Editorial: Climate march is one way to turn the tide, win the battle

As organizers of the upcoming People’s Climate March in New York City prepare for the 100,000 people expected to participate in this coming Saturday’s march, here’s the takeaway comment from one of the world’s leading climate change advocates: We’ve won the argument, says Ripton resident and Middlebury College scholar in residence Bill McKibben, but we’re losing the fight.
More specifically, McKibben said in a story in today’s Addison Independent that the movement has not been able “to overcome the power of the status quo enough to make real change.” That change, he said, would be turning the tide against rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Seven years ago, McKibben and others at Middlebury College launched 350.org, a grassroots climate change movement so called because 350 parts per million was the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at which point climate change might become irreversible. At the time, the carbon dioxide levels were well below that; today, we’re approaching 400 ppm and it’s still increasing.
Looking back on his 25-year effort to warn the world of climate change and its impending perils, McKibbben said he now understands another reality: that the force of reason is not enough to win the battle.
“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… I kick myself for believing for too long that reason alone would carry the day. We should have been doing this work 25 years ago, and if we had, maybe we’d be further along than we are now.”
McKibben is being too hard on himself and the movement he has helped build. Change in the face of one of the world’s largest and wealthiest industries — the fossil fuel industry — was never going to be easy.
What has gone right is a change in the public’s awareness and attitude. Americans, by in large, agree that climate change is a reality and its cause is, at least in part, due to manmade carbon dioxide polluting the atmosphere. Most people also agree, polls show, that efforts to curb fossil fuel use should be pursued. Even oil and gas companies are beginning to see the wisdom of projecting a “green” image.
Nationwide and world-wide, efforts are also underway to support renewable energy — an industry that is growing rapidly because of government subsidies, a recognition by nations that weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is good public policy as well as good long-term economics.
McKibben’s point, nonetheless, is real and urgent. More needs to be done to turn the tide and stop, then reverse, the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.
This Saturday’s People’s Climate March will, leaders hope, mark the day the tide turns.
“It’s one day among many in the climate movement, and by itself can’t carry the day. No march does,” McKibben told the Independent. “But just as we kind of demonstrated when we got things going in 2006, one thing can build on another and another and another.”
“I think if it all goes well,” added Middlebury College economics Professor Jon Isham, a long-time colleague of McKibben’s in the climate change movement, “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.”
To be successful, however, the movement must learn to be as collaborative as it is principled — steps that activists often are not eager to accept.
In Addison County, for example, the extension of the proposed Vermont Gas pipeline from Chittenden County to Middlebury and then on to Rutland poses a difficult conundrum: On the one hand, many Middlebury-area businesses and residents, as well as those in Vergennes, are eager to take advantage of the cost savings natural gas currently provides over either propane or oil to heat their homes and businesses. At current rates, savings are as much as 50-60 percent, while carbon emissions at the point of consumption are 20 percent or so less than burning oil or propane.
On the other side of the conundrum, Vermonters are well aware of the dangers posed by climate change. Most agree that, as a society and as individuals, we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and promote renewable energy use.
But drill down into that sentiment and not many agree that we need to stop fossil fuel use “cold turkey” and, in the process, cost Vermonters their jobs. It can be argued that some areas in Vermont are at a tipping point in their economies, which is definitely true in Rutland County. With downward spirals in population and job growth in the past few decades, the last thing the Rutland County economy needs are more reasons for industry and businesses to move elsewhere. To a lesser extent (our population and job growth is roughly stagnant) the same applies to Addison County.
What’s needed, then, is a strategy that brings workers, homeowners, businesses and industry into the same room with those environmentalists working to stem the tide of climate change. In Vermont, if not the rest of the nation, most of us are on the same side of the argument, but differ on how to achieve the desired results.
Addison Independent columnist Eric Davis, for instance, writes in a column on this page about needed changes to the Public Service Board process, a process he says is biased in favor of the industry and against the public. That’s a proposal many Vermonters could rally behind and might do more to make sure future energy decisions reflect the public will, rather that take the side of industry.
Divestment is another issue that could garner the support of most Vermonters. As state citizens we should encourage the Legislature and governor to divest all state funds from the fossil fuel industry. If Vermont led the way, perhaps other states would follow. Residents should do the same with their individual portfolios. Vermonters should advocate that state colleges and universities, as well as private colleges, do the same. As a movement that carries greater weight than publicity stunts like chaining oneself to a pipe and being arrested in the process.
What’s needed are measured steps that a majority of the public can rally around, not another decade pitting one side against the other in a classic power struggle — an approach that creates partisans on either side of the issue and allows for little nuance in the debate.
A better approach is to encourage the business community to embrace the message of climate change activists and for the activists to embrace the business community’s push for a vibrant economy. If the two sides can understand and respect the others’ argument, we can’t help but think the end goal will be achieved much sooner than if we stand on opposite sides of the aisle and hurl insults for the next several decades. If the current Congress can teach us anything, it’s that becoming more and more partisan is not the way to get things done.
This weekend’s march is not likely to embrace this collaborative approach, as much of the nation still needs to accept the reality of climate change. But after the 100,000 strong send their message across the country and around the world, perhaps Vermonters can pioneer a way to make the needed changes become a reality.
Angelo S. Lynn

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