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Want to improve the environment? U.N. leader says become its ‘champion’

Building sustainable cities starts with local communities

Tribal dancers from the Northern Ute, Navajo and Hopi tribes perform during opening day of the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Monday.
Tribal dancers from the Northern Ute, Navajo and Hopi tribes perform during opening day of the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center on Monday.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — To invoke change that embraces action for sustainable communities, counters food insecurity and combats the reality volatile climates bring, first start with positive steps that inspire people, not messages that instill dread, a United Nations leader said Monday.

“(Martin Luther King Jr.) didn’t start by saying he had a nightmare,” said Satya Tripathi, the U.N. assistant secretary general and head of the New York City office of the U.N.’s Environment Programme.

“He started by saying he had a dream,” he said.

“We all have to become champions in any way we can,” Tripathi continued. “We can fix this problem, but we must believe that we can and we must start acting now.”

Tripathi was a speaker in a breakout session of the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference that convened Monday at the Salt Lake Convention Center and ends Wednesday.

In this particular afternoon session, the discussion focused on infrastructure and natural resource use.

Tripathi bemoaned the existence of millions of news stories that focus on a climate change that largely fall like a whisper on intended audiences.

Amanda J. Nesheiwat, environmental director for the town of Secaucus, N. J., figured out how to instill community change in the community of 18,000 that sits six miles outside of Manhattan. One of the panelists, Nesheiwat said she was just 21 when she approached the town’s mayor and offered to volunteer to secure grants for community gardens.

She eventually landed a job as the city’s first environmental director, a position she said has been adopted by every major city in New Jersey.

Since then, the city has worked to reverse a legacy of environmental degradation and pollution in the area of the “Meadowlands,” a natural urban estuary that serves as a critical environmental barrier to savage hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy.

“The Meadowlands acted as a buffer, even though the mayor still had 12 feet of water in his home.”

She called on millennials like herself to get in engaged in the community and carve out an action plan to reduce their communities’ carbon footprint,

In the case of Secaucus, the community is moving toward the electrification of its fleet, including police cars that require as much as $800 a month in gasoline charges to patrol the streets.

The city is also pursuing energy efficiency upgrades to its buildings, an investment she says will prove revenue neutral because the savings in energy costs will pay for themselves in 20 years via a bond.

Like some cities in Utah, Secaucus will vote Tuesday to enact a ban on plastic bags that have been an environmental nightmare for landfill operators.

For Kancheepuram N. Gunalan, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, rampant growth has come full circle for him.

While growing up in India, he escorted his mother to a business transaction in which the last piece of the family’s piece of land was sold.

“It broke her heart.”

Now a resident in southwest Salt Lake County, he’s witnessed the endless hunger to pave over the last remaining open space.

“I’m right now smack dab in the middle of growth,” he said. “We need leadership and vision and make sure policies are not based on political cycles,” he said. “We need to step up and raise our voice and make these things happen, and if you don’t, it is not going to happen.”

Gunalan, senior vice president of AECOM — which designs, builds and finances infrastructure projects in 150 countries, said the company not only believes in doing the right projects, but doing them in the right way.

“We, collectively, stakeholders from all sides, need to step in because we have one climate, (one earth) we call home and we need to make sure we leave it in a better state.”