Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, published in 1989, the first book for a general audience on climate change. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, his forthcoming book is titled Deep Economy. He’s participating in a five-day walk calling for action to fight global warming — From the Road Less Traveled: Vermonters Walking Toward a Clean Energy Future.

Wednesday, 30 Aug 2006

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.

Why would anyone spend their Labor Day weekend wandering the shoulder of a highway? It’s possible no one will — but if they do, it may signal the next wave in the global-warming fight. And not a moment too soon.

By now, after almost 20 years, there’s an amazing array of people working on global warming. The environmental movement has largely become the climate-change movement (the leaders of its major organizations, the Green Group, chose the issue as a top priority at least through 2008). There are committed engineers building the next generation of windmills, and economists figuring out a thousand schemes for trading carbon emissions, and pollsters running focus groups, and documentarians trying to follow up on Al Gore’s success, and vice presidents for campus facilities installing new light bulbs in every dorm, and on and on and on.

On the long road to a cooler planet.

Photo: iStockphoto

What there haven’t been, oddly, are any people in the streets. That’s about to change. The end of this summer will see the first few mass demonstrations in U.S. history about climate change. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network gathered supporters outside the headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over the weekend, for instance, to demand that its bureaucrats own up to the link between climate change and hurricanes.

Later this week, meanwhile, a large group of us will step off from the spine of the Green Mountains in central Vermont for a five-day march into the state’s major city, Burlington. We’ll be walking the main roads on the west side of the state, rallying on town greens in the evening, holding a special church service on Sunday, and then, on Labor Day afternoon on the banks of Lake Champlain, demanding that our Senate and House candidates pledge to support not some lukewarm McCain-Lieberman silliness, but instead the relatively stiff proposals that our retiring independent senator, Jim Jeffords, recently introduced in the Senate.

Those proposals call for a number of things, including 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 and 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050 — not deep or fast enough to solve the problem, but perhaps sufficient to really spur both technological and social change. The hope (against hope) is that once the ball starts rolling, it will go faster than we now imagine, fast enough to catch up with the momentum of the warming itself.

But we’re not going to take those kinds of big steps unless and until our political leaders perceive that their constituents really want something new to happen. The problem with fighting global warming is that it’s almost never the absolute No. 1 problem on anyone’s list, the single most timely issue that will really bring people out to protest. For people who care about peace and human rights, there’s always something like the situation in Darfur or in Lebanon — an immediate crisis demanding immediate reaction. Never mind that over the long run it’s painfully clear that global warming will produce unprecedented waves of refugees and hence unprecedented levels of conflict. For people moved by social-justice issues, the poverty of the moment motivates more than the hunger that’s clearly coming as we unhinge the operation of the climate, inundate the coastal plants, and hence make marginal lives twice as shaky as before. Even for environmentalists, it’s easier to understand in your gut, and hence take real action to prevent, the threat posed by chainsaws to a grove of redwoods or by a new smokestack to the air quality of your neighborhood.

Q&A WITH MCKIBBEN

Read Meteor Blades’ interview with Bill McKibben on Daily Kos.

And so climate change has increasingly been left to the technocrats, to the voices of reason. The problem is, they’re losing. They haven’t been able to outshout the voices of the special interests, which is why there’s been no action on Capitol Hill, nothing at all.

Which in turn is why the rest of us need to speak up. Still rational (we have, after all, mountains of science on our side) but not so reasonable. Not willing to understand why nothing much can be done; not willing to seek the mildest possible compromises; above all, not willing to wait. We can speak the calm language of parts per million and insulation R-value and tradeable permit — but we can also speak the charged language of our children’s future and our planet’s glory and our Creator’s commandments.

If you live anywhere near Vermont, we hope you can join us for some part of our journey. And if you don’t, we hope even more fervently that you’ll start something similar in your neighborhood. Because the time has come.