Climate change movement traces roots to Addison County

ADDISON COUNTY — Eight years ago, Bill McKibben led a five-day march from Ripton to Burlington to raise awareness about climate change. It culminated in a rally in Battery Park that drew 1,000 people, making the event likely the largest climate change demonstration in U.S. history at the time.
McKibben was pleased with the turnout that day, but was shocked to hear it had set an attendance record. Wasn’t climate change on the radar elsewhere in the United States?
“When we read that, we realized we had a lot more work to do in the intervening six, seven, eight years,” McKibben said.
This coming Sunday, McKibben, a journalist and Middlebury College scholar in residence, will learn the impact of his efforts over the intervening eight years when he leads another, slightly larger march, this time through the streets of Manhattan.
Organized by 350.org, a group McKibben co-founded, and billed as the People’s Climate March, he expects more than 100,000 people to participate, which would make the event the largest ever held in this country. Many locals are headed to the event.
While climate change activism has grown into a movement that spans the far reaches of the country and the globe, some of its roots can be traced to Addison County, population 36,000, and the small college in its shire town. What began as an informal meeting between students, and a little-known march through the bucolic Champlain Valley countryside, has spurred one of the largest social movements in the 21st century.
DEMONSTRATORS MARCH ON Route 125 through Ripton in 2006. Independent file photo illustration/Trent Campbell
The 2006 march, the first of its kind in Addison County, was organized by a mixture of Middlebury College students and faculty, including professors McKibben and John Elder, and members of the Sunday Night Group, a student-run organization.
The Sunday Night Group was a product of a winter term class taught by economics professor Jon Isham in 2005.
Isham said his goal for the course, titled “Building the New Climate Movement,” was to get students to think critically about how to build a climate change movement. It was inspired by the grassroots operation Howard Dean built for his 2004 presidential run, which later became the framework for Democracy for America and also influenced Barack Obama’s successful bid for the presidency.
“We looked at how to do messaging, how to do it in a way to inspire people to do things,” Isham said. “We also looked at a way to embrace a sort of open-source approach, and build a movement that is non-hierarchal.”
The course involved state and national leaders on climate change, and culminated in a conference that landed on the front page of The New York Times. But more importantly, Isham said, the course led to the creation of what became known as the Sunday Night Group.
“I just found out one day that students had met that Sunday night because they were just getting so psyched, and they wanted to get other students involved,” Isham recalled. “The SNG has been subsequently the heartbeat of climate activism on this campus ever since.”
Will Bates, who graduated from Middlebury in 2006, wasn’t in Isham’s class but ended up in the SNG anyway. He said working with the group was one of the most important aspects of his time in college.
“I was part of the crew that simply couldn’t imagine letting the energy and impact of what we were up to stop just because we were graduating,” Bates said.
Isham said he was impressed that the group was entirely the work of students — they had no faculty adviser, and for a long time the SNG wasn’t even an official campus club. He said the Sunday Night Group became a laboratory for building the climate activism movement.
“They really put into practice ideas around good communication and listening and open-source approach,” Isham said. “It was that group that led the carbon neutrality effort here. They led an effort that very summer in 2005, the Road to Detroit, that was the first attempt to connect climate activists to working class folks.”
Greg Dennis, a Middlebury alumnus and friend of McKibben’s who has participated in climate activism for decades, said students from the college have long been interested in environmental activism. The Sunday Night Group, he said, was an extension of that campus culture.
“The Sunday Night Group was a very special group that coalesced around climate issues,” said Dennis, a Cornwall resident. “They were suddenly realizing how real the climate threat is.”
The SNG was also instrumental in organizing the 2007 Step It Up campaign, a series of rallies in hundreds of American cities, where citizens urged Congress to take action to curb emissions.
The group also became a training ground for activists. Former members of the SNG, who had graduated in 2007, and McKibben founded 350.org, an environmental group dedicated to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The group was committed to keeping the amount of carbon in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million — climate change is possibly irreversible above that level. 
Bates, whose thesis advisers were Isham and McKibben, was one of the students who helped found the group. He said it was a natural progression after students helped plan the 2006 Vermont Walk and Step It Up a year later.
“Our joint, post-college work evolved quite organically,” he said.
Bates admitted that in the early years of 350.org, the members struggled to figure out the most effective way to build a coalition of individuals and groups to demand action on climate change. But he praised McKibben for never wavering in his confidence in the team he assembled — many of whom, like Bates, had just graduated from college.
“Even in the earliest stages when our group of friends was super young and inexperienced, (Bill) gave us enormous space to take on leadership and creativity of our own,” Bates said. “In that way we’ve all been experimenting and learning to be part of a growing movement together.”
McKibben’s patience paid off. He said since its founding, 350.org has organized about 20,000 demonstrations in more than 150 countries worldwide. He said the group has progressed toward its goal of building a diverse climate change movement that transcends race, ethnicity and geography.
“I think that’s what we’ve done from the beginning,” McKibben said. “We’ve had the broadest swath (of people) that’s ever been organized around any fight around anything in time. The caricature of the environmentalist just isn’t true anymore.”
350.org now has a staff of 72, spread across six continents. Bates is based in Spain, and organizes the group’s operations in Europe.
Isham said he has seen firsthand the influence of 350.org on the international stage, at a UN climate conference in Denmark.
“I was in Copenhagen in December 2009, and 350 was the leading organization among thousands of organizations,” Isham said. “These were recent Middlebury grads, women and men who only four years before were running the Sunday Night Group.”
McKibben is quick to admit that the burgeoning success of 350.org is no fluke. It took activists decades of learning from mistakes  to create a nationwide movement.
Twenty-five years ago this month, McKibben published “The End of Nature,” which gained acclaim as the first book about climate change written for a general audience.
McKibben said he thought back then that based on the compelling research done by climate scientists, governments would soon take steps to address the problem.
“I thought we’d do something,” McKibben said. “I didn’t imagine we would have gotten nowhere in 25 years, and I certainly didn’t imagine (needing) to build a movement, which is not my cup of tea.”
The reluctant activist said it took him years to learn a harsh truth for any academic to confront — that having the best argument doesn’t mean you’ll win the fight.
“I kick myself for believing for too long that reason alone would carry the day,” McKibben said. “We should have been doing this work 25 years ago, and if we had, maybe we’d be further along than we are now.”
If policymakers were dubious of humankind’s role in climate change in 1989, McKibben said that the thousands of reports — from government, UN and private researchers — should leave no room for doubt.
“The science on climate has been unrefuted for a quarter century,” McKibben said. “It just gets more and more and more obvious. Every scientific academy on Earth, they’re all joined on this consensus.”
Two major climate reports released this year — one commissioned by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change and another by the White House — reached the same conclusion: Climate change is occurring, and is largely the result of manmade carbon emissions.
McKibben conceded that the reports do not deviate from what the scientific community has said for years, but do provide specific data for how different regions of the globe are affected by climate change (the White House study reports that Vermont is becoming warmer and wetter). But McKibben insists that new research, even if it only confirms previous hypothesis, is important.
“To me, they never become old news,” McKibben said of new reports. “They’re the next chapters in the most compelling story in all of human history, this overwhelming, ongoing story of quite rapid destruction of the one planet we’ve got.”
But despite the wealth of scholarship that finds human activity responsible for changes in Earth’s atmosphere, McKibben said environmentalists have not been able to convince the public and policymakers that immediate action is needed.
A poll conducted by Gallup and Yale University this year found that while 69 percent of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity, only half are personally worried about it.
“We’ve won the argument but we haven’t done anything on it,” McKibben said. “We haven’t been able to overcome the power of the status quo enough to make real change, so that we’re losing the fight.”
But perhaps McKibben and others are finally turning the tide.
The People’s Climate March will take place just one day before the United Nations convenes a climate summit with representatives from 100 nations — including the three largest carbon emitters: the United States, China and India. The White House has said President Obama will attend, as will U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
Both critics and supporters of President Obama see the talks as one of the few remaining chances he has to implement substantive policies to combat climate change.
McKibben said he hopes to show world leaders in New York for the UN conference how much popular support emissions regulations have in the U.S. and abroad.
“Our goal is to make a large amount of noise, and to demonstrate that there are a large amount of people that care a lot about climate change,” he said.
McKibben said he harbors no illusions that public demonstrations alone, no matter how large, can effect policy change. That will come from continued activism, and a commitment to build a broad coalition of Americans fed up with legislative inaction on climate change.
“It’s one day among many in the climate movement, and by itself can’t carry the day. No march does,” he said. “But just as we kind of demonstrated when we got things going in 2006, one thing can build on another and another and another.”
Isham, who plans to attend the march, said he hopes it will spur world leaders to action, and convince them that remaining silent on climate change, as opposed to taking action, is the true political liability.
“I think if it all goes well, President Obama and others will wake up Monday morning and say, ‘Wow, this is what people want, and it’s up to us to get moving,” he said.
McKibben addresses the 2006 rally in Burlington’s Battery Park. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell
Reflecting on how far the climate change movement has come since he and his acolytes first organized at Middlebury College almost a decade ago, McKibben said he felt it was appropriate Addison County served as its birthplace.
“I’m happy all this movement building really started in Addison County (rather) than anyplace else on the planet,” he said.
McKibben added that he has not organized a march in Vermont since 2006 — not because he didn’t want to, but because others have been so eager to lead.
“There’s a lot of places where there was nobody working on climate change until 350 got there,” McKibben said. “But I’ve always known there are plenty of people in Vermont that are doing the right thing. There’s probably no place in the world where there’s a higher consciousness of the problem and a more profound willingness to try and make change.”
Editor’s note: Greg Dennis is also a columnist for the Independent.
See Angelo Lynn’s editorial on the climate change movement

Share this story:

More News

Bernard D. Kimball, 76, of Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Bernard D. Kimball, 76, passed away in Bennington Hospital on Jan. 10, 2023. … (read more)

News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Share this story: