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Global warming march

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A BAGPIPER HERALDS the end of the 50-mile walk across Addison and Chittenden counties to raise awareness of global warming. The five-day event attracted marchers of all ages.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn


By ANGELO LYNN AND HARRIETTE BRAINARD

RIPTON/BURLINGTON — By the end of a five-day walk from Ripton to Burlington protesting political inaction on global warming, more than 1,000 people had joined the march. The event, which may have been the largest single demonstration in the nation on climate change, culminated in a two-hour rally in Burlington’s Battery Park on Labor Day.

As importantly, organizers of the five-day march were able to get the Vermont candidates for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House from several parties, and Democratic candidate for governor Scudder Parker to walk onto the stage at Monday’s rally and sign a pledge to support retiring Sen. James Jeffords’ bill to fight global warming. Many have called the bill the most progressive legislation in the nation curbing carbon dioxide pollution.

“What we’ve just done (getting the candidates to sign the pledge) is an achievement beyond our wildest hopes when we first started out five weeks ago,” environmental author and Ripton resident Bill McKibben told the crowd of supporters at Monday’s rally. In response, the crowd — as it had done several times during speeches by candidates and rally-organizers — roared with its enthusiastic approval.

The pledge, McKibben explained in an on-line daily journal, raised the bar in Vermont politics “to the point where anyone wishing to be taken seriously needs to champion an 85 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, the rapid phase-in of 40-mile-per-gallon cars, and a national plan to get 20 percent of our power from renewables by 2020.

“As crucial,” he continued, “we demonstrated that at least for Vermont voters this was not a second- or third-tier issue — it was as crucial to getting elected as your position on jobs or the economy or all the things the political pros always call the real issues.”

Signing the pledge were three Senate candidates, Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, Republican Richard Tarrant and Democrat Craig Hill; three U.S. House candidates, Democrat Peter Welch, Republican Martha Rainville and Liberty Union candidate Jane Newton; and two gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Scudder Parker and Jim Hogue of the Vermont Green Party.

Incumbent Gov. James Douglas was the only gubernatorial candidate not to show up and endorse the pledge, while Republican Mark Shepard did not show up or sign the pledge in his race against Rainville in the Republican primary for Congress.

In introducing the candidates, who were allowed three minutes to address the crowd and give their views on global warming and the pledge they had signed, McKibben compared the afternoon rally to an “old-fashioned town meeting,” and encouraged all Vermont residents to apply the same level of scrutiny to the issue of global warming as they do to the minutia of town meeting details, such as when considering the operation or replacement of town road equipment.

“If we can utilize that kind of scrutiny for road graders,” McKibben told the crowd in good-natured seriousness, “then we ought to be able to do it with global warming … It’s too late to prevent global warming, but it’s not too late to stop it from getting worse … We are very near a tipping point, however.”

Vermont’s lone congressman, Bernie Sanders, raised the rhetorical roof a few notches after he signed the pledge and proclaimed that the first action he would take as the new senator from Vermont, if elected, was to reintroduce Jefford’s bill to reduce global warming in the Senate. He noted that Vermont, once again, was leading the way on a national movement.

“Together,” Sanders told a cheering crowd, “this small state is going to lead the nation on this issue.”

Sanders criticized President Bush’s environmental record and noted that Americans can’t make progress on this issue if you have “a president with the worst environmental record in the history of the nation and a complicit Congress that’s led by Republicans.”

Sanders said that a change of power was a necessary part of the solution. “We need a Congress to stand up to this president,” Sanders said.

Tarrant signed the pledge and called the effort to fight global warming a bipartisan issue. “I’m here as a Republican because this is a Republican issue as much as it is a Democratic issue,” he said. “I’m here as a businessman because it’s a business issue as much as it is a consumer issue,” adding that he was there as a grandfather because it was an issue as important to the future of the nation’s children as it was an issue of the present.

Congressional candidate Welch signed the pledge underscoring the need to change the direction of the country on this issue.

“We need to act this November to change the direction of our environmental policies; we need a new direction in which we don’t have a president who hires a political appointee who doctors scientific data … and we need a new direction in which the country realizes that we’re all in this together,” Welch said.

Rainville said she fully supported the pledge, admitting that Congress and the political leadership “had gotten complacent” on this issue, but adding that it would take more than a statement to get the job done. “We have to find ways to bring people together,” she said in a reference to bridging the political aisles. “No one can do it alone… A lot of work has to be done to end that complacency.”

Parker, a long-time environmental advocate who has spent much of his career on energy issues, said he would move the state forward by “providing leadership where Gov. Douglas has not.” He noted the state recently received a grade of C- for its four-year performance toward achieving a Climate Change Action Plan agreed to in 2001 by the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers. And he said he would help make the state a leader in energy technology that would provide future jobs for the state.

PEOPLE POWER

While the political highlight of the rally was marked by so many candidates embracing Jefford’s global warming bill, as important was the participation of so many citizens willing to take five days, or any part of those five days, to march in a statement of solidarity on this issue.

“It’s an issue with a sense of helplessness,” said New Haven resident Caroline Donnan, who was one of three dozen or so to walk the entire five days, “and this march gave us all something we could do to make a difference.”

John Freidin, a former state representative from New Haven who walked  on the fifth day from Shelburne Farms to Burlington with his 15-year-old son, Abe, and 10-year-old-son, Luke, put the case for addressing global warming as a priority in the most direct terms: “If we fail to address global warming, all our efforts for social and economic justice will be swamped,” he said, “so we have to address it now.”

Rebecca Sobel, who helped organize Greenpeace volunteers in road safety and logistical needs throughout the march and rally, noted that the event had primarily been a grassroots campaign of people who had already made personal changes in their lives because of global warming but were now taking their actions to a political level.

“It is wonderful and amazing to see Vermonters come together like this in a truly political way,” she said, crediting Vermont’s unique community culture for part of the march’s success.

“This month-long effort would have been impossible anywhere else, but Vermont… When we walked along Route 7 we created a community everywhere we stopped; everybody wanted to help and join in and offer us assistance… It’s been such a heart-warming experience,” Sobel said, “it reminds you why it is so important to have community and if it weren’t for the communities that exist in Vermont, there is no way we could have been so successful.”

FIVE LONG DAYS

The march started on Aug. 31 in Ripton with a noon rally at the Robert Frost Interpretative Trail parking lot on Route 125. That was followed by a 12-mile hike that ended in Middlebury’s town green for speeches, food and drink and lots of hugs among the 200-plus participants.

It was, McKibben said, a promising start to what could have kicked off with a whimper rather than a bang. In the final days of planning, organizers admitted, they were still unsure of the level of community support they would get.

“No matter what any organizer — even a pretend one like me — says, the greatest fear is always numbers,” McKibben wrote in the fifth day of his on-line journal. “What if you call a rally and no one comes?”

But numbers were rarely a problem. Day Two of what was officially called, From the Road Less Traveled: Vermonters Walking Toward A Clean Energy Future, drew a smaller crowd but Middlebury College students arriving on campus early to participate in the event swelled the ranks throughout the day to 90 as walkers covered 13 miles along the back roads to Vergennes for another round of speeches and a rally on the city green.

The next day, after a night at Bound Brook Farm, 90 or so walkers made the trek to Charlotte, where they were greeted at the Senior Center by a huge spread of food and later camped on the shores of Lake Champlain where, McKibben writes, they took “a swim, with biodegradable soap!”

The group reassembled the morning of the fourth day at the Charlotte Congregational Church where they, and congregation members, packed the pews to overflowing for a morning service devoted to what McKibben called “caring for Creation.”

For many marchers, the service was a highlight. 

“When Bill spoke, he made the five-day walk sound almost biblical,” said Dan Goosen, a 20-something resident of Burlington. “He cited passages from Job from the Bible and the message was that as humans on Earth we have now overstepped our boundaries and that weather and nature are no longer controlled by a higher power or another force.”

Goosen noted that McKibben spoke passionately of continuing a message of hope and not to lose this message to fear, for real change, McKibben said, comes though a message of hope.

On that fourth morning, a large interfaith group joined the walk as did students from Green Mountain College, swelling the numbers to more than 300 as they made their way along Route 7 to Shelburne Farms where they camped for the fourth and final night.

“By dusk,” McKibben wrote of the group’s experience, “we’d reached this enormous farmstead, now a nonprofit center for environmental education. We gathered in what once had been the horse-breeding barn — the largest single-span wooden structure in the world — for hours of music and talk. We heard from the Buddhist environmentalist Stephanie Kaza, the enlightened entrepreneur Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation, the folk-singing preacher Fred Small, and, perhaps best of all, the wailing jazz clarinet of Bud Leeds (of Ripton), sounding a pure, clear note in the enormous space.”

By Friday morning, more than 500 people had joined the campers at Shelburne Farms and set off over the next 10 miles en route to Burlington’s Battery Park. They were joined along the way by others, swelling the ranks to 700 to 800 marchers in a line that stretched for two-thirds of a mile or more on the sidewalks through town and down the road bordering the northern end of Church Street.

A bagpiper heralded the arrival of the first marchers to reach the park amid clapping and cheers from hundreds of others waiting at the park, and the rally and speeches began a hour later.

The number of marchers were an undeniable influence.

“We weren’t sure til the last minute exactly which politicians would appear, but as word spread over the five days of the march that it was a powerful success,” McKibben wrote, “the promises from the various camps grew firmer and firmer. By the time we got to the rally, all the federal candidates were waiting and one by one they took the stage.

“But not, crucially, until we explained the terms of the deal. We didn’t want their vague expressions of concern and promises of action — we wanted their signatures on the giant global-warming pledge we’d written based on the Jeffords-Waxman legislation.”

It was more than successful, McKibben said of the event. “In almost 20 years of working on global warming, I’ve never had a day when I felt as hopeful.”

Middlebury College professor John Elders, who read the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” at the kick-off event in Ripton five days earlier, read it again at the rally’s close and concluded with a remark that summed up the marchers’ intent: “We begin in urgency,” he said, “and we proceed in hope.”

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