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Greg Dennis: Taking the next steps on climate change

The future launches at you in the most unexpected ways. It happened to some of us a few years ago when the climate movement suddenly took wing in Vermont.
As the climate crisis now grows ever more dire, the movement is shifting into higher gear. That’s got me reflecting on all the changes and where we might go from here.
In 2006, I had just moved out of town into a house surrounded by woods and meadows. As I was settling in, a friend emailed me with a crazy idea: Would I consider letting some people sleep in my meadow? And by the way, could I feed them dinner and breakfast?
My friend explained that a small group was planning to walk for five days from Ripton to Burlington. They wanted to use the march as a way to call for more government action on climate change. And they needed a place to camp that first night.
I loved the idea of hosting the walkers, even though most of my moving boxes hadn’t yet been opened. Over a hundred of us launched the march, banners and flags waving, by winding down Route 125 from the Robert Frost wayside to the Middlebury green, for speeches and lemonade.
By the time the through-walkers had reached my house, we had enlisted friends to cook dinner for them. The meadow was dotted with colorful tents in the late-summer light as everyone got settled for the night. We gathered around the campfire for slow easy chat and a few songs.
The next morning, in the just-in-time way of these events, another crew showed up to cook breakfast for the 20 or so overnighters. Among the overnight group, of course, was Bill McKibben, one of the organizers of the walk.
Bill was emerging from his writerly cocoon to become a global climate activist. He was joined in the meadow by a number of older folks plus Middlebury College students who, along with McKibben, would form 350.org (which soon became a world leader in combatting global warming).
To everyone’s surprise, that small band of hardy walkers was joined by over a thousand others on the final, Labor Day trek from Shelburne Farms to Burlington.
At that point in time it was the largest-ever demonstration in the U.S. tied to climate change. Even the Republican candidates for the U.S. House and Senate signed a pledge committing themselves to support vast reductions in carbon pollution.
In addition to 350.org, that march spawned scores of affiliates around the world, including 350 Vermont. Among the latter’s successes was the recent campaign to get something like 40 Vermont towns to call for an end to most new fossil-fuel infrastructure projects in our state.
Now, nearly 13 years after that first march, 350 Vermont has organized another climate walk. It’s called Next Steps. It focuses on the many climate solutions that have grown in Vermont since 2006 — and all that remains to be done.
Next Steps begins in Middlebury this Friday, April 5, at 10 a.m. and will wend through Bristol, Hinesburg, Richmond and Middlesex to Montpelier. Over 140 people have signed up to do part or all of the walk.
In the Sixties and Seventies, activists took to the streets. In Vermont, we take to the roads.
The walk will culminate at the Statehouse with calls for legislative action to: block new gas pipelines, provide much more financial support for weatherization and other conservation measures, and act on related social justice issues. (See event details at 350vermont.org/nextsteps.)
So what has changed in the climate movement between that first walk in 2006 and Next Steps in 2019?
I see at least two major shifts. The first is the linkage the movement has established between fighting climate change, as narrowly defined, and larger social justice issues. The second is the way action on climate has reached into so many parts of life on earth.
In 2006 we walked to focus exclusively on climate dangers. By comparison, this year’s event will also emphasize linkages to social justice and call for action on migrant justice, indigenous rights, racial justice, economic justice and demilitarization. The Green New Deal shares this approach.
The second shift — the expanded reach and growth of climate concerns throughout society — can be seen in many sectors including:
-Businesses, especially solar and wind energy companies in the U.S. China, India, Germany, etc.;
-Fossil fuel divestment, a movement that has been joined by hundreds of entities with over $9 trillion in investments;
-Religion, where scores of organizations are divesting and the Pope issued the landmark Laudato si’ encyclical (“On care for our common home”);
-Civil rights, exemplified by the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.
Another signpost is the massive growth of more local actions. Because the movement expects nothing from the climate deniers in the White House, it has enlisted cities and states. It has also organized hundreds of citizen campaigns, ranging from the “water protector” native people resisting the Keystone XL pipeline to, well, the Next Steps walk.
All of which is to say that on their way from Middlebury to Montpelier, the Next Steppers won’t just be walking uphill. They will also have the winds of recent history and the power of a global movement at their backs.
Greg Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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