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Linn County climate czar Tamara Marcus reflects on derecho impact, lays out sustainability plans for 2021 and beyond

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Tamara Marcus, Linn County — Illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Aug. 10 derecho showed why environmental justice and listening to the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change are important, said Linn County Sustainability Program Manager Tamara Marcus.

Last month, the Linn County Board of Supervisors adopted a climate resolution that calls for the prioritization of the voices of vulnerable communities in Linn County’s climate action process it created in 2019, after passing a resolution declaring a climate in crisis in the county and establishing seven targets for climate action. The newest resolution includes lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and derecho. Vulnerable communities defined in the resolution include “residents of color; low-income, disabled, and elderly residents; rural residents, and immigrant and refugee residents.”

“I think it’s a missed opportunity not to look at the impact of derecho because of how this shared natural disaster that everyone in the community experienced impacted people differently,” Marcus told Little Village.

“We all experienced this natural disaster, but we did not experience it equally, and this is why it’s so important, why you need to prioritize those voices, those most climate-vulnerable voices, because it impacts clearly these communities more.”

Marcus said this commitment is important because it emphasizes giving residents a platform to share what climate action they would like to see in their communities and “figuring out what solutions work in their neighborhoods and for them.” Residents will be able to get involved by filling out a survey, participating in focus groups and attending virtual town hall events.

Making sure the people directly impacted by climate change was an important focus for Marcus well before she began working the county.

Linn County hired Marcus last summer as the county’s first sustainability program manager to ensure these goals are met and to lead the county toward a “more sustainable present and future.” The derecho happened about two weeks after Marcus accepted the position, and she started the position about a week after that.

“[The derecho] really did kind of shift my focus for that first month especially because a lot of it was just a new situation in an unknown territory for everyone at the county, that it was kind of an all hands on deck effort to figure out how we respond to the devastation in Linn County.”

Cedar Rapids in the aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Marcus said a lot of what she did in the first few weeks focused on figuring out innovative ways to repurpose the destroyed and fallen trees.

“It’s been really cool to see how we’ve come up with creative ways to use that valuable resource that in most normal times you’re afraid of mining it,” Marcus said, adding that some of the trees were sold to sawmills, given to wood workers or making wood chips to decompose into topsoil.

Marcus said her first task now that derecho recovery has settled down is creating the county’s first greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory will be used to keep track of reduction in emissions to make sure the county stays on pace to meet the seven objects outlined in the 2019 resolution, Marcus said.

• Decrease countywide CO2 emissions by 45 percent from the first recorded year’s levels by 2030 and achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050

• Decrease countywide methane and black carbon emissions by 35 percent from the first recorded year’s levels by 2050

• Increase renewables to account for 100 percent of electricity generation in Linn County by 2050

• Decrease coal-generated electricity in Linn County to 0 percent by 2050

• Decrease industry CO2 emissions in Linn County by 90 percent from the first recorded year’s levels by 2050

• Increase the Linn County transport sector’s share of low-emission final energy to 65 percent by 2050

• Commit to carbon dioxide removal efforts that allow the county to achieve net zero CO2 emissions in 2050

Residents can also expect a survey to be released this month in which they can indicate their priorities for climate action. Marcus added there are plans for focus groups and virtual town hall events to continue getting feedback from residents and giving residents information about the process.

Marcus emphasized how vital it is to create a space where people can ask questions, voice concerns and advocate for themselves because community input is “equally and sometimes even more important than any study you could reference.”

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“People know what they need, especially those who don’t have what they need,” Marcus said. “… I think part of this work is reimagining these traditional processes of government and how we have approached climate adaptation or even other reform work within communities previously.”

Demonstrators at the Oct. 8, 2019 flood groundbreaking in Cedar Rapids draw attention to climate change’s impact on increased flooding. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Prioritizing community input is something Marcus has emphasized in her past research and in her Ph.D. program.

Marcus is a Ph.D. candidate in the Natural Resources and Earth System Sciences program at the University of New Hampshire. In the course of her academic career, Marcus has been named a Switzer fellow, a NASA New Hampshire Space Grant fellow, a National Center for Atmospheric Research fellow and a Fulbright scholar. The Fulbright funding allowed Marcus to conduct climate change research in the Himalaya Mountains in India.

Prior to starting her Ph.D. program, Marcus said her work was focused on the impact of human development on water quality and the Himalayan Lake systems. Marcus said she didn’t really feel connected to the communities she was working in, so when she returned on her Fulbright, one of her biggest goals became building relationships in addition to completing her research.

“I spent a lot more time just living. Not even necessarily getting more samples or anything like that but actually just living and existing there and meeting people and forming relationships and studying the language,” Marcus said. “I got really good at Hindi and got to work with local governments and local nonprofits to translate the results from my data, to basically just explaining what it meant, and then working with them to answer questions about what conservation policies locally made sense for them. And so from that work, when I started my Ph.D., I was really focused on having some kind of social science and engagement piece of that.”

As part of her Ph.D. program, Marcus is focused on the impact of warming on carbon emissions from Arctic lakes. She is doing physical science work but an “equally important piece of that work” is building relationships with the indigenous community in Sweden known as the Sámi.

“The bigger picture is to really to start building that trust that hasn’t really been ever present between these communities so we can be better scientists and have a more holistic understanding of our ecosystem and its changes,” Marcus said.

ASJ co-founder Tamara Marcus and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker speak during the panel discussion organized by ASJ on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Marcus is also active in community affairs in Linn County, and is one of the co-founders of the grassroots group Advocates for Social Justice. ASJ has organized protests against police violence in Cedar Rapids and worked with the city on plans for police reform, as well as organizing derecho relief efforts and other community projects in Cedar Rapids. The group has also worked to register new voters, and make it easier for people to get to the polls, by providing rides and helping with childcare.

“I started a nonprofit without meaning to start a nonprofit. It was never my intent to start a nonprofit, but it just happened, and so a lot of the skills from doing that work I think are useful for my role at the county.”

Since assuming her role as sustainability program manager, Marcus said she’s gotten comments from individuals concerned she only cares about helping Black people.

“Whatever you feel about the Black liberation movement and my role within it, I’m still a county employee, and I’m still meant to work for the entire county,” Marcus said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t tell me what they want to see in the community. I work for the residents of Linn County, and I need to hear what people want and what they need so I can build that into our climate plan.”

“My job, honestly, I view is to unite vulnerable communities, and that is more than just Black people. That is also rural Linn County, and most people probably don’t know this, but my grandparents were farmers. We own a family farm. One of my favorite places in the world is my grandparents’ farm, so their fight is my fight too. … I hope that becomes evident over time, and I have committed myself to being a voice for people who feel that they are not being heard.”


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