Seize the Momentum

Where does a new consensus come from? How does the zeitgeist suddenly start to shift?
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.

Where does a new consensus come from? How does the zeitgeist suddenly start to shift?

When we started Step It Up 2007, all of 10 weeks ago, 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050 seemed at the very outer edge of the politically possible. A week ago, youth climate activist Courtney Fryxell, who is helping organize one of the Washington rallies for April 14, asked John Edwards point blank if he'd commit to 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050. "Yes," he said -- and with that earned himself real respect as the first of the major contenders out of the gate on this issue.

He won't, I think, be the last. Because what he was responding to was a surge in grassroots political activism all around this country. For instance, a few hours before Edwards talked, a group of intrepid religious climate activists in Massachusetts set off for a 10-day march to Boston -- it was enormous fun to applaud them as they left the church to start their journey because they symbolized the way that faith communities have come to this cause in the last year.

The next night in D.C., 800 people gathered for an evening organized by Mike Tidwell and Ted Glick, tireless activists from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who for five years have been holding much smaller gatherings, slowly building the movement. The huge throng, cheered by the music of Emma's Revolution, clearly sensed the turn in the weather. Meanwhile, Laurie David and Sheryl Crow are circling the country putting on shows; Al Gore just testified before Congress; everywhere the force is building.

For many years, speaking at one college or church or library after another, I'd tell people about global warming and they'd say: we can't break through the wall of special interest and inertia that keeps the solutions bottled up. And I'd say, that's right, we can't. Not yet. But eventually the day will come when events -- Hurricane Katrina -- provide an opening. And when that opening comes, we'll need every network, every plan, every small model to build on. So we'll be able to seize the moment.

That's what's happening. Across the country, people who have been working for years and people who have just started worrying about global warming are quickly joining forces. Step It Up is only the most dramatic example -- earlier this week we went past the 1,000-rally mark; April 14 is going to be one of the most dramatic days in American environmental history. People in every state will be raising their voices, and when that happens the power will help speed this new consensus into being.

The battle won't be easy, of course. But finally Exxon has some opponents they can't ignore. Momentum counts, and momentum all of a sudden is squarely on our side.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature" and "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age."