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Sierra Club president points to urgency of mission - the survival of humanity

Looking out over a landscape dotted with windmills and brownfields, a huge solar panel factory just a stone's throw away, Aaron Mair sees the opportunities and, yes, pitfalls that await Buffalo.

It was Saturday afternoon and Mair, national president of the Sierra Club, was sitting at a picnic table on the Outer Harbor, wondering if the community here would respond to a threat he considers as serious as Adolph Hitler's Germany.

"I'm like an emergency room triage doctor," he said, "and the patient we're trying to save is humanity."

Spend a few minutes with Mair and you quickly learn of his almost singular mission - climate change - and how he intends to use the influence of his 2.4 million-member organization to fight what he calls the "infectious disease" of denial.

It's a message he delivers to every city he visits and, with it, comes the suggestion that poor communities, many of them African-American, are often disproportionately affected by climate change polluters.

He is also Sierra Club's first African-American president and it's no secret one of his goals is to make the organization more diverse, more welcoming to all people, and with a greater focus on environmental justice.

In short, this is not your parent's Sierra Club.

Not surprisingly, it was in Arbor Hill, a poor neighborhood in Albany, where Mair's environmental activism took root. His decade-long battle against a polluting, inner-city incinerator led to its shut down and a $1.6 million settlement for the community.

Two decades later, Mair is on a much bigger stage and, to hear him talk, the stakes are also higher. And for that reason, he's not shy about describing the dangers of climate change or the risks of doing nothing.

The comparisons to Hitler are no mistake.

"We have been in a global crisis before," he said Saturday. "We've been in a spot where we've had an existensial threat."

Growing up as a boy in Peekskill, along the Hudson River, Mair learned how to hunt and fish. He also learned the value of land stewardship - his mother's family were farmers - and what that can mean to clean air and water.

In his eyes, there has never been a greater threat to the environment he grew up cherishing than climate change.

He sees a nation that wants to expand its carbon footprint, not reduce it, and a political leadership without the will to change course and move instead to a clean energy economy.

"Ted Cruz thinks we should apologize," Mair said. "No, people pushing for a pause should apologize."

Late last year, Mair found himself going head to head with the Texas senator when, during a hearing into climate change, he said, "Our planet is cooking and heating up."

Cruz objected and pointed to data indicating there had been a "pause" in the planet's warming and that global temperatures had not increased in recent years. He also asked the Sierra Club for a retraction.

Mair refused and later noted that, despite a leveling out of temperatures, the planet is hotter now than ever. And the solution, he added, is not to find more coal or oil but to depend instead on solar and wind energy.

"It shouldn't be drill baby drill," he said. "It should be blow baby blow."

During his tour of Buffalo Saturday, Mair found what he called signs of hope. On the city's West Side, he discovered the work done by PUSH Buffalo, a neighborhood group dedicated to building an affordable and sustainable community.

"The proof is right there in the inner city and with the poor," he said.

He also remembers the region's rich history of environmental activism, including the Niagara Falls homeowners who stood up and fought for a clean up of Love Canal and helped spur creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those are the moments in history that give him optimism.

"People say the enemy is climate change," said Mair. "But the enemy is really our dependence on carbon."












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