ARTICLE 4 minutes

Skip Backus speaking at the OCSL

April 18, 2023

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Embracing the Urgency of Our Times: An Update on Omega’s Climate Initiative

Omega Center for Sustainable Living founder Robert “Skip” Backus reflects on the impact of the Omega Climate Initiative, and how this multi-year plan is facing the urgency of climate change with clarity, hope, and engagement.

Featuring Robert "Skip" Backus

Omega: Omega’s Climate Initiative was launched in 2018. Can you tell us what you’ve seen Omega accomplish since that initial phase?

Robert “Skip” Backus: The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) has done a lot of relationship building through a variety of programs since its own launch in 2009. In 2018 and 2019, we hosted our Drawdown Learn environmental conferences, which helped to catalyze the Omega Climate Initiative. There was something very special about the container we created that promoted networking, connections, and commitments to work toward solutions together. There was a magic that happened at Omega.

Some of the contacts we made were working within the United Nations Climate process, and we began attending meetings and sessions at the UN in New York City, and then at the UN Climate headquarters in Bonn, Germany, doing administrative support for a collaborative civil society network and further relationship building internationally to carry things forward.

In addition to the international work, we are part of the US Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) Coalition, a group that seeks to empower all members of society to engage in climate action, through education, training, public awareness, and participation. Along with other members of the coalition and colleagues we met through organizing the Drawdown Learn conferences, the OCSL became an active partner in support of an important Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) climate justice initiative: The OCSL sponsored BIPOC Climate Justice Dialogue events in 2021 and 2022, which helped maximize collaboration between government and Black, Indigenous, LatinX, Asian, Pacific and other people of color.

We've been able to take the sustainability work we've been doing on campus and, with our global partners, reach out farther, allowing our impact to be multiplied many times over.

We've been able to take the sustainability work we've been doing on campus and, with our global partners, reach out farther, allowing our impact to be multiplied many times over.
Robert "Skip" Backus ,

OCSL Founder

Omega: The stakes are high in the climate crisis. You mention that increased engagement by civil society is the only way forward. Why is that?

Robert “Skip” Backus: In 2019, when former OCSL director Laura Weiland attended the COP25 Conference in Madrid—the annual United Nations conference on climate change—it was clear just how far off the mark our governments are. They’re not even in the ballpark.

Though policy has an important role to play, I don’t see the push for real solutions coming from politicians or governments. Policy change has been driven by people who are on the ground doing the work in their own communities, and connected to the work happening around the world.

There’s a reason why the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and many other young people are saying what they’re saying. The island nations, the Indigenous partners, and those people who are really up against climate change and feeling the effects already are raising their voices as loud as they can—because it’s really hard to watch governments fail to act over and over again.

If you look at young people and how much they’ve accomplished since Thunberg first sat outside the Swedish Parliament House, that changed the whole dialogue and it has pushed some things. The youth get it, and that’s the real game-changer.

Youth activists gather at the School Strike for Climate in New York City on March 15, 2019. Around the world, 1.5 million students took to the streets in more than 2,000 places in 125 countries.

Omega: Can you explain a little bit more about the US Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) Coalition and national strategies for climate action?

Robert “Skip” Backus: The ACE Coalition was born out of ideas that were discussed during informal meetings at Omega’s 2019 Drawdown Learn Conference. The following summer, a group of us organized a collaborative process with hundreds of organizations to design a framework for the development of a national strategy for encouraging, informing, and empowering the public to tackle the climate crisis. After that, a number of organizations continued to meet and formed the US ACE Coalition. 

Where we have seen more promise is through the developing UN ACE team and collaborative civil society networks that have  grown tremendously over the past three or four years. If this vehicle could be used in a deeper way, we think it could allow for greater public participation.

Omega: You said we need to coordinate local-level programs in connection with those beyond where we live, globally. Can you speak to how the OCSL is doing that?

Robert “Skip” Backus: After the 2019 Drawdown Learn Conference, Laura Weiland participated in meetings with the town of Rhinebeck and Dutchess County schools, where Omega’s campus is based. Parents and students shared many great ideas and stories about their efforts, though once the pandemic hit, it was more challenging to connect over Zoom.

In the 2020-21 school year, the OCSL became a founding partner of a new Center for Sustainability and Climate Education at the Dutchess County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a center that serves 13 school districts representing nearly 39,000 students. The BOCES center has been working to engage and empower all K-12 educators, students, and communities through experiential learning. Working directly with former OCSL assistant director Lauren Mathis and other partners, BOCES developed a sustainability tool that allows schools to determine how to integrate sustainability and climate education into teaching, the school community, and buildings and grounds. 

What we found, especially for the kids, is that it can feel like a drop in the bucket if you’re just doing the work locally. But if you can also feel yourself as part of a wider drumbeat toward something that’s moving in the world—that’s where I think the momentum can be more useful. That’s where education comes in, as well as creating more national and global connections.

Omega:  What seeds were planted at Omega’s Drawdown Learn conferences that you see growing today?

Robert “Skip” Backus: In August 2021, Omega received accreditation from the United Nations to participate in the UN’s annual two-week climate change conferences, or COPs, as well as other proceedings throughout the year. We have sought to use our accreditation to support and uplift those voices that need to be heard—voices from the small island nations, Indigenous partners, and historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). It is critical that they have increased access to observe and give input to the negotiations.

Laura Weiland, the OCSL's director from 2014-2020, speaks with former Secretary of State John Kerry at COP25 in Madrid, Spain in December, 2019.

One way to uplift the voices of frontline communities was sending Omega delegates such as Felicia M. Davis and her colleagues to the climate conferences. Felicia, an advocate for climate justice for more than 20 years, cofounded the HBCU Green Fund to help finance green projects at historically Black colleges, and has since cultivated an extensive network of faculty, professionals, and student climate and environmental justice advocates.

Felicia’s persuasive online Pre-COP27 Virtual Summit, prior to the 2022 conference in Egypt, is part of her work connecting HBCUs with projects in Africa. During a recent spring break, a group of HBCU Green Fund fellows traveled to Senegal, where they planted trees and helped dig wells.

In addition to our appreciation and support of Felicia’s work, this year Omega’s access to the UN process will allow partners in Africa and several Indigenous leaders from around the world to attend an upcoming climate conference at the UN Climate headquarters in Bonn, Germany in June, as they continue their work leading up to COP28 in United Arab Emirates. 

Felicia Davis leads an HBCU panel at the 2019 Drawdown Learn Conference.

Omega: How do you feel about the OCSL’s future? 

Robert “Skip” Backus: I think the OCSL has a bright future. We really need to look at the core philosophy behind the integration of the personal self and the greater energetic whole, and how we demonstrate and speak to that. I did an OCSL tour with some high school seniors recently and it was interesting because the tour was less about the all green building awards the OCSL has won, or the Eco Machine™, or all the things that make the OCSL unique, and more about finding the creative moment that makes change happen—that point of realizing that it’s always going to be a process. It’s always going to be an evolution. It’s always going to be the next thing learned. And that bringing your energy to that progressive way of looking at the problem, as opposed to being overwhelmed, is the best way forward.