The window of opportunity is closing for a coordinated response to combat climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said recently. “Humanity is on thin ice—and that ice is melting fast,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts—everything, everywhere, all at once.”
That includes even towns like Healdsburg, where over the past five years a group of dedicated residents has pushed the climate agenda forward—first demanding that climate become one of the City Council’s goals for 2022-23, then working to keep the process energized when it began to falter.
Their efforts culminate with an upcoming Climate Fest to be held on Earth Day, April 22, where up to 60 climate-related organizations, businesses and agencies will share their vision with the public through displays, activities, music and inspiration, at the Healdsburg Plaza.
Seed of this movement was Healdsburg 2040, a grass-roots network of activists that grew out of the Sustainable Design Assessment Team’s (SDAT) 2018 visit to Healdsburg. There are now four workgroups within Healdsburg2040.org, some with as many as 20 members who have been meeting since SDAT left town over five years ago.
Although SDAT was designed to help “communities develop a vision framework for a sustainable future,” it was missing a crucial component. “HB 2040 years ago initiated the discussion about climate change, when we realized that climate was not even mentioned in the SDAT report in 2018,” said Walter Niederberger, a Swiss journalist who has lived with his wife, Anne, in Healdsburg since 2015 and has been part of HB 2040 from its inception.
Granted, the Healdsburg City Council had adopted a climate emergency declaration in 2019. But the city still lacked a comprehensive Climate Plan, with formal goals and staff/budget allocations. So Healdsburg 2040 pushed the city to prioritize climate action in last year’s goal-setting session to develop a framework for projects to achieve tangible GHG reductions.
Climate Action Healdsburg
After that meeting, a core group of 10 met on the eve of Earth Day 2022, asking what more they could be doing to address climate change. Over the past year, that group, now known as Climate Action Healdsburg, has become a busy hive of locals putting their energies and expertise toward environmental problem-solving. The group now numbers about 25 engaged volunteers.
“We know there’s a problem, but what’s the best way forward?” asked Ty Benoit, who helped push-start Climate Action Healdsburg into action a year ago. A former history professor and dean at Santa Rosa Junior College, Benoit can’t stop bringing her energy and organizational skills to bear on community issues. She’s also Public Policy Director of the Healdsburg chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which continues to be active in public education.
“As a history professor, my emphasis was teaching about civilizations and why they rise and fall, and how climate sometimes makes a big difference in terms of both the development and the demise of civilization,” said Benoit.
That academic interest was transformed in 2017 into something far more personal. “After we lost our house in the Tubbs fire, I became much more interested in current science and current information about the climate crisis,” she said.
Benoit now chairs the meetings of Climate Action Healdsburg (climateactionhealdsburg.org), which has made their presence felt throughout the city’s climate strategy efforts. “The City/Rincon and Associates should be providing some direction soon about the criteria that will be used to prioritize the ideas that have been generated from the community,” Benoit said this week.
The group is given heft by the contributions of Anne Arquit Niederberger, a Swiss climate scientist and policymaker who has advised financial institutions, private companies and national governments on climate and clean energy action plans and programs, including the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued the recent dire warning mentioned earlier.
“Rome is burning, and we need to act as much as we can, as fast as we can,” said Anne Niederberger. “Where I come from as a climate person, I want to have the biggest impact possible.” That includes taking action locally to have an impact globally.
At the urging of Climate Action Healdsburg, the city signed with experienced environmental advisors Rincon Consultants in November 2022, for a budgeted $106,000, to research, outline and deliver a Climate Mobilization Strategy to the City Council. That work, now ongoing, includes several public meetings and two surveys enroute to a final CMS for Healdsburg to be delivered in August. (The progress of this effort can be followed online at Healdsburg.gov/cms.)
Rincon possesses statewide experience with climate action and resilience planning, including in its portfolio many cities across the state, as well as regional agencies such as Sonoma County Regional Parks and the County of San Mateo. “A huge chunk of the work they’re doing is technical work,” said Assistant City Manager Andrew Sturmfels, who is overseeing the Climate Mobilization Strategy. Terra Sampson of the Utility Department is the project manager.
“The other piece of the work that we’ve asked them to engage on is the public outreach component,” saud Sturmfels. That’s where the common interests of the City of Healdsburg, Rincon Consultants and Climate Action Healdsburg intersect
Rincon’s latest community workshop was held March 1, an online-only brainstorming meeting, though a group of Spanish speakers shared access from a room at the Healdsburg Community Center. It did not go well. The online meeting utilized an “idea board” technology that was, to most attendees, ill-explained and ineffective.
“The risk with virtual engagement events can be that access to the technology can at times be cumbersome,” said Erik Feldman, Rincon’s principal in charge of the Healdsburg contract. “However, on the flip side, virtual engagement can provide convenient access to a wider swath of a community that might not have the time, resources or inclination to travel for public participation.”
But Climate Action Healdsburg was moved to set up a conference with Rincon and city staff a little over a week later.
All participants agree it was a positive meeting, helping the three groups reach common ground in their common interest. “And basically we talked about how we can improve the citizen engagement process going forward. So it wasn’t really dwelling on the past; it was about what can we do better,” said Anne Niederberger.
“They are an incredibly knowledgeable stakeholder group on this topic, and this project is very important to them,” said Sturmfels.
However, he added, while Climate Action Healdsburg is an important stakeholder, “I don’t want it to be lost that we’re engaging the entire community on this process.” He cited recent meetings with high school students and senior citizens, the Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce.
Said Rincon’s Feldman, “Our goal is to help the city present information and gather feedback from the community to build out a draft CSM that will be presented to City Council and posted for public review and comment, prior to adoption.
Fortuitously, the perfect opportunity for greater public engagement is right around the corner. Rincon Consultants will have booths at the April 22 Climate Fest, as will the City of Healdsburg, to gather more direct information from the event attendees, and to share answers.
While the co-sponsorship of the City of Healdsburg is welcome, the Earth Day event has been almost wholly planned by Climate Action Healdsburg, coordinated by Judy Fujita, with a group of 25 other volunteers who are making it their mission to put climate at the center of Healdsburg’s public conversation.
“The good thing is the city agreed to partner with us,” said Fujita. “I think it’s going to be great.”