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Feature Story

Global Warning: Get Up! Stand Up!

by Bill McKibben

How to Build a Mass Movement to Halt Climate Change

Hereís a short list of the important legislation our federal government has enacted to combat global warming in the years since 1988, when a NASA climatologist, James Hansen, first told Congress that climate change was real:


And what do you know? That bipartisan effort at doing nothing has been highly successful: Our emissions of carbon dioxide have steadily increased over that two-decade span.

Meanwhile, how have the lone superpower's efforts at leading international action to deal with climate change gone? Not too well. We refused to ratify the Kyoto treaty, while the rest of the developed world finally did so. And while we've pressured China over world-shaking issues like DVD piracy, we've happily sold them the parts to help grow their coal-fired electric utility network to a size that matches ours.

In other words, Washington has utterly and completely failed to take on the single greatest challenge human civilization has ever faced.

What's more, Washington, at least so far, couldn't care less about the failure. A flurry of legislation has been introduced in the last couple of months, but scarcely a member of Congress felt compelled to answer in the last election for failing to deal with climate change. A simple "I'm concerned" was more than enough.

Not only that, but scientists revealed last December that a piece of ice the size of 11,000 football fields had broken off an Arctic ice shelf.

So, and here I use a technical term that comes from long study of the intricate science, we're screwed. Unless.

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If we're going to change any of those nasty facts, we need a movement. A real, broad-based public movement demanding transformation of the way we power our world. A movement as strong, passionate, and willing to sacrifice as the civil rights movement that ended segregation more than a generation ago. This essay is about the possible rise of such a movement -- about the role that you might play in making it happen.

It's not the fault of our environmental organizations that such a movement doesn't yet exist. It's the fault of the molecular structure of carbon dioxide.

Modern environmentalism arose in the early 1960s in the wake of Silent Spring. That's the moment advocates of "conservation" -- the idea that we should protect some areas as refuges amid a benign modernity -- began to realize that modernity itself might be a problem, that the bright miracles of our economic life came with shadows. First DDT, but before long phosphates in detergent and sulfur in the smoke stream of coal plants and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in our air conditioners. And carbon monoxide, carbon with one oxygen atom, the stuff that was helping turn the air above our cities brown.

All were alike in one crucial way: You could take care of the problems they caused with fairly easy technical fixes. Different pesticides that didn't thin eggshells; scrubbers on smokestacks. DuPont ended up making more money on the stuff that replaced CFCs, which had been tearing a hole in the ozone layer. None of these battles was easy: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace and Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists and a thousand Friends of the You-Name-It had to fight like hell to make sure that the fixes got made. But that was the war we armed for: We had the lawyers and the scientists and the regulatory experts and the lobbyists and the fund-raisers. We didn't always win, but the batting average was pretty high: You can swim in more rivers, breathe in more cities. It was a carbon monoxide movement, and the catalytic converter, which washed that chemical from your exhaust, was its emblem. You could drive your car; you just needed the right gear on your tailpipe.

But carbon dioxide -- carbon with two oxygen atoms -- screwed everything up. Carbon dioxide in itself isnít exactly a pollutant. It doesnít hurt you when you breathe it; in fact, for a very long time engineers described a motor as "clean-burning" if it gave off only CO2 and water vapor. The problem that emerged into public view in the late 1980s was that its molecular structure trapped heat near the planet that would otherwise radiate back out to space. And, worse, there wasnít a technofix this time -- CO2 was an inevitable by-product of burning fossil fuels. That is to say, the only way to deal with global warming is to move quickly away from fossil fuels.

When you understand that, you understand why Congress has yet to act, and why even big and talented environmental organizations have been largely stymied. Fossil fuel is not like DDT or phosphates or CFCs. It's the absolute center of modern life. An alien scientist arriving on our planet might well conclude that Western human beings are devices for burning coal and gas and oil, since that is what we do from dawn to dusk, and then on into the brightly lit night. When societies get richer, they start reducing other pollutants -- even in China some cities have begun to see reductions in sulfur and nitrogen as people demand better pollution controls. But as the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman conceded in a landmark book in 2005, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, carbon dioxide is the only pollutant that economic growth doesnít reduce. It is economic growth. It's no accident that the last three centuries, a time of great prosperity, have also been the centuries of coal and oil and gas.

Which means that this is a war that environmentalism as currently constituted simply can't win. Our lobbyists can sit down with congressional staffers and convince them of the need for, say, lower arsenic levels in water supplies; they have enough support to win those kinds of votes. We've managed, brilliantly, to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. But we lack (by a long shot) the firepower to force, say, a carbon tax that might actually cut fossil fuel use. We've been outgunned by the car companies and the auto unions when it comes to gasoline mileage. We can save the Arctic refuge from oil drilling, but we can't save it from thawing into a northern swamp no caribou would ever wander through. In essence, we have a problem opposite to that of the American military: Well armed for small battles with insurgent polluters, we suddenly find ourselves needing to fight World War II.

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Big Change,
Starting Now!

When we launched the campaign in early January, we didn't know what to expect. We put up a Web site and started circulating e-mails asking people to organize rallies for April 14. The first day 30 groups signed up, and the day after that 40, and before the week was out we'd already exceeded our wildest expectations. By early February we'd soared past the 500-rally mark, making it very clear that this would be the biggest demonstration about global warming yet in this country, and perhaps the biggest day of environmental protest in this country since the first Earth Day, in 1970.

We told people that we weren't really organizing in the traditional sense. Instead, it was more like an invitation to a party -- a potluck. Bring your best ideas, your creativity, your hopes. People began responding immediately -- especially with ideas for actions in iconic places to dramatize the impact of climate change. Teams of scuba divers will hold underwater rallies (with waterproof banners!) off the endangered coral reefs of Maui and Key West. Others will hang signs from the Shawangunk Mountains of New York State, or ski off the dwindling glaciers above Jackson Hole. In New York and other cities, activists will paint blue stripes where the new high-water mark will be once the seas start to rise. On and on.

The protesters come from every kind of background. Extreme athletes and seasoned environmentalists, sure. NRDC is helping organize a rally on the shrinking ice fields of Glacier National Park; the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and many smaller groups are planning events. But there are also church groups, chapters of the League of Women Voters, nature centers, and campus groups. Hollywood is on the front lines, led by Al Gore's producer, Laurie David. MUSE, a group of musicians, is posting dozens of new songs to our site every week; graphic artists are producing posters; and podcasters are producing, well, podcasts. It's mostly volunteer and it's a little homemade, and thatís one reason it seems to be working. We knew we were on the right track when a digital picture arrived showing 180 smiling sorority sisters from Alpha Phi House at the University of Texas. "We wanted to show it wasn't just hippies who care," they said. Long live the hippie-sorority alliance!

The hope is that a distributed demonstration like this will let congressional representatives know that in every voting district in the country global warming is emerging as a potent issue, one to be ignored at their electoral peril. By the close of the day on April 14, we should have a cascade of pictures of these gatherings that will, we hope, prove irresistible to the media, and that we'll be able to make good use of on You-Tube and the rest of the Web. When the day is over we'll move on -- we're not an organization, just an idea. But an idea whose time -- we hope -- has finally come.

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Bill McKibben is a contributing editor of OnEarth and the author of The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on global warming. His new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, will be published in March by Times Books. To help in the April 14 rallies, visit

Illustration: Alex Nabaum

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council