A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on climate change, and, most recently, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He serves on Grist’s board of directors.

Thursday, 7 Jun 2007

LEBANON, New Hampshire

If you’re worried — and who isn’t? — that the pressure for action on global warming will crest and fade after the last six months of steady growth, you should have been on the town green of this small western New Hampshire burg on Wednesday night.

Twenty-five college students, the advance phalanx of a Climate Summer that will pull kids from all over to the Granite State in the next 10 weeks, put on a rousing display of Frisbee-tossing and petition-passing — and for the large, mostly older crowd that came to watch the kickoff of the organizing drive, it was special in part because it recalled the activism of an earlier day.

You can’t call your website Climate Summer without rousing memories of one of the most powerful chapters in American dissident history: the Freedom Summer of 1964, which drew college kids from across the country to Mississippi. Nothing about that history is easy — not the violence that took the lives of three volunteers in the first week, nor the tensions between well-meaning, privileged, often clueless white northerners and the people they were, sometimes patronizingly, “trying to help.” But four decades later, it stands for the idea that creativity and commitment can work real change.

There’s no threat of peril hanging over this summer’s work, but there is more than a whiff of the same creativity. Students on the Lebanon Green were busy talking up plans for a “Red, White, and Green” Fourth of July parade in Amherst, N.H., and a webcast with organizers on top of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the state’s “presidential” high peaks. Much of the work will build toward a grand march across the state August 1-5, a procession that organizer Jared Duval, who runs the Sierra Student Coalition, predicts will be the largest climate demonstration in the country’s history.

No one, of course, is under any illusions about why New Hampshire and why this summer. The odd process of choosing an American leader means that only citizens in Iowa and here in this small slice of New England actually get to meet their presidential candidates. And so it’s here that raising local consciousness can also affect presidential platforms.

In 1999, a much smaller crew of students followed the contenders as they made their pre-primary rounds, and in the process managed to convert at least one — John McCain — into a born-again climate convert. He came home from his losing campaign, convened a Senate hearing, and before too long had introduced the first serious piece of climate legislation the Senate had ever taken up.

Thanks to IRS laws, these kids (many from nearby Middlebury College in Vermont) won’t be primarily bird-dogging presidential candidates — though on their off hours, it seems likely they’ll be making their presence felt. But simply by raising the issue in every possible forum, simply by knocking on doors and passing out fliers, they’ll be doing crucial work: making the campaigns understand that climate is no longer a second-tier issue, something you can throw in the laundry list of idle promises at the end of a speech.

By now, most observers think that the fate of the U.S. climate effort may be decided in the first few months of 2009, when we find out whether the new president will take it on as an incremental issue or a transforming one. Here in New Hampshire, anyway, the battle for the second outcome is underway.