After years of frustration (and quite a bit of ranting to anyone who would listen), it is reassuring to see that the issue of climate change is at last making regular headlines in the United States.
Now for the hard part: Converting science and public concern into long-term policy changes, while preventing the oil companies and other vested energy interests from co-opting the debate over alternatives for the future.
Fortunately, at least one grassroots movement has already begun efforts to coalesce the voices of American civil society.
But, first, what brought about the change in awareness?
Credit is mostly due to the thousands of scientists worldwide who have toiled for years to peel back the layers of climate complexity. Without them, we might still be thinking that our society can flout the law of cause and effect with impunity.
In particular, several definitive scientific reports released over the past year, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Stern reports, have helped topple the false objectivity of the popular media, which for too long bent over backward to balance overwhelming science against a small band of publicity-hungry contrarians.
Those who enjoy perverse irony might also want to thank the judicial mendacity that put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000, casting aside the popularly elected candidate, Al Gore.
After all, had Gore become president he might never have become a leading champion of climate-change awareness.
Instead, over the past year, Gore’s film, the now-Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” has brought Americans up to speed on climate change, ensuring that the topic is being discussed in homes, boardrooms and political backrooms all across the United States.
Acceptance is a key step, but, unfortunately, acknowledging the problem and taking action are not inherently linked.
The biggest challenge will be getting the U.S. government and corporations to act decisively.
This is where civil society comes in. If focused and maintained, public concern can galvanize U.S. government and corporate efforts to begin modifying the human activities that contribute to climate change. And if the Americans act, other nations will no longer have U.S. recalcitrance as an excuse for their own inaction.
However, without broad-based citizen pressure on legislators and businesses, the agenda of status-quo, vested interests is likely to dominate America’s energy decision-making.
The oil industry in particular, with its coterie of powerful CEOs, lobbyists and politicians, has much to lose if dramatic changes take place in American energy policy. Last year the oil industry saw record profits, with Exxon Mobil, for one, pulling in the largest annual profit of any U.S. corporation — nearly $40 billion.
Not surprisingly, the oil companies are now scrambling to justify such stunning profits, with CEOs even making public-speaking engagements in an effort to “educate consumers.”
Perhaps they should begin by explaining the ethical underpinnings of their own work. Do they deserve multi-million-dollar pay packages for evading responsibility on human-rights abuses and ecosystem destruction, for stonewalling on climate change, and for scant investment in alternative energies?
No doubt they hope that reassuring talk and multi-million-dollar ad campaigns will allow Big Oil to co-opt the energy debate and compartmentalize the climate issue as simply a carbon dioxide problem. Thus keeping Americans blind, just a bit longer, to an industrial status quo that is compromising our entire planet.
How rich. Educating us.
For decades the oil companies have known that their industry pollutes heavily at every stage, from extraction and transportation to refining and use. Indeed, they have had decades of growth and profits to focus on the development of safe, clean, renewable sources of energy.
But they have not. Instead, CEOs have pulled down bloated salaries in exchange for defending America’s flawed energy policies and allowing their corporations, and shareholders, to profit grossly by foot-dragging.
It all makes this interested observer, for one, wonder how long before American lawyers bring the first class-action suit against the oil companies for corporate negligence, in much the same way that suits have been brought against the tobacco industry for decades of denying the link between cigarette-smoking and lung cancer.
It is time for education, but not of consumers.
American oil CEOs and politicians need to learn that civil society wants a new, comprehensive program that will ensure energy security, national security — and environmental security — all of which are inextricably tied. And to do this will require a broad and diverse national energy portfolio, not just fossil fuel and bio-fuel combustion.
The challenge is to muster public concern and transform it into action before proponents of business-as-usual can lull people back into complacency, and a new grassroots effort.
Nationwide mass protest
Step It Up, is doing just that. It is being spearheaded by author Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, in Vermont, with the help of six recent college graduates.
McKibben explains the movement in a blog that combines humor with encouragement and useful information. “The most important question about global warming right now is: What do I do once I’ve changed the damned lightbulbs?” he writes, beginning his first of 12 “dispatches” that are appearing online weekly over the next few months.
The idea is simple, McKibben explains: “To initiate the first nationwide do-it-yourself mass protest, and by far the biggest demonstration yet against global warming. “If all goes well — and by ‘all going well,’ I mean ‘if you help’ — then on Saturday, April 14, we’ll kick off the approach to Earth Day with hundreds upon hundreds of simultaneous rallies all across America, designed to start pressuring Congress to take decisive action on climate change.
“Americans will gather in iconic places across the country. Some will be familiar at a glance: the top of the Grand Teton; underwater off Hawaii’s coral reefs; along a blue line on Canal Street in Manhattan that marks the city’s possible new beachfront.
“Others will be less famous: the steps of your church; the picnic grove in your city park; the biggest barn in your county. But everywhere, people will be saying, loud and clear, that it’s finally time for serious action from Washington, D.C., on the mightiest problem the world has ever faced,” McKibben writes.
Step It Up is not looking for huge masses, just groups of concerned citizens willing to gather long enough to take a picture.
The images will then be posted on the Web site, and by the evening of April 14 the site will have “a cascade of images for everyone, including local and national media, to look at. We’ll have proof that Americans care deeply enough to act,” he explains.
McKibben is author of “The End of Nature,” published in 1990, a classic volume that first introduced climate change to a general audience.
That was 17 years ago and, sadly, his warnings have been realized.
“These changes are global. . . . And the changes, many of them at least, are irrevocable. They are not possibilities. They cannot be wished away and they cannot be legislated away. To prevent them, we would have had to clean up our collective act many decades ago,” he wrote in 1989.
When I checked the Step It Up site last week, 700 action sites had been registered. Two days later there were 736. At that rate, Step It Up could have thousands of actions taking place across the length and breadth of the United States on April 14.
Interested in being part of the change? Here are two suggestions.
First, if you are an American or other foreign citizen living in Japan, and you are concerned enough about the future of our planet to gather for a picture, send me a quick e-mail and we can see about organizing the first Step It Up gatherings here.
Second, beat the rush and send a message: Sell any oil stocks you own and buy into alternative energies, preferably solar, wind and hydrogen. You may not get rich, but at least you’ll be able to breathe easier knowing you are part of the solution.