Lessons Learned from the Frontlines of the Climate Fight

I started fighting climate change almost 20 years ago. Back then it was a topic largely for environmentalists and scientists. Today, seven in every ten Americans understand it’s a problem. Business leaders, social justice groups, farmers and ranchers, doctors and nurses and people from all walks of life are concerned about the climate threat.

This transformation has taken time, and I have witnessed many of the shifts firsthand. I have talked to CEOs who realized that cleaning up carbon pollution is good for business. I have visited people whose health has been endangered by tar sands oil. I have watched neighbors struggle to recover from Superstorm Sandy. I have seen solar panels and wind turbines become an increasingly familiar part of the landscape.

And last year, I sat in the sweltering hot sun at Georgetown University to hear something I waited for decades to witness: the President of the United States committing to cut carbon pollution from our nation’s largest source—power plants.

America is making real and substantive progress in the fight against climate change, but it’s not enough. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the United States does not make deep reductions in carbon pollution today, our children and their children will inherit climate chaos tomorrow.

As I prepare to retire from NRDC and hand the reins over to our incoming president Rhea Suh, I have been reflecting on how the climate movement can secure the solutions we need to protect future generations from harm. In my view, here are issues we need to keep in mind.

Help People See that the Clean Energy Future Is Dawning

Climate change deniers would have us believe that oil, gas, and coal are the only ways to power a modern, industrialized society. They are wrong, and the proof is all around us. Wind and solar power accounted for 44 percent of all new electricity generating capacity installed in this country between 2012 and 2013. Energy efficiency measures have done more to meet growing energy needs in the past 40 years than oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power combined, and they can do much more than that. Over 3.4 million Americans make have jobs helping build a more sustainable future. It’s time to celebrate these advances. They show we can cut carbon pollution and power our economy at the same time. 

The Fossil Fuel Industry Is On the Defensive

The fossil fuel industry commands outsize sway over US politics, markets, and democracy. I knew these companies were formidable, but when I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, I got a close up view of how the industry disregards government safeguards. The industry is now working hard to thwart climate action, but its grip is loosening. Companies spend millions on polluter-friendly messaging, yet nearly two-thirds of Americans say they want their US senators to support efforts to address the impacts of climate change, according to a new poll from Harstad Strategic Research. And Governor Cuomo just banned fracking in New York State, refusing to bow to pressure from oil and gas companies.

People Care When the Issue Hits Home

People are seeing firsthand what extreme weather can do to their homes, livelihoods, and health. And more people face the hazards of reckless oil and gas development in their backyards: One out of every 20 Americans lives within a mile of a fracked well. Some communities, including low-income communities and people of color, are being especially hard hit. As people begin to see the links between their daily lives and fossil fuel pollution, they start calling for stronger protections. Like many recent polls, an ABC/Washington Post survey found that 70 percent of Americans support federal action to reduce climate change pollution.

Raising Our Voices Makes a Difference

People often ask me how I remain hopeful, and the answer is simple: seeing millions of people engage in the climate fight. A broad coalition of dedicated citizens succeeded in hitting pause on the Keystone XL pipeline. I was proud to join more than 400,000 people in New York City last September for the largest march in history to demand climate action and climate justice. President Obama called on the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon pollution from power plants because he knew many Americans would support his leadership.  He was right: people filed more than 8 million comments in favor of the limits—the most the agency has ever received. I‘ve learned over the years that the biggest environmental breakthroughs come when we have the broadest support. That support is growing for climate action.

We Have to Translate People Power into Political Power

The only way people can wrest power from the polluters is by speaking out. We have to hold lawmakers accountable when they fail to protect families from climate change. We have to applaud champions who stand up for clean energy. We have to broaden the movement to reflect all communities impacted by the climate crisis. And we have to help make our voices heard in Washington, because GOP leaders are trying to thwart climate action at every turn, and we need a groundswell of support to push back.  

If we mobilize, we can tilt the political landscape in favor of people instead of polluters.

The Next Two Years Will Be Critical

Reducing carbon pollution from power plants is the single most important thing our country can do to fight climate change right now. The EPA is on track to finalize carbon limits for existing power plants by 2016, but Republican leaders have vowed to block them. They’re not suggesting alternatives; they just want to prevent action. Each time the GOP tries to undermine carbon limits we must generate an outcry. We must call elected officials, write local media, and join community protests.  And we must demand lawmakers address the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time. Together, we can leave the dirty energy past behind and move into the sustainable future now. 


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