mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


The Making of a Climate Movement


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

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.

1 Sky, which debuted at the Clinton Global Initiative in September, is not
so much a new group as a point of convergence for the larger movement,
says Taylor. The impetus came from state and local environmental groups
and religious leaders frustrated by what was (not) happening in
Washington. 1 Sky is reaching out not only to environmental groups but to
labor, community development, Latino, African-American and green business
organizations, and is having “positive conversations” with Al Gore’s
Alliance for Climate Protection. “1 Sky will have a lean campaign staff
and primarily invest resources in existing groups,” says Taylor. “And we
will move into the electoral arena in a big way,” with field operations in
twelve key states and earned and paid media, i.e., news stories and ads.

The 5 million green-collar jobs 1 Sky is demanding are crucial to
appealing beyond the traditional environmental constituency, says Van
Jones, a veteran African-American activist and 1 Sky supporter whose new
group, Green for All, “aims to spread the benefits of the green energy
revolution to all parts of society. Now the implicit assumption is that
green means white. When Vanity Fair does its green issues, you don’t see
many people who look like me in there. Green for All is demanding a $1
billion commitment from the government to lift 250,000 people out of
poverty and into the new economy by training them for green-collar jobs.”

The emerging climate movement’s first skirmish will come in the next
months, as Congress considers bills on energy and climate. McKibben says
it would be better to pass nothing than to approve a weak bill that gives
people the impression the problem has been solved: “Since Bush is going to
veto it anyway, there is no reason to make [a climate bill] less ambitious
than what science requires. Climate change isn’t like other issues. It
doesn’t do any good to split the difference to reach a deal everyone can
live with. Climate change is about the laws of physics and chemistry, and
they don’t give.”

What gets accomplished in 2008, says Taylor, will frame the choices made
in 2009 and beyond: “We want to raise the bar of what’s possible for the
next President and Congress. We want bold leadership commensurate with the
scale of the problem.” McKibben argues that “with every passing week it is
more clear that climate change is the great issue of our time, just as
civil rights was in the 1960s.” Passing a bill that matches what science
says and then securing a similar agreement at the international level
“would be two of the hardest policy achievements we have ever had to do,”
he adds. “And I’m not sure we’re going to succeed. But if we are to
succeed, I am sure we’re going to need a movement just as strong as the
civil rights movement was. And that’s what we’re trying to build.”



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.