There was a long time before this evenings unofficial dinner, and this night’s big plenary. So I managed to catch up with some friends and spend the day strolling (and drinking) on Venice beach. We gave ourselves 2 hours to get back to Claremont, and L.A. traffic still managed to preclude reaching the 5:00 dinner on time. But we were only 10 minutes late, and I was able to call ahead to offer apologies.

The first plenary was rather different than what I had been expecting.

Bill McKibben did get up to talk — eventually. As expected, several other people got up to talk first, so that a string of folks could introduce another string of folks. The first surprise was that the strings were much longer than I had expected. Even more surprising was that many of them were downright charming.

One of the lead-in speakers was John Cobb. Dr. Cobb is the primary organizing and driving force behind this conference. You would never guess just to see or speak to him that he is a Force Majeure. A true Southern Gentleman (to say nothing of a truly gentle man), John is a native Georgian (U.S.) and a personal friend of President Jimmy Carter. Cobb has retained his soft accent and slow pattern of speech, which is well for the rest of us, as it gives one time to listen and consider what he is saying. He got to remind us that what we were doing was important.

We were reminded that one of the distinguishing features of Claremont were its trees and its Ph.D.’s. Per the first, just a few minutes before, while walking to the auditorium, a colleague and I were staggered by what was hands down the largest Juniper that we’d not only ever seen, but which we’d ever imagined possible. Reaching up well over 100′, it was book-marked on the opposite side of the street by a pine of equally imposing stretch. The “Ph.D.’s” referred, of course, to the consortium of the Claremont colleges that sit in the spiritual center of the town.

This was used to introduce the Mayor of Claremont, Cory Calaycay. Mayor Calaycay is clearly a polished politician, but (and here is one of the more charming moments) he quite lost his focus — perhaps even his nerve — looking out at the audience in the Bridges Auditorium. With a capacity of 2500, the auditorium was easily 85% full, and Mayor Calaycay freely confessed that he’d never spoke to such a large crowd before in his life. At several points he struggled for words, in what was clearly a well rehearsed talk he’d given many time before, about the efforts of Claremont to Green the city, preserve the land, and develop environmentally friendly and effective policies. If anything, it made his talk more real, because it was REAL and personal, and no longer just canned. The evening would have been quite worth it just to listen to Calaycay.

A councilperson from Los Angeles also spoke, and to my great shame, I do not remember the gentleman’s name. (In my defense, I am tired.) But he is one of the leading forces on that council that is steering Los Angeles toward a major greening of its own infrastructure.

Finally McKibben spoke. He did not talk from written material, but from his knowledge of the facts and the issues. He is a speaker worth going out of your way to hear. My favorite part was when he looked out at the audience and said, “I can see that this is a “white head” conference in more than one sense.” (He also commented that the place was rather heavy with the smell of tenure.) The point he made here was that it was not enough to allow the younger generation to carry the burden of advancing the cause of avoiding catastrophic climate change. When a 22 year old kid gets arrested, it can have a very long-term effect on that individual’s life. When a 62 year old adult gets arrested, well, seriously: what the f@ck are you going to do to me?

Tomorrow is an early day, as the hammer and tongs business of the conference begins in earnest. Section plenaries, plus other public plenaries (both early and late), and the first round of sessions for each of the tracks.