Reflections on the 2023 Georgia Climate Conference

By: John A. Lanier

The most recent edition of the Georgia Climate Conference was a resounding success. All of us at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation are grateful for the work that went into convening it. We came away inspired and reminded of how important it is to gather as a climate community.

Well dang, if it wasn’t great to be with my people again! Last week, I had the great joy of attending the Georgia Climate Conference, hosted by the Georgia Climate Project at the University of Georgia. It was an excellent few days, filled with learning, fellowship, and a reminder that Georgia’s climate community is remarkable. Now that I’ve had a few days to rest and reflect, I want to share a more philosophical post about what has stayed with me. 

It Takes a Village

First and foremost is gratitude for all of the people who made the conference happen. There were so many students who volunteered their time, presenters whose sessions offered rich content, and staff at the conference center who took excellent care of us. It took a village to pull off, but there were two leaders of the village whom I want to lift up.

Dr. Tish Yager is the Director of the Georgia Climate Project, but she is also a Professor of Marine Science at the University of Georgia. In other words, she has two really big jobs! And in the last academic year, I know that planning for this conference has consumed an inordinate amount of her time. Tish, thank you so much for the long days (and sometimes nights) that you poured into this conference. You should be really proud of it, and I hope you enjoy getting back to your Antarctica research this summer!

Right by Tish’s side was McKenzie Beverage. In February, McKenzie took the role of Project Manager for the Georgia Climate Project. Often with new jobs, folks get a few weeks to ease into the role, but it has been the exact opposite of that for McKenzie. She jumped right in the river and shouldered the load of pulling this conference off. McKenzie, I was glad to meet you in person, and thank you for saying yes to this important work!

Climate Change is No Longer a Niche Issue

My second takeaway was just how interconnected so many issues are with climate work in Georgia. I’ve always had a general sense of that, but it was incredible to see them all condensed into one conference. There were sessions on critical climate challenges like sea-level rise and climate vulnerability assessments. So too were there sessions on climate solutions, ranging from mass timber buildings to effective planning for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

There were also sessions on intersectional climate issues. One looked at how human health is impacted by our changing climate. Another looked at how communities of faith in our state are answering the call to be stewards of the earth. Still another focused on best practices in journalism when covering climate solutions. Importantly, multiple sessions focused on how equity intersects with climate change, including a powerful closing keynote by Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity. 

All of that tells me we have reached an important milestone for climate work in our state. It is no longer siloed within the environmental movement. More and more, people in our state see how climate work is one of the most urgent social issues of our time. That’s good news, because it will take all of us to solve the climate crisis.

Why We Need to Focus on “The Why

”I’ll close with one final observation. Much of the conference was focused on what we need to work on in the climate space, where we need to do it, who is leading the way, and how we can all be most impactful. That is as you would expect, and every conference attendee learned a lot from each session as a result. For me though, one moment stood out, and it was focused on the why of climate work.

I briefly reconnected with a young woman at the conference (whose name I will keep anonymous, because I didn’t ask her if I could tell this story). I had met her years ago at a dinner we both attended when she was a college student, and I asked a question of the table that evening that has apparently stuck with her. I asked, “Why do each of you care about the environment? What’s your story?”

As she reminded me at the conference, her answer involved her grandfather. As longtime readers of this blog know, my reason for caring has a little something to do with my grandfather as well! She went on to tell me that our dinner together, and that question in particular, was a part of why she decided to pursue a higher degree in the environmental space and to start a career in climate. Until she sought me out at the climate conference, I had no idea that our time together years ago had been so important.

I assure you that I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. I give all credit to this young woman for charting her own path, and I’m glad that I can now consider her a colleague in this space. Instead, I share the story to emphasize how important the relational aspect of our work is. We need to spend time together, and to talk about why we stay engaged in the work of solving the climate crisis. More than anything, that is what I took away from three wonderful, hope-inspiring days. And it already has me looking forward to the 2025 Georgia Climate Conference, which will be here before we know it!