What we have now is the superstructure of a movement. We have brilliant scientists, we have superb economists, we have some of the most battle-hardened lawyers and lobbyists you could hope for. The only thing the climate movement lacks is the movement part.
Consider this: Last Labor Day weekend, a few of us led a five-day, 50-mile march across our home state of Vermont to demand that our candidates for federal office take stronger stands on climate legislation. We started at Robert Frost's summer writing cabin high in the Green Mountains, happy with the symbolism of choosing a road less taken. As we wandered byways and main roads, we were happy too with the reception we got -- crowds waiting to greet us at churches and senior centers and farms, motorists waving and honking even from the largest SUVs. By the time we reached Burlington, we had a thousand marchers. (It was more than enough to convince all our candidates, even the conservative Republicans, to endorse strong carbon reductions; they all signed a pledge backing 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050.) But here’s the not-so-happy thing: The newspapers said that a rally of 1,000 people was the largest that had yet taken place in this nation against global warming. That's pathetic.
But not hopeless. Because that movement is starting to gather, less inside the main environmental organizations than on their fringes.
The student movement, for instance, has come out of nowhere in the last three years. All of a sudden there are hundreds of high schools and college campuses where kids are working for real change in how their dorms and classrooms are heated and lit. And emboldened by their success on campus, they're increasingly involved in state and national and international efforts. Whenever I'm feeling disheartened about how slowly change is coming, I stop by a meeting of the Sunday Night Group at Middlebury College, the campus where I work. A hundred or more students show up for the weekly meetings, and they get right down to business -- some on making sure that every lightbulb in town is a compact fluorescent, some on making sure that every legislator in the state is a climate convert. On the national level, the group Energy Action has joined 16 student organizations into an effective force. The group's Campus Climate Challenge will soon involve a thousand schools, and its leaders are planning a summer of marches and a platoon of youth to bird-dog presidential candidates.
Or look at the churches and synagogues. Ten years ago there was no religious environmental movement to speak of. Now, "creation care" is an emerging watchword across the spectrum, from Unitarians to evangelicals among the Christian traditions and in Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim communities as well. And the rhetoric is increasingly matched by action: Groups such as Interfaith Power and Light are organizing congregations to cut energy use, and groups such as Religious Witness for the Earth are organizing people of faith for marches of their own.
There's even one very sweet by-product of the roadblock in Washington: In cities and states across the union, big environmental groups and local citizen activists have focused their energy on mayors and governors and learned a good deal in the process. Including this: It's possible to win. If California's Republican governor can decide it's in his interest to embrace strong climate legislation, you know people have done good groundwork. They've worked in public as well as behind the scenes. Activists from the Maryland-based Chesapeake Climate Action Network were arrested last fall for blocking the doors to federal offices to demand more accurate federal science.