Environment

The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Stop Global Warming

Environmentalist Bill McKibben explains that forcing Congress to take action on climate change is the top priority. Fortunately, he has a plan.
It has been a winter for the record books in the Northeast and Midwest. People are golfing in Michigan instead of ice fishing, sap is running in Vermont, and cherry blossoms are blooming in Washington, D.C.

People are waking up to spring in January and the stark reality of climate change.

"Hurricane Katrina blew the door open and Al Gore walked through it with his movie," environmental writer Bill McKibben said. "Now we have to take that education and turn it into action."

Americans finally understand that climate change is real -- and it is a problem. So, now what?

"People are ready to do something -- to do something more than change their light bulbs," said McKibben, "they understand the need for quick and dramatic political action."

McKibben is spearheading what will be the largest public demonstration against global warming our country has ever seen. "On April 14, instead of doing a march on Washington -- which would burn a fair amount of carbon," said McKibben, "we will have a nationwide rally, occurring more or less simultaneously, in all the places that people love around the country."

The goal of the action, Step It Up 2007, is to demand that Congress enact immediate cuts in carbon emissions and pledge an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

This is not your typical protest.

"A big group of scuba divers have signed up to hold a rally underwater off the coral reefs in Key West and in Maui," said McKibben. "Another group just signed up to ski down the huge, but dwindling, glacier above Jackson Hole; there will be people on Mt. Hood; on the levies in New Orleans' Ninth Ward; and on Canal St. in Manhattan, which will be the new tide line if the seas go up a few feet."

There will also be people gathered at parks, at city halls, on the steps of their churches and schools, and the list just keeps growing. So far there are over 500 events planned in almost every state and the project is only just beginning.

"We wanted these to be in the sort of iconic places that would remind everyone of what's at stake," said McKibben.

If anyone knows what's at stake it's McKibben. He wrote the first book on global warming, The End of Nature, published in 1989. Since then, he has been writing and speaking on the subject, but most people have been unwilling to listen. Until recently.

"Some time last year I finally reached a point of despair about how little was being done," he said. "With a few friends we decided to organize this march across Vermont where I live. After five days of walking across the state we had about 1,000 people, which was good. It turned all our candidates for federal office into tremendous advocates for doing strong things about global warming."

In Vermont they advocated for the same plan -- an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. "Our experience was that we didn't need that many people to begin changing a lot of minds," McKibben said.

"The Republican candidate for Congress in her announcement speech in June said she wasn't sure global warming was real and that more research was needed," he continued. "Well, it turned out that the research that needed to be done was how many potential voters were willing to walk for five days across her state to demand action on this. After our march democracy worked the way it was suppose to -- she was terrific. She was the second coming of John Muir on global warming."

Despite the success of the event, McKibben and his friends realized that their 1,000 supporters were the largest demonstration against climate change in the U.S. -- a pretty paltry number in comparison to the great activist movements in our country's history.

"One of the things that I realized as I started thinking about this was that we have all the parts of a movement -- the scientists, the engineers, the economists, the policy people -- the only part we have been lacking is the movement part," said McKibben. "We are just trying to provide an easy way for people to step into that role."

A few years ago scientist John Schellnhuber at the United Kingdom's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research identified 12 "global-warming tipping points." Writing recently for Mother Jones, Julia Whitty came up with the 13th tipping point -- us.

"So what will it take to trigger what we might call the 13th tipping point: the shift in human perception from personal denial to personal responsibility?" she wrote. "Without the 13th tipping point, we can't hope to avoid global mayhem. With it, we can attempt to put into action what we profess: that we actually care about our children's and grandchildren's futures."

Step It Up 2007 is perfect time to begin the process of shifting to personal responsibility. It is no longer enough to use compact fluorescent bulbs and drive hybrids.

"I've of course always been torn between the need for sudden, quick, local action which is what this is about -- and the need for longer term strategies. I have a book coming out soon called Deep Economy, and it is about what I think will be the long-term solution to this and it has a lot to do with moving toward more local economies," said McKibben.

"I am trying to work on all fronts -- but right now the emergency is figuring out how on earth to get Washington to stop pretending that the laws of physics and chemistry are somehow malleable -- that they can be changed like the tax code or something. It really is time to step it up in terms of D.C. That's where the priority lies for the moment."

McKibben is hopeful that Step It Up 2007 can get Congress members to do something more than they otherwise would. But it will take public involvement.

"A lot of people all across the country must be being willing to go out in the streets and raise a bit of a raucous about this," said McKibben. "It hasn't happened on climate change even though it is arguably the biggest challenge human civilization has ever faced. I think it is almost too daunting to people to figure out how they could possibly fight ExxonMobil, who made more money last year than any corporation in the history of corporations."

But every day things are getting less daunting. According to the Nashville Business Journal, the president of Shell Oil said the federal government "should set a national standard for dealing with greenhouse gases." And ExxonMobil announced it was cutting off funding to the "outside groups that had questioned the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming." This comes weeks after it was revealed that the oil giant had been funding a massive public disinformation campaign.

The small shifts in corporate thinking have been spurred by a public change in consciousness that has been mirrored in the media. "Finally a lot of journalists have felt enough courage to drop the faux-balance they have imposed on this issue for more than a decade when they match real scientific finding with a quote from an ideologue in some right-wing think tank that's like the equivalent of the Tobacco Institute," said McKibben. "Public opinion has moved far enough that they now feel the courage to tell it like it is."

Not only has public opinion changed, but people are hungry for action. McKibben said that the response to Step It Up 2007 has been tremendous and the website is exploding virally. "Every day people are signing up to become organizers and doing quite amazing things," he said. "Some of them are people from the big environmental groups such as the Earth Day Network, the Sierra Club, the NRDC, but many of them are people who have never organized anything in their lives and are feeling heartsick about climate change and not knowing what to do about it."

Congressional action on climate change in the United States will also carry tremendous weight internationally. We are the "poster child for carbon in the atmosphere" McKibben said, and in per capita terms we will probably always be first in carbon emissions globally, although China is quickly moving to the top of the list of nations.

"One of the worst things that has happened in the last six years has been our complete abdication of any leadership internationally about doing anything on this," he said. "It is possible that when history looks back on George W. Bush, the folly that will be most bitterly cursed will be our unwillingness to help China and India at the beginning of their energy takeoff to go on a different trajectory than ours. That would be the thing that has the most long-term damage. If we get our own house even somewhat in order, then we can rejoin the rest of the world in dealing with this problem. If there is any hope of international progress on this it revolves around us being able to rejoin the rest of the world."

The good news for Americans is that the first 20-30 percent of our carbon reductions will be "almost comically easy," said McKibben. In Europe, they have a tougher road ahead in reducing emissions because they already use half as much energy as those in the United States. Our initial changes will involve making sure we don't drive unnecessarily large vehicles and we apply already existing technology to improve automobile mileage. "It is particularly sad that we have done so little because in many ways we have the easiest task, not the hardest one," he said.

Here in the United States we need to change the price of energy to move away from a world of really cheap fossil fuel, McKibben said, and as that happens, it will make the existing technologies that we have, like wind and solar, more competitive. It will also spur rapid investments in the next generation of technologies.

"There is no possibility of getting this to happen until investors, corporate planners, or even people who are buying their next home or car, understand that the future isn't about fossil fuel -- it is about what comes next. If we can send that signal strong enough then we will see whether we can muster the changes in technology and the changes in behavior to do something about this," he said.

But the clock is ticking. A year ago, America's leading climatologist, Jim Hansen of NASA said that we have 10 years to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. "He said that a year ago -- so now we have nine years left -- nine years isn't very long," said McKibben.

"It's two presidential election cycles -- it is four congressional cycles -- we've got to do something very quickly if we are going to have any hope of ending up on the right side of this thing. I think what we have come to understand though is that this problem is so large and has such a time element that the only way it can be solved is through political action in rapid order," he continued.

"Of all the actions one can taking, the most cost effective one, the one that stands the most chance in making a serious dent in the temperature of the planet, is going to this website and signing up to organize a rally and letting your congressperson know through that action that you really care about stopping climate change."
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.
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