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Finally, Fired Up Over Global Warming

By Bill McKibben

25 August, 2006
The Boston Globe

You've seen or heard of Al Gore's movie. The pictures of Hurricane Katrina remain in the back of your mind. You've sweated through this record summer. You sense -- with just a bit of panic -- that there's really no problem more important in the long run than global warming. So what do you do?

Change your light bulbs -- check.

Think about a new hybrid Prius -- check.

Go organize a demonstration -- well, maybe.

The movement to tackle climate change is finally growing large in this country, and at least part of it is beginning to get a little more outspoken. In late spring, three activists locked themselves in Senator Max Baucus's Montana office when he refused to answer questions they had submitted about his stand on climate legislation. Later this month, protesters are expected to descend upon the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland to demand the resignations of the nation's chief hurricane forecasters, arguing that they have downplayed the threat from climate change. And over Labor Day weekend, thousands of Vermonters are expected to walk part or all of a five-day, cross-state trek from Robert Frost's old cabin in Ripton to the Federal Building in Burlington to demand that the state's candidates for national office pledge to support the strongest possible legislation to slow US carbon emissions.

These are among the first even slightly militant responses to global warming by average Americans, but I doubt they'll be the last. A small group of us began organizing the Vermont march because we found that we, and others like us, needed some way to make more noise. Most had done the obvious things: made our houses and our cars more energy-efficient, and worked with our businesses or campuses to find better ways of heating and cooling. We've lobbied hard in state houses and city halls to get local action for change. But it's not adding up to anywhere near enough -- and the reason is clear. Washington, unlike every other capital in the developed world, simply won't do anything.

Congress, in its wisdom, has decided that all climate legislation should be sent to a committee chaired by Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who has declared that global warming is ``a hoax" and added that those who demand action remind him of the Third Reich. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that it doesn't consider carbon dioxide a pollutant -- it's as if the Food and Drug Administration announced it didn't consider wheat a food and the Coast Guard declared that the Atlantic Seaboard was really not a coast after all.

Even as new science shows we may be in for much faster sea level rise and ice melt than earlier computer models predicted, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has decided it no longer wants the phrase ``protect the home planet" in its mission statement. With that kind of blockage, there's no way to make more than token progress, even with innovative attempts like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent deal with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to investigate a carbon trading scheme. Without the federal government committing the United States to the same goals as the rest of the developed world, progress everywhere will be halting -- and there's zero chance of the kind of international consensus that will be required to persuade China and India to follow a more benign energy path.

It's not as if changing the party in power will automatically change the outcome, either. The Clinton administration did little to tackle climate change; most Democrats would probably be all too willing to sign onto some limp compromise like the bill introduced in 2003 by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, even though the march of science in the years since it was introduced makes clear the inadequacy of its minuscule cuts in carbon. If we lock into some weak regimen now, it may be years before Congress will take up the issue again.

And so more environmentalists are starting to decide that 10 years of only behaving reasonably may be enough -- that the time has come to let leaders know that a sizable portion of the population is truly upset, and that it won't rest until the nation's on track to tackle the problem. Progress is by no means impossible: Vermont independent James Jeffords has introduced a credible bill in the Senate calling for an 80 percent reduction in carbon by 2050. But if the bill is to have any chance in a capital dominated by the energy lobby, it needs strong backing from think tanks and scientists -- and from people in the street. The lesson of every movement in US history is that being right is only half the battle; being loud helps, too.

We'll be walking the highways of our small state on Labor Day weekend, collecting signatures along the way, holding town meetings, demanding that candidates commit to actually, you know, legislating. We hope our example will spread elsewhere, as more of the quietly freaked-out turn into the noisily committed.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and the author of ``The End of Nature."

© Copyright 2006 Boston Globe









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