Alpha Females

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.

Here's why the world needs both the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Alpha Phi sorority of the University of Texas at Austin.

The IPCC is one of humanity's signal achievements. Launched by the United Nations in the late 1980s, just as global warming was emerging as an issue, it managed by 1995 to gather a consensus of the world's climatologists around the proposition that humans were warming the planet.

That was a marvel, and in the years since they've issued two more reports -- the most recent on Friday -- documenting the increasing confidence with which we know what we know. This most recent assessment is powerful for the swagger inherent in its (somewhat tedious) prose. Sunspots? Forget it. "Natural cycles"? Give us a break.

But the IPCC's power lies, in some measure, in its apolitical nature. It doesn't tell the governments of the world what to do. At most, if offers scenarios about what might happen if we followed different general trajectories. (And in this report it does offer a masked, but barbed, statistic: had the world's leaders heeded the first warnings about climate change and done the work to hold emissions level by 2000, we'd now be facing temperature increases of 0.1 degrees Celsius per decade, not 0.2. That's a big difference.)

The IPCC can only issue the warning, provide the data. It's Paul Revere, spreading the alarm. But if the rest of us roll over and go back to sleep, the warning accomplishes nothing.

Which brings us to Alpha Phi sorority sisters who took part in Energy Action's Climate Challenge in January. They are, in a way, just as important as all the graphs and charts in the back of the IPCC report. Their action shows that the message is getting through -- to everyone.

"We have approximately 180 members, and we are excited to help cut carbon! We wanted to show that it's not just hippies who care about global warming! We all care!!" one member wrote. (That's a truly nice way of putting it, by the way. "Hippies" of various sorts -- those of us out of the mainstream in various ways -- usually start these kinds of movements. But they only work when everyone else joins in. Hooray for the hippie-sorority combination.)

Alpha Phi is not alone. The momentum building toward our April 14 day of action continues to amaze us: every day another couple of dozen people around the country sign up to host rallies, marches, bike rides, hikes. We thought we might, if we were lucky, reach a total of 500 scheduled actions sometime in early April; we blew by that number Thursday afternoon.

I still can't read documents like the IPCC report without getting sad -- the sheer shock of what we're doing to the planet never wears off, not even after two decades of working on it. But I can't think of those Texans without breaking into a smile (almost) as wide as theirs. We're finally starting to wake up. If Alpha Phi can do it, so can the rest of us.

Read Bill McKibben's previous columns in this series: column 1, column 2, column 3, column 4, column 5.

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