Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman joined fellow mayors, city and county officials and environmental advocates from across northern Indiana Thursday for the launch of the fourth annual Indiana Climate Leadership Summit at Goshen College.
A product of Earth Charter Indiana, an environmental advocacy nonprofit whose focus is on intergenerational action and education in the face of the growing climate crisis, Thursday’s summit featured a full day of discussions, presentations and brainstorming sessions built around the primary topic of resiliency in the face of climate impacts.
As mayor of the host city for this year’s summit and a self-described environmental advocate, Stutsman spoke at length Thursday about both the impacts climate change has had on Goshen and surrounding communities in recent years, as well as the importance of being proactive in the face of climate change moving forward.
“Why are we here? To give you a little picture of why the Climate Leadership Summit is in northern Indiana and in particular, Goshen. The reason? We have experienced the effects first hand of climate change,” Stutsman said in beginning his welcome speech Thursday morning. “In 2008, 82 of Indiana’s 92 counties were declared presidential disaster areas due to winter weather, severe storms and flooding, and incurred over $1.9 billion in damage to public infrastructure, housing and agriculture.”
Stutsman also pointed to the record flooding that hit Goshen in February of 2018, causing damage to more than 250 city structures and resulting in a declaration of a state of emergency.
“And in February 2019, the city of Goshen experienced the coldest record days with wind chills reaching -58 degrees, creating potentially deadly conditions for our homeless residents, causing water pipes to burst, and forcing several businesses, nonprofits, schools and the city government to close,” Stutsman added of the local effects of climate change. “Extreme weather and temperature changes, associated with climate change, cause accelerated damage to Goshen’s infrastructure of roads and paths, and to our water utilities.”
Moving beyond the city of Goshen, Stutsman noted that the impacts of climate change have also been felt in many surrounding communities in recent years, places such as Nappanee, Angola, Logansport and Plymouth, many of which also had representatives present at Thursday’s summit.
“Local communities ... will play a vital role in making the first and sometimes biggest steps when it comes to bettering our physical environment. Our role has become even more important as our federal government keeps moving away from important initiatives and protections that are set to better our world and protect our future,” Stutsman said in concluding his welcome speech. “This will take all of us doing our part. We need local governments, businesses, schools, nonprofits, churches and residents all doing what they can to help reduce our effect on the environment. What my family and I do will make very little difference, but when we do it alongside of all of you, we can change the way our world breathes and lives.”
A STATE THAT LEADS
During the summit’s lunch break, Stutsman was again provided an opportunity to step to the podium, this time to discuss the importance of being a city — and state — that leads in the pursuit of environmental resiliency, rather than follows.
“I was told a joke a few years ago. It is both funny and sad: What do you do if the end of the world comes? Move to Indiana. Everything happens 50 years later there,” Stutsman said to laughs and head-nodding from the crowd. “We are now at a point that we can’t wait 50 years. We must work at becoming a more environmentally resilient state and country. We need to become a state that leads and doesn’t follow. Unfortunately, terms like global warming, climate change and the new green deal have been made into political footballs. These terms can not only strike lively debate, but some people actually grow angry when they are brought up.”
For his part, Stutsman, who holds a biology degree from Butler University, said he fully believes that climate change is happening, and that humans are contributing to and accelerating the process.
“We as leaders for change need to find ways to bring others along with us, but due to the political nature of this discussion, people are allowing their beliefs to override the wealth of information and facts sitting right in front of us,” Stutsman said of the pushback sometimes encountered when it comes to the topic of climate change. “We don’t need to change beliefs. We need to change the discussion to one of value. For far too long, economics have directed our discussion and lack of action when it comes to our environment. We need to change this direction by showing the economic value of moving forward with green projects.”
Rather than trying to convince people who do not want to accept climate change as a reality, Stutsman said a better option moving forward would be to starting giving them reasons for why green projects and changes in procedures and industries can also be good for their bottom line.
“We must be able to step back, look at the big picture, and find the argument that works,” Stutsman said. “There are facts we know. Higher fuel efficiencies of anything we use saves us money in the long run. Keeping our waterways clean saves us money at our treatment plants. Switching to LED bulbs saves energy costs that drag down our budgets. Recycling can lengthen the lifespan of our landfills, which are very expensive to maintain and even more expensive to create. Reducing our pollutants and emissions can help the air we breath be more pure, which in turn allows us to be healthier and saves us money with healthcare.
“To be clear, I am not saying the climate change discussion isn’t important. I am arguing that we don’t need to convince those who don’t trust this information that climate change is real,” Stutsman added of his suggestion. “We need to work harder to find the reason or argument that does bring them on board for becoming more environmentally friendly. Every level of government, residents, businesses and advocates must do all we can to work to better our environment. We must find the argument that reaches non-supporters. Our health, our physical environment and the future of our economy depends on us making the right decisions today.”
At the conclusion of his lunchtime speech, Stutsman joined fellow mayors from Nappanee, Angola and Logansport in a brief Mayor’s Roundtable, during which each mayor was asked to answer the following question: If you could highlight one key factor that would help you as a mayor promote and advance environmental resiliency efforts in your community, what would it be?
For Angola Mayor Richard Hickman, the answer was simple: more money.
“You know, to be quite honest, it all comes down to money. It just takes a lot of money to do these things,” Hickman said of the question. “So we’re trying to figure out how to move tax money around. We all have sewer and water pipes underground going to our communities that are over 100 years old, for example. That has to be addressed, and that is not going to be cheap. So on top of trying to do stuff with the environment here, and doing the right thing, we have all those other expenses that we need to take care of. And again, it all takes money to do that. So for me, after 18 years of this, just about everything boils down to money, one way or another.”
For Nappanee Mayor Phil Jenkins, his biggest ask when it comes to advancing environmental resiliency comes in the form of dedicated, passionate community members willing to take up the call.
“I think for me, I would really like to have a community champion, someone who has passion,” Jenkins said. “If you have someone in your community that is passionate about something, they can come and they can help organize those communities, gather the people together, etc. As mayor, I see myself as a facilitator. If I can get into contact with the right people and have them do stuff ... the last thing we need to do is get government involved. So for me, it’s about having the people with a passion that are willing to take on those tasks.”
Asked his thoughts on the question, Logansport Mayor Dave Kitchell pointed to politics as one of the bigger barriers he sees to advancing environmental resiliency efforts, both locally and at all levels of government.
“We need to take the politics out of this,” Kitchell said. “Indiana has been a state that has political-free school boards mostly for the last 50 years. We don’t have the kind of political arguments with schools in this state that they have in other places. So we need to take the politics out of this debate. There’s no place for that in this. It’s for the good of all of us.”
As for Stutsman, he, like Hickman, pointed to money — and greater flexibility to access it — as one of the most important tools when it comes to advancing environmental resiliency efforts.
“The state of Indiana loves to talk about how we’re a home-rule state, which means that local governments get to govern themselves. The city of Goshen has 15 to 20 different funds, but every single one of those funds has stipulations on how we can spend it,” Stutsman said of the money issue. “So we may have a fund that is actually gaining money from year to year to year, and we don’t have a need to spend in that area, but we have a need on the environmental side, or on the paving side, etc. So I think the thing that would help us the most is obviously always having more funds, but also if the state would turn that money over to the cities and allow us to decide what is best for our community.”