Public awareness of the climate crisis has grown enormously in the United States over the past two years, but the government’s response lags far behind. Now, however, Washington’s sluggish pace is calling forth a surge of activism aimed at persuading the next President and Congress to be far bolder–to advocate and deliver solutions as big as the problem.
“The general attitude in the country now and certainly in Congress is, ‘Let’s take some steps, make some progress and applaud ourselves.’ That is not sufficient.” So says Betsy Taylor, chair of 1 Sky, a new initiative that hopes to unite the broad array of groups focusing on climate change into a coherent national movement. “What has happened to the climate in the last twelve months has changed the game,” Taylor argues, citing recent studies projecting that the Arctic will be free of summer ice by 2030. “That means we are thirty years ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst- case scenario for Arctic melting. But on Capitol Hill, none of the proposals getting serious attention propose anything close to what science says we need–deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 80 percent cuts by 2050. Our side really needs to up the ante.”
Among 1 Sky’s backers is Bill McKibben, who in 1989 published the first important book on global warming, The End of Nature. In January McKibben founded Step It Up, following a march across Vermont he organized with some of his students at Middlebury College. “Our slogan was, Screw in the new light bulb but then screw in the new federal policy,” he recalls. At the march’s closing rally, in front of 1,000 cheering demonstrators, all four candidates for national office from Vermont signed a pledge to support 80 percent cuts by 2050.
Step It Up was founded to replicate that success on a national scale, and in April the group catalyzed 1,400 demonstrations in all fifty states. “A lot of students participated, but most of the actions were done by people with full-time jobs who told us, ‘I want to do something besides writing a check,'” says May Boeve, a 2007 Middlebury graduate and the national co-coordinator of Step It Up. “Contrary to popular belief, asking people to do more actually resulted in a bigger response.”
Step It Up plans another set of demonstrations November 3, exactly a year before the 2008 election. This time, the goal is to get elected representatives to respond to 1 Sky’s three demands: (1) cut emissions 30 percent by 2020 (and 80 percent by 2050); (2) ban new coal-fired power plants (as part of a larger shift of federal subsidies from fossil fuels to clean energy); and (3) create 5 million “green-collar” jobs.
The same weekend, the Energy Action Coalition is promising to bring thousands of student activists to Washington. With member groups on 200 campuses, the coalition is the national hub of student organizing on climate change. After a weekend conference at the University of Maryland, the coalition hopes to unleash 5,000 students on Capitol Hill the following Monday to lobby for the 1 Sky demands.