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Spotlight on Women and the Environment: Laurel Hunt

A series of discussions with attendees and speakers at our conference this week.
women and the environment conference pacific standard

During Pacific Standard's "Women and the Environment" conference, the magazine's writers are chatting with speakers and attendees about why they're getting involved—and where we go from here. Below, a chat with Laurel Hunt, currently the secretary for the Mediterranean City Climate Change Consortium and soon to be executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability.

What I really liked in your presentation this morning was when you said that we can't work on these environmental issues if people don't feel safe. Can you tell me more about the link between environmental justice and social justice?

The big takeaway there is that human and natural systems are one and the same. For a long time there was this idea, especially in the environmental movement, that we had to restore nature to some state. Humans had ruined nature, or were in the process of ruining it, and we had to restore it back to some pristine state. And that's kind of the field of restoration ecology. We're now starting to realize that humans are nature. To that extent, it follows that our social problems are our environmental problems.

So we're the Center for Urban Resilience. We're interdisciplinary, we have a couple staff members who devote all their time to doing community conferences and teaching, sort of a new communication strategy in schools throughout Southern California. The whole idea is to keep kids out of jail. We need thoughtful, engaged, supportive citizens if we want to have any positive change in the world, and we do that by impacting kids.

What sort of climate action would you like to see in your community?

In Los Angeles, I would really like to see more breaking down of silos—more of different sectors working together. And I'd like to see local, regional, and state government support for that. I'd like to see a more diverse group working on environmental issues, climate change in particular. I mean, one of the reasons that I love L.A. is the incredibly diverse community. I want us to get to 100 percent renewables, I want us to get off fossil fuel. Also, funding—thoughtful, sustainable streams of funding for the right work. Because there's no funding for capacity, or understanding that non-profits are not a charity and they're not volunteer organizations. It's the way people make their livelihoods, and they need to be compensated adequately. Imagine for a second a world where you have the top graduates competing for jobs at the local environmental non-profit and Google, and they can't decide because the salary package is comparable. What kind of world would that be?

Was there a moment or experience that was really formative for you, that brought you down this environmental path?

Yes, there have been a few of them. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to go on a National Science Foundation grant to Peru, to the Cordillera Blanca region of the Andes northeast of Lima. And I had an opportunity there to go talk to indigenous Peruvian people living in pretty remote areas about their relationship to water resources. They live right near the glaciers, the source of the water, and by the time I got there, the glaciers had been diminishing rapidly since the 1970s. That made me realize I wanna work on climate issues. So I came back and I worked in Washington, D.C. I worked on the Hill for a committee that doesn't exist anymore, called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. We were the group that forced the House of Representatives to keep the conversation going on climate change. That was our role. And one day we had a hearing, and we brought in Rex Tillerson, the same Rex Tillerson who is in the Trump administration. And I remember sitting in the front row and watching him testify before Congress—he was the CEO of Exxon Mobil at the time—that climate change is happening and that humans were accelerating it. I remember sitting there, thinking, he knows. And that's when I thought, OK, we need comprehensive federal legislation. We need to be working on climate issues at every elementary school, middle school, high school; all hands on deck, collaborating, every local government.

And then, I guess, the last thing: I was at COP22 in Marrakech in Morocco in November, and I was leading a side event on sub-national engagement in climate change planning. This is the big United Nations conference on climate change, so it's all about national governments and what they do on climate change. And I was there during the presidential election where Donald Trump was elected, and it was incredible, because there was an entire day where the whole U.N., the delegates, everyone in this weird compound in Morocco was walking around in silence, and then the next day, everyone just picked up, and they said, "We're gonna continue, and we're gonna do more than we were doing before," and then they all turned, and they said, "California, you guys are gonna take the lead." I was with the California delegation, and that was an extremely powerful moment, just to realize how much of the world is looking to California.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.