A week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, I talked to Sandy Spears, one of the volunteer leaders of 350 Houston. Sandy is a school teacher who has lived in Houston for 26 years and has been working with 350 Houston for about two years. Her school is located in the frontline corridor of oil refineries, an area hard hit by Harvey.
Sandy helped re-generate the 350 local group after some of the previous leaders left. “I started reading about climate change and after attending the PCM in NYC I returned to Texas and wanted to help create a community to grieve the difficult realities that I was learning about. In the past two years 350 Houston has evolved; we started out with meetings, then did some rallies and public actions. Now, quite a lot of people show up to meetings, and we frequently collaborate with other groups like Indivisible and the Sierra Club.”
Climate organizing in Houston is hard. Many of the city’s residents work in the oil and gas industry and the 350 group’s efforts to do outreach and education are often met with resistance. When Sandy has offered to share presentations she has been told that talking about climate change would make those in the industry “feel bad” (and in one case she was turned away by a former Exxon executive on a church committee).
Still, the 350 Houston community is working on change at a structural level. They participate on the Mayor’s Climate Action Plan committee and they are hosting candidate forums on climate for the upcoming District 7 Congressional race. Up until now, most politicians could get away with only thinking about growth and never discussing climate. People in power were warned of this disaster, they knew about the reservoirs, they knew about the dangers.
What are you hearing and experiencing?
“Right now it’s crazy. Electricity and wifi have been out, so I was disconnected from the macro-situation in my own city. There is a chemical leak right now. The big thing in front of me is that the area where I work is flooded. I live in a neighborhood that can afford good drainage. Our neighborhood put out a channel to the bayou. We have been draining really fast, which might mean that we were, in our privileged preparations, even contributing to the inability of other neighborhoods to drain out.”
“People are so generous about helping on an individual level. But to be even more helpful, let’s think about the macro situation. We’ve stepped up on the individual level but we are still not talking about climate change. If it’s too hard to talk about climate change, can we at least talk about how poorly West Houston was planned? I’ve done a lot of research to try and find common values for conversations, but people aren’t always rational. We need to be able to simultaneously hold two truths; people need jobs and climate change is real.”
Sandy grew up in a right wing and conservative community, “a conservative bubble”. She has been frustrated that the churches of Houston have been largely unwilling to talk about climate change and is interested in finding ways to bring faith leaders and people of faith into climate organizing.
When asked if people in Texas are now connecting Harvey to climate change, Sandy said that the local media has been largely silent in that regard. She was thrilled to hear today that her ally, Rice University professor and atmospheric scientist Dan Cohan had been asked by the newspaper to write about the connections between Harvey and climate change. “It is a huge breakthrough!”
How might Harvey change climate organizing in Houston?
“Harvey may be an opportunity to bring climate education to faith communities. Thus far, local evangelical thought leaders haven’t been open to talking about climate change, and we hope that this could be a new opportunity.
We have a meeting next Tuesday and maybe it will make it easier to get folks together. After Trump there was a jump in enrollment and maybe that will happen now. I grew up right wing and conservative and sometimes people need to tiptoe where they are going. People come up to me privately and say that they love my 350 Houston posts on Facebook but they aren’t yet talking about climate change publicly.
It really matters to feel the support from all over the world. We can’t just rebuild Houston like it was. Hopefully now we can more easily introduce solar panel and electric cars. Maybe this moment will be a gateway for change.
I feel hopeful. I feel the conversation shifting. Lots of people here still won’t say it (climate change) aloud. But underneath the surface dialogue, people know. Its shifting. The shift has been from ‘this isn’t true’ to ‘I believe this is real’. I can feel it.”