This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap up close and personal last week, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The backstory: I help run a global warming campaign called 350.org. In midsummer, we decided to organize an effort to ask world leaders to put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was to be part of the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party on October 10 (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and politburos something easy to do in the hope of getting the fight against global warming slowly back on track. One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still committed to change, even though he hadn’t managed to pass new laws.
And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the White House roof, way back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan took them down, they’d spent the last few decades on the cafeteria roof at Unity College in rural Maine. That college’s president, Mitch Thomashow, immediately offered us a panel to take back to the White House. Better still, he encouraged three of his students to accompany the panel, not to mention allowing the college’s sustainability coordinators to help manage the trip.
And so, on the day after Labor Day, we set off in a biodiesel college van. Solar road trip! Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food and, for company, the rock star of solar panels, all 6 x 3 feet and 140 pounds of her. We pulled into Boston that first night for a rally at Old South Church, where a raucous crowd lined up for the chance to sign the front of the panel, which quickly turned into a giant glass petition. The same thing the next night in New York, and then DC, with an evening at one of the city’s oldest churches headlined by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip-Hop Caucus.
It couldn’t have been more fun. Wherever we could, we’d fire up the panel, pour a gallon of water in the top, point it toward the sun, and eight or nine minutes later you’d have steaming hot water coming out the bottom. Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm—a vexing reminder that we’ve known how to do this stuff for decades. We just haven’t done it.
That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across—the same way that seed sales climbed 30 percent across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.
There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn’t heard anything conclusive from the White House. We’d asked them—for two months—if they’d accept the old panel as a historical relic returned home, and if they’d commit to installing new ones soon. We’d even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them free. Indeed, as word of our trip spread, other solar companies kept making the same offer. Still, the White House never really responded, not until Thursday evening around 6 pm, when they suddenly agreed to a meeting at nine the next morning.