Going green in the U.S.

2007-12-10 00:00

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 12 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 30 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% 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 that he organised with some of his students at Middlebury College. At the march’s closing rally, in front of 1 000 demonstrators, all four candidates for national office from Vermont signed a pledge to support 80% cuts by 2050.

Step It Up was founded to replicate that success on a national scale and in April the group was the catalyst for 1 400 demonstrations in all 50 states.

Step It Up organised another set of demonstrations on November 3, exactly a year before the 2008 election. This time, the goal was to get elected representatives to respond to 1 Sky’s three demands: cut emissions 30% by 2020 (and 80% by 2050); ban new coal-fired power plants (as part of a larger shift of federal subsidies from fossil fuels to clean energy); and create five million “green-collar” jobs.

The same weekend, the Energy Action Coalition brought thousands of student activists to Washington. With member groups on 200 campuses, the coalition is the national hub of student organising on climate change.

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 labour, community development, Latino, African-American and green businesses, 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 12 key states and news stories and advertisements.

The five 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”.

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 sixties.”

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.”

— Agence Global.

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