathering 80 some-odd signatures from students today — I probably would have gotten more, but there was a snow day yesterday ...” Hill said as the crowd erupted in laughter.
After finishing his prepared statement, Hill engaged the committee’s lone dissenter, Ward 4 Councilor Robert B. Sutherland, in an exchange about the financial feasibility of the resolution.
“I have to balance, as a city councilor, between the taxpayer, who is going to incur the costs that are borne by the city,” Sutherland said. “We are — we also have a fiscal responsibility, and we have fiscal limitations. We’re already more or less at our maximum in how much money we can borrow. We borrow a lot of money. We spend about 14 percent of our budget on just servicing debt.”
Sutherland, who repeatedly emphasized that he is in favor of acting on climate change and promoting renewable energy broadly in principle, cautioned against an aggressive push to 100 percent renewable energy because of the fiscal burden it would put on the city.
He also warned of unforeseen logistical challenges, such as how first-responders and others would access power in an outage or other grid failure.
The councilor argued that the city already has ambitious environmental goals and that a new policy would be redundant in many respects.
Hill pushed back.
“It would just be a shame — it would be a shame to see the city pass up on this opportunity to join the international community,” Hill said. “Because as everybody in this room knows, this is the future, and this is important to people in my age group. This will attract people to the city. This is going to energize people in my age group, and it is going to energize everyone — sustainably energizes everyone.”
Riding the wave of enthusiasm built up by Hill, Susan Hay of Keene took the microphone to make an economic argument supporting Hill’s appeal to younger generations.
“You know, I’ve been to a lot of these meetings, and this may seem like just another Wednesday night meeting,” Hay, a former member of the Keene Board of Education, said. “From my perspective, this is the most important meeting you have had, or will have, for years. ... The question in my mind is, are we going to pay now, or are we going to pay later?”
Hay drew an analogy to the similar fiduciary responsibilities of a school board and a city council. Both must weigh the short-term and long-term interests of a collective.
The difference with climate change, according to Hay, is that almost no short-term expense would outweigh the cost of not doing enough in the long term.
“I don’t think we have the option (to wait),” she said. “I’m looking at you guys, and we’re all of a certain age, and we all have children and/or at least the ability to start imagining grandchildren. Those children and those grandchildren are going to be asking us, and every other city council and every other government official across the country — they’re going to be looking at us and saying, ‘What were you doing? What were you thinking? What plans did you think were more important than this?’ ”
As more than a dozen speakers followed, the councilors remained engaged and even moved by the overlapping testimonials.
From the pair of Antioch University New England students reading in unison, to Craig Rice, who listed his address as the Hundred Nights homeless shelter on Lamson Street, each member of the public hammered home the city’s need to act swiftly.
No one got up to dispute the science behind climate change. The only person to even remotely dispute how the city should address it was Sutherland.
As the meeting drew to a close, with the draft resolution’s return to a future committee meeting yet to be scheduled, At-Large Councilor Randy L. Filiault complimented the group’s civility and preparedness after he had gone toe-to-toe with the vaping enthusiasts two hours earlier.
“As I was looking out on this group, in the 21 years and the thousands of meetings that I’ve sat up here on, I’ve never sat in front of a more informed, impassioned and educated group than your group tonight,” Filiault said. “So, on behalf of myself, I want to applaud all of you for bringing what you brought us here tonight.”
Then committee Chairwoman and Ward 1 Councilor Janis O. Manwaring delivered concluding remarks, informing the environmentalists of the next steps.
She said city staff will draft the resolution in their style and then present it to the committee, where the public can return and provide feedback.
“So, don’t despair,” she said. “You weren’t here for nothing.”