Environment

Race to the Finish

How climate activists can put aside "business as usual" to win the race against time.
Bill McKibben, an AlterNet guest columnist, is spearheading the Step It Up 2007 campaign. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, McKibben's newest book is the forthcoming Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His column is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

The most overused image for the fight against global warming is the "race against time." Still, it's one of those ideas that grabs you on occasion and won't let go. (And not just because here at Step It Up 2007 we're passing the 30-days-to-April-14 mark and working essentially around the clock to organize our rallies.) It's a metaphor that lingers for a reason.

This week the Bush administration admitted what everyone had known: its official projections show our greenhouse-gas emissions increasing 1 percent per year through 2020. In global-warming terms, that's essentially forever -- well past the point where the barrel goes over Niagara.

Meanwhile, the early drafts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change impact reports began to leak, full of predictions about the imminent onset of ecosystem collapse, the spread of malaria, and shortages of water. We're stuck in the same cycle we've been in for 20 years -- emitting more carbon even as we understand more clearly the danger.

And each day -- well, each day a day passes. We get that much farther along without doing anything of substance at all -- at least on the federal level, where, ultimately, action is most needed. Nothing deflects the trajectory of our path. Tuesday is worse than Monday by a few hundredths of a part per million of CO2, a few ticks up on the thermometer.

That's why we need something sharp. We need April 14 to be a day of real passion, of peaceful but firm commitment to changing that trajectory. And it's why we need our presidential candidates and our congressional representatives to sign on to the target of 80 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction by 2050. (Or, better yet, raise the bidding and go for something even better.) That's the kind of target that might shock our economic system into delivering a set of new approaches, new investments, and new technologies. It might shock us into developing a few new habits.

Another shopworn phrase in the global-warming battle is "business as usual." It's usually employed to describe the emissions scenarios in a future where we make no attempt to do anything new or useful. That 1 percent growth a year? That's pretty much business as usual. But environmentalists can fall into business-as-usual mode too. The long round of papers and books and conferences and proposals is, on the one hand, vitally important -- we need the ideas and the networks -- and on the other hand lulling; it can cause us to imagine progress where it isn't happening.

That's why, when moments come along that allow us to step outside the normal flow and make a loud, heartfelt noise, we should do it. That's why more than 850 communities have decided to Step It Up, and why most of the big environmental groups have lent such a huge helping hand. Now we have a month to collectively figure out how to make our shout echo as loudly as possible, and make April 14 one of those moments when business as usual ceases -- one of those moments outside of regular time when the race suddenly looks winnable.
Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature" and "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age."
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