Women Lead the Climate Change Fight

This is an excerpt from two longer reports in Ms. magazine. To get the whole story, visit www.msmagazine.com for subscription information.

Just shy of the anniversary of Rachel Carson's 100th birthday, and almost 50 years after she wrote the book that helped launch the environmental movement -- Silent Spring -- U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that polar bears might become extinct. But he didn't say why.

Film producer and climate-change leader Laurie David knows why the bears are endangered. So does the first woman to chair the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and so does the first woman Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi: It's global warming. These women also know that our fate is linked to the polar bear's. And the polar bear is in serious trouble.

The U.S. government under President George W. Bush has refused to acknowledge that human activities are causing global warming. The administration has bullied government scientists, limiting their ability to speak freely about climate change. That censorship policy came to the nation's attention when James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the country's top experts on climate change, fought back when the administration tried to muzzle him. Yet the administration's gag rule remains in effect.

Will a change in U.S. leadership -- led by powerful women -- begin to reverse the dire direction in which we're headed?

When Barbara Boxer took over as chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee in January 2007, she replaced Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who still calls the threat of catastrophic global warming "a hoax." Boxer, though, has made stopping global warming her top legislative priority. Among other efforts, she has cosponsored legislation with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) to cut emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This would be an important step toward averting climate change's most severe impacts. (The House has a similar bill, sponsored by California Rep. Henry Waxman.)

In the House, Boxer's efforts are mirrored by those of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). One of the first things she did after becoming Speaker was to create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which is holding hearings and jump-starting legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy and Commerce committee will then be asked to draft bills based on its recommendations.

"I am really glad Nancy is working to get a special committee to focus on this," said Boxer. "My plate is very full trying to get something done on the Senate side, where we have had a tremendous amount of hostility both from Senate colleagues and the Bush administration. ... But now we have a little wind at our back."

As the Senate and House work on global-warming legislation, climate-change activism has been growing. But will it ever be a mass movement? If it's up to Laurie David, it will. "This has to become the biggest movement this country has ever seen," says the coproducer of An Inconvenient Truth As part of her own movement-building efforts, she's taken a "Stop Global Warming College Tour" to campuses in 12 cities along with singer-activist Sheryl Crow.

"The critical thing is how long it is going to take," David continues. "There's a window closing on really doing meaningful things to slow down global warming. You don't have to do everything, but you do have to do something. Everyone has to do something."

Does flipping a light switch matter? David thinks so. "Turning off the light is a step to saving a polar bear. If everyone changed a lightbulb, choosing a compact fluorescent lightbulb over an incandescent one" -- thus releasing 150 fewer pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere -- "it would be significant."

But David recognizes that such individual efforts only work in the context of a much larger shift: "If everyone does one thing, they are likely to do two things, then three things. Then they are likely to influence friends and family, and that's how you build a movement. That's how change happens. Change the lightbulb."

While women are working to halt future catastrophes that could be caused by global warming, they are also leading the fight against the environmental calamities of today. Too often, those paying the greatest price for toxic contamination in the ground, air and water are people of color living in poor communities.

After Hurricane Katrina, all of us saw the effects of environmental racism in New Orleans. Another site in the struggle against this form of racism is the city of Syracuse, in Onondaga County, New York, where the poor -- the majority of whom are blacks, Latinos and First Nations peoples -- live in a very different world from that of the wealthy and privileged.

The civic leaders of Syracuse, like those in other places, put sewage and water-treatment plants, along with numerous other environmental hazards, within or very close to the city's poor communities. Not surprisingly, the health problems experienced by residents of those communities as a result of the pollutants are tremendous. To take just one measure, the asthma rate of the predominately African American community situated on the edge of Syracuse's industrialized area is 15 times higher than in the rest of Onondaga County. Women and children in particular bear the brunt of the health problems.

Syracuse also has the dubious distinction of being home to one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country, Onondaga Lake, along with a number of equally polluted streams, including Onondaga Creek. For almost a century, companies located on the lake's shore disposed of their waste either on the shore or directly in the lake.

"The population at risk from [a new sewage treatment plant currently being built in Syracuse] is one that government officials at all levels have historically never cared about," says Aggie Lane, a spokesperson for the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, a grassroots group that's part of a nationwide movement for environmental justice. "The extensive chlorination projected for use in this plant will do irreparable damage to the creek, the water and the south side [predominately African American] community."

Almost 50 years ago Rachel Carson taught us about the poisons with which our industrial cultures have sickened life. She questioned the "irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world." She was viciously attacked by industry for these words, but she stood by them. Her 100th birthday would have been on May 27, 2007 -- a good time to remember (and heed) her powerful warning, "[We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves." We need to build movements for environmental justice and to halt global warming now. To save the polar bears. To bring justice to poor communities. To save us all.

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