Stepping It Up to Save the Earth

In the evening of April 14, even as a jazz trio started playing for the first guests to arrive, the seven of us original organizers of the National Day of Climate Action were hunched over laptops—pretty much where we'd been for the last three months.

Except that this time, instead of typing press releases and permit applications, we were simply watching—with giddy and slightly unbelieving joy—as pictures started flowing in from around the country. These were photos of one of the biggest grassroots environmental protests in many years, the first big nationwide rallies designed to make Congress actually do something about global warming. In a few minutes we'd be showing them to our guests, important players in the Washington political scene. But for the moment we were simply soaking in the beautiful sights of a country waking up to its greatest challenge.

In Jacksonville, Florida, hunters and anglers hoisted a boat 20 feet in the air to show where the sea level would be if Greenland someday slid into the ocean. From lower Manhattan came pictures of people in blue shirts crowding into the Battery, a "sea of people" designed to show where the tide line may someday fall. From the Sierra and Rockies came shots of skiers descending on the dwindling glaciers. There were even pictures from the coral reefs off the Florida Keys where divers organized one of America's first underwater demonstrations. The pictures came from tiny towns and big cities—all 50 states and almost all congressional districts, 1,400 demonstrations in all, organized by environmentalists but also evangelical congregations, student activists, and sorority chapters.

When we'd begun organizing 12 weeks before, in mid-January, we had no right to expect such success. Our team consisted of me—a writer—and six kids who'd graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont a few months before. We had no money and we had no mailing list, and our demand—that Congress commit to cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—was considered by many as too ambitious (though, unfortunately, the science of climate change makes clear that it's the bare minimum we should be shooting for).

But we did have a plan—and not for a march on Washington, which seemed both too ironic (people crossing America spewing carbon behind them to protest global warming) and too conventional, a tactic from an earlier day. Instead, we wanted people to make their stands in the places that mattered to them, the iconic spots in their towns and counties. We figured that would add emotional power—and we figured their congressional representatives would see them more clearly if they were arrayed against the backdrops of their own districts. We also figured that the Internet made possible a new kind of organizing that could be both local and national at the same time.

So we picked a date—April 14, a week before Earth Day—and we started sending out e-mails. And friends began responding, friends in all the right places. Many of the big environmental organizations joined up right away; though it's become fashionable to dismiss the green groups as insular and increasingly impotent, we found them just the opposite—innovative and open to collaboration. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the National Wildlife Federation, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and many others jumped on board, struck by the idea of a short, intense burst of ad hoc organizing. They were joined by countless local and regional environmental groups. But there were all kinds of others.


CONSIDER THE RELIGIOUS community, for instance. The very first person we asked to write an entry for our blog was one of my heroes, Cal DeWitt, an early organizer of the Evangelical Environmental Network. He not only wrote a passionate call to action, he personally sent it on to 60 evangelical colleges and seminaries. Sojourners sent out an alert along its electronic ganglia; The Christian Century let me write a cover story. Interfaith Power and Light, famed for its work on converting congregations to green energy, linked us to all manner of churches, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life quickly jumped aboard too. The Unitarians, who have made environmental goals a top priority in recent years, were valuable partners; so were groups like Religious Witness for the Earth. The day has passed when Americans of faith view environmentalism as either a luxury to be addressed once we've conquered war or poverty, or a sign of incipient paganism; people who disagree about how creation happened have agreed to make sure it's not destroyed.

Or take the student movement as another example. There's been a strong organizing drive around climate change in recent years—Middlebury is one of its hubs, but by now there are hundreds of campuses involved in Energy Action's "Campus Climate Challenge." It wasn't just the granola-heads, though. Early in our organizing drive, a photo arrived from the Alpha Phi sorority chapter at the University of Texas at Austin. There were a hundred smiling young women holding our sign saying, "Hey Congress! Step It Up! Cut Carbon 80% by 2050!" And it came with a note: "We wanted to show it wasn't just the hippies who cared." The day that arrived I started to have the feeling we'd be successful.

Much of that success was due to timing. The new Congress gave people reason to think there was some point to protesting—that the absolute roadblock represented by troglodyte committee chairs ("global warming is a hoax," the senator who used to run the relevant committee had exclaimed) had begun to be dismantled. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest, most dismal report just as we were gearing up, and the Supreme Court chided the Bush administration for punting on climate policy as we came into our homestretch. And of course the freakish weather of the winter didn't hurt, offering a constant reminder that the time had come to really act.

More and more, too, people were beginning to understand what kind of action was really required—many of our organizers told us that they'd done the things they could around their house and even their community, but in the process began to realize that real change, the kind you could measure in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, would mean political organizing. "Screw in the new light bulb, but then screw in some new laws" became our unofficial slogan.


BY THE WAYS in which organizers measure such things, we were successful. Forty members of Congress came to our various gatherings (some, like Vermont's indefatigable Sen. Bernie Sanders, came to four or five). The media gave it enormous coverage. Even more important than The New York Times or the network nightly newscasts may have been the mountain of press in local papers and on local radio and TV stations across the country, the kind of coverage that politicians pay real attention to.

By the ways in which scientists measure such things, we hadn't accomplished much at all. That is to say, the CO2 monitor on the side of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii continued its inexorable creep upward. America continued to spew more carbon into the atmosphere, and in the vacuum created by our abrogation of the Kyoto treaty there was little international progress on controlling emissions. If we'd managed to help jump-start a citizens' movement, it clearly hadn't gained enough steam to win results. And it won't—not until it's as passionate and as morally committed as the civil rights movement was a generation ago.

That's possible. It's possible because Americans are far more educated about this issue than they were even a year or two ago. Hurricane Katrina blew open the door and Al Gore came through it with his superb movie, making many people understand that the stakes were higher and the window for action narrower than they had supposed. That sense is likely to grow in the months ahead, partly because of big productions such as the July 7 "Live Earth" concerts—and partly (sadly) because we'll keep seeing the kinds of destruction that come from a world increasingly out of climatic kilter. Even in the last few weeks, new data has shown that ice melt across the Antarctic is proceeding even faster than the breakneck pace scientists had predicted a year ago. The victims are piling up, from the people of the Ninth Ward to the polar bears of the far North, and as they do the anger mounts as well.

But it's also possible to imagine a movement building because the opportunities for change are so much larger than they've been in the past. New technologies are making clear that we have the alternatives that we need—that energy conservation could save vast quantities of power, that sun and wind need only political will to be put to widespread use. In early May, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the gold standard for climate research—released the biggest report yet on the feasibility and affordability of coping with global warming. They found that the latest data suggests it will be much cheaper than earlier expected to make the transition—less than one-tenth of one percent of global GDP a year through 2030.

How might we spend that money? Well, Japan and Germany started 10 years ago to subsidize solar panels for people's rooftops. Within a few years, as production soared, the costs for the panels had fallen so steeply that the governments removed the subsidies and people kept on installing them anyway. Now Japan and Germany lead the world in solar power—even though neither is anywhere near as sunny as the U.S. (they also own the solar panel manufacturing business, not surprisingly).

It's not that the transition will be easy—coal and gas and oil are the mother's milk of our economy, and if we wean ourselves from them that economy will doubtless look very different (my guess, outlined in my most recent book Deep Economy, is that it will look more local). Still, a growing number of corporate leaders are beginning to understand that denial isn't doing them any favors—groups like CERES are seeing real progress in their efforts to organize shareholders and corporate boards for action on climate.

The only question now is how tough that action will be—it's clear to almost everyone that some kind of deal will be reached as soon as George Bush leaves, if not before. But most Republicans on Capitol Hill and too many Democrats want something symbolic and easy, minor cuts phased in over too many years, a little tinkering with automobile mileage standards. If we'd started working on measures like these 20 years ago when scientists first figured out there was a problem, they would have made sense. Now, they'd represent a way to take the political pressure off without beginning to meet the scientific challenge; a bad deal may be worse than no deal at all.

So those who care are working hard to build that new movement that can press for change commensurate with the problem. A coalition of activists from around the country has put together a new call to action; students are planning to flood into New Hampshire and Iowa over the summer to press the presidential candidates. "80% by 2050" has become the rallying cry—and it's already producing some results. John Edwards was the first of the major presidential candidates to release his energy and environment policy—and he made those numbers the cornerstone of his platform. In early May both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton jumped aboard the same bandwagon, endorsing legislation in the Senate sponsored by Bernie Sanders that enshrines the 80 percent cut as a federal target.

Whatever we do won't be enough to "stop global warming." The planet's already getting hotter—now we're just trying to keep things from getting catastrophic. The window even for that task narrows constantly; NASA's Jim Hansen, our foremost climate scientist, has given the world less than a decade to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or else cross the line into impossible climate chaos, what he calls a "totally different planet."

That kind of deadline means that we need a movement full of fire and passion. But also, if our experience with Stepitup is any indication, full of music and art and creativity and faith and prayer and good humor, not to mention bicycles, skis, and scuba gear. A movement capable of transforming economies, as much by changing hearts as by changing technologies. I don't know if it's possible, but considering the alternatives I know it's worth every bit of try we have in us.

Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and The End of Nature, is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

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