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Vigil raises flag on climate change

MIDDLEBURY — On Monday night, 15 Middlebury College students and community members huddled in a windswept circle in front of the college library. The candles they held flickered and went out almost as soon as they lit them, but soon a handful of battery-operated candles surfaced. These stayed lit against the biting wind.
Students had planned the candlelight vigil to mark the first day of this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where President Obama is scheduled to arrive late next week. Monday’s vigil gave locals an opportunity to reflect on the people who are already being affected by climate change and on their hope for clear global commitments in the coming days.
“I wish I could be in Copenhagen, but I think it’s important to show solidarity and to draw attention to this,” said Weybridge resident Fran Putnam, who was there along with her husband, Spencer. She was one of several Quakers who attended the vigil. “This is the defining issue of our time.”
The event was organized by several members of the Sunday Night Group, a campus environmental activism group. It is a precursor to this coming weekend, when people around the world will hold candlelight vigils in conjunction with the Copenhagen conference. Before the start of the conference, 350.org founder and Ripton resident Bill McKibben sent a message to his organization’s many climate change activists about the coming negotiations. He urged them to hold a “vigil for survival” in their area on Dec. 11 or 12, at the very middle of the conference.
“Around the world,” he wrote, “people will gather to light lanterns or candles, in solemn solidarity with the citizens of those nations who will be first to face the challenge to their very survival posed by climate change.”
Local organizers held the college vigil early because many students will be heading home for the holidays before this weekend. So the organizers instead used the vigil to mark their hopes for the coming days at the very start of the conference.
Nate Blumenshine, one of the event’s organizers, spoke to the circle in front of the library at the beginning, reminding the attendees of climate change’s threats.
“Before we try to get people’s attention with our candles, I think it would be great if we just took a moment of silence and thought about the true effects that climate change is going to have on people’s lives,” said Blumenshine, who will graduate from Middlebury College in February.
After the moment of silence, the group moved uphill toward the campus dining halls. While walking, sophomore Olivia Grugan, another of the event’s organizers, talked about the choice of a vigil to observe the Copenhagen conference.
“The idea behind the candlelight vigil is, in this politically charged environment, to take a step back and have a more solemn event,” she said. “It’s a reflective time.”
And later, organizer Pier LaFarge, a Middlebury senior, spoke about why the group needed these contemplative moments.
“We’re doing this for green jobs, we’re doing it to protect our economy, our national security,” he said of his dedication to climate activism. “Those are all important parts, but the ethical element is also part of it. This really does represent a threat to the survival of hundreds of millions of people all around the world. You forget that sometimes.”
As the group stood in lines beside the entrance to Proctor dining hall, they chanted names of areas that rising sea levels will endanger, among them the Maldives, Seychelles, Manhattan, Boston and Tuvalu.
The group was small, and someone commented on the difficulty of getting people to fight climate change when it was below freezing outside. But several people who walked by took a candle and joined the group, and many others asked what the vigil was for. To Putnam, this was just what she had come for.
“I figure that for each person who comes here for this vigil, there are 200 other people who feel the same way but just couldn’t be here today,” she said. “If people see what we’re doing here and pay attention, maybe they’ll write a letter, write an email, pressure somebody to do something. It’s a grassroots thing we can all do.”

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