Public awareness of the climate crisis has grown enormously in the United States over the past two years, but the government's response lags far behind. Now, however, Washington's sluggish pace is calling forth a surge of activism aimed at persuading the next President and Congress to be far bolder - to advocate and deliver solutions as big as the problem.
"The general attitude in the country now and certainly in Congress is, 'Let's take some steps, make some progress and applaud ourselves.' That is not sufficient." So says Betsy Taylor, chair of 1 Sky, a new initiative that hopes to unite the broad array of groups focusing on climate change into a coherent national movement. "What has happened to the climate in the last twelve months has changed the game," Taylor argues, citing recent studies projecting that the Arctic will be free of summer ice by 2030. "That means we are thirty years ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst- case scenario for Arctic melting. But on Capitol Hill, none of the proposals getting serious attention propose anything close to what science says we need - deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 80 percent cuts by 2050. Our side really needs to up the ante."
Among 1 Sky's backers is Bill McKibben, who in 1989 published the first important book on global warming, The End of Nature. In January McKibben founded Step It Up, following a march across Vermont he organized with some of his students at Middlebury College. "Our slogan was, Screw in the new light bulb but then screw in the new federal policy," he recalls. At the march's closing rally, in front of 1,000 cheering demonstrators, all four candidates for national office from Vermont signed a pledge to support 80 percent cuts by 2050.
Step It Up was founded to replicate that success on a national scale, and in April the group catalyzed 1,400 demonstrations in all fifty states. "A lot of students participated, but most of the actions were done by people with full-time jobs who told us, 'I want to do something besides writing a check,'" says May Boeve, a 2007 Middlebury graduate and the national co-coordinator of Step It Up. "Contrary to popular belief, asking people to do more actually resulted in a bigger response."
Step It Up plans another set of demonstrations November 3, exactly a year before the 2008 election. This time, the goal is to get elected representatives to respond to 1 Sky's three demands: (1) cut emissions 30 percent by 2020 (and 80 percent by 2050); (2) ban new coal-fired power plants (as part of a larger shift of federal subsidies from fossil fuels to clean energy); and (3) create 5 million "green-collar" jobs.
The same weekend, the Energy Action Coalition is promising to bring thousands of student activists to Washington. With member groups on 200 campuses, the coalition is the national hub of student organizing on climate change. After a weekend conference at the University of Maryland, the coalition hopes to unleash 5,000 students on Capitol Hill the following Monday to lobby for the 1 Sky demands.
1 Sky, which debuted at the Clinton Global Initiative in September, is not so much a new group as a point of convergence for the larger movement, says Taylor. The impetus came from state and local environmental groups and religious leaders frustrated by what was (not) happening in Washington. 1 Sky is reaching out not only to environmental groups but to labor, community development, Latino, African-American and green business organizations, and is having "positive conversations" with Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection. "1 Sky will have a lean campaign staff and primarily invest resources in existing groups," says Taylor. "And we will move into the electoral arena in a big way," with field operations in twelve key states and earned and paid media, i.e., news stories and ads.
The 5 million green-collar jobs 1 Sky is demanding are crucial to appealing beyond the traditional environmental constituency, says Van Jones, a veteran African-American activist and 1 Sky supporter whose new group, Green for All, "aims to spread the benefits of the green energy revolution to all parts of society. Now the implicit assumption is that green means white. When Vanity Fair does its green issues, you don't see many people who look like me in there. Green for All is demanding a $1 billion commitment from the government to lift 250,000 people out of poverty and into the new economy by training them for green-collar jobs."
The emerging climate movement's first skirmish will come in the next months, as Congress considers bills on energy and climate. McKibben says it would be better to pass nothing than to approve a weak bill that gives people the impression the problem has been solved: "Since Bush is going to veto it anyway, there is no reason to make [a climate bill] less ambitious than what science requires. Climate change isn't like other issues. It doesn't do any good to split the difference to reach a deal everyone can live with. Climate change is about the laws of physics and chemistry, and they don't give."
What gets accomplished in 2008, says Taylor, will frame the choices made in 2009 and beyond: "We want to raise the bar of what's possible for the next President and Congress. We want bold leadership commensurate with the scale of the problem." McKibben argues that "with every passing week it is more clear that climate change is the great issue of our time, just as civil rights was in the 1960s." Passing a bill that matches what science says and then securing a similar agreement at the international level "would be two of the hardest policy achievements we have ever had to do," he adds. "And I'm not sure we're going to succeed. But if we are to succeed, I am sure we're going to need a movement just as strong as the civil rights movement was. And that's what we're trying to build."
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's environment correspondent, is a fellow of The Nation Institute and author of Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future and The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World. His next book is Living Through the Storm: Our Future Under Global Warming.
Copyright 2007 The Nation