Power Shift: Looking for leadership on climate change
Two hundred-odd years ago, on his way out of office, George Washington famously advised his successors to avoid entangling alliances with foreign nations. That was in 1796 — pre-NAFTA, pre-International Monetary Fund, and pre-globalization, not to mention pre-Darwin, pre-internal combustion engine, and pre-Republican Party. Hell, back then, all of Texas was still ruled by Spain.
In the 18th century, Washington’s advice might have been sound. But in the 21st, the United States can’t avoid entanglement: Our T-shirts come from Taiwan, our PCBs drift toward Africa, California-based corporations do business in Djibouti, and policy made in D.C. affects people in Palestine.
All of which leaves the current President George entirely unmoved. Ever since taking office, he has not merely avoided but actually undone foreign alliances, entangling or otherwise. Take his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The U.S. generates fully 36 percent of the industrial world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is almost alone among industrialized nations in not ratifying Kyoto.
Bush’s attitude toward climate change amounts to an abdication of responsibility, a kind of modern-day Let Them Eat Carbon. But when you drop the ball, someone else is bound to pick it up: As the nation’s leadership actively eschews alliances (except with industry), the nation’s people are busy forging them. In dorm rooms and boardrooms, in city halls and houses of worship — all across the country, a grassroots network of activists is implementing the best maxim the environmental movement ever coined: They are thinking about global climate change, and combating it locally.
Case in point: Earlier this summer, the California legislature passed a landmark law requiring dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. The Bush administration, which is in bed with every relevant industry from auto to oil, wouldn’t have touched the legislation with a 10-foot pole, but California’s courage could change the way cars are made in our nation.
The California example is the biggest and boldest, but other, more modest climate change initiatives are springing up all over the country. Their collective impact might not be enough to stabilize the global climate, but it just might be sufficient to enact a fundamental power shift: raising public awareness, making climate change a key political issue, catapulting proactive candidates into office, and ousting do-nothing incumbents. It might also augur another kind of power shift — from dependence on energy sources that pollute our environment and alter our climate to a nation powered by clean energy.
In this special edition, Grist looks at efforts to combat climate change in the absence of federal leadership:
- Katherine Ellison, an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, examines the origins and implications of the trend toward local climate change initiatives.
- Journalist Shelley Smithson looks at university-based climate change initiatives, from buying green energy to building green dorms.
- Amanda Griscom, environmental journalist and author of the Grist column “Powers That Be,” writes about corporate initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
- Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On, takes on the big Beltway environmental organizations for their failure to exercise leadership on climate change.
- Journalist Hal Clifford takes a close look at the city of Aspen, which currently boasts the world’s highest carbon tax.
- Activist Kristin Casper offers a frontline perspective on local climate work, in Grist’s diary section.
- A carefully culled collection of links provides background information on climate change and efforts to combat it.
- Zed, Grist mascot and last of his species, goes golfing with President Bush.
- And Grist cartoonist Suzy Becker exposes the dangers of the White House Effect.
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Stories in this series:
Kristin Casper, Greenpeace Clean Energy Now!
Kristin Casper is a campaigner for Greenpeace Clean Energy Now!. She works with schools, cities, and the state of California to invest in clean energy and protect the climate and future generations from global warming. Monday, 29 Jul 2002 SAN FRANCISCO, Calif I like Monday mornings. As a Clean Energy Now! campaigner for Greenpeace, I spend most of my weekends recruiting new volunteers, getting people to sign postcards, or even powering concerts with our solar/bio-diesel truck, The Rolling Sunlight. The truck has a solar array powerful enough to provide juice for three energy-efficient homes for an entire day. Compared to …
Tackling climate change at the local level
Sister Evelyn Mattern had two goals in mind as she stood vigil recently with a Protestant colleague in a gas mask, singing, “This Air is My Air!” at the North Carolina statehouse. Her short-term aim was to lend support to stricter regulations for the state’s coal-fired power plants. Yet she also had a loftier, long-range objective, one increasingly shared by a wide array of activists: to transform the way Americans think about energy in time to stave off global warming. “I don’t think we’re going to have a mass movement anytime soon, but I don’t think it takes that many …
Universities combat climate change
“Do it in the dark!” That’s the rallying cry at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where an ambitious campaign is under way to cut greenhouse gases. Sure, climate change activism — conserving energy, using renewable fuels, and constructing eco-friendly buildings — isn’t as sexy as marching against Vietnam or burning bras. But in an increasingly warm world, working to reverse global climate change may be the next major social movement on American college campuses. While the U.S. government snubs the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, a small but growing number of colleges and universities are weaning themselves from carbon and …
Cutting emissions to raise profits
As the epidemic of accounting scandals continues to spread and the term Corporate Responsibility rings with the oppressive severity of an 11th Commandment, it’s nice to catch a little glimpse of the brighter side: A growing number of U.S. companies have been making voluntary pledges to reform their internal operations in order to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming. And surprisingly — or maybe not so surprisingly — the trend has less to do with greenwashing, reputation-polishing, or do-gooder ambitions than with the far more authentic corporate drive to improve the bottom line. These corporate climate initiatives …
Beltway green groups need to turn up the heat
Inside the Beltway, the climate movement is comatose. During the Clinton-Gore years, while the U.S. dragged its feet in international climate negotiations, the major national environmental groups allowed themselves to be used by the administration. Seduced by the former vice president’s rhetoric, the groups watched their issue disappear from the political arena when Al Gore sacrificed his convictions to his ambitions and made global warming the subject of a personal vow of silence during his presidential campaign. The inability of the nation’s large, mainstream environmental groups to mobilize the public around the immense threat of climate change — and their …
Aspen, Colo., taxes its way to a healthier climate
Randy Udall charges more for a ton of carbon dioxide than anybody else in the world. Udall runs a unique, two-and-a-half-year-old program in Aspen and surrounding Pitkin County, Colo., that charges new homeowners up to $100,000 if they exceed the “energy budget” allotted to their property by the local building code. The money collected under the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program is invested by Udall in energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects. REMP’s goal is to keep three tons of carbon out of the air for every excess ton of carbon spewed on behalf of profligate new homeowners in Aspen. People can …
Links related to “Power Shift,” a special edition of Grist
Looking for more info on global climate change? Look no farther. The links below can help you find what you need. General Climate Change Information The Smithsonian Institution offers one of the slickest websites around when it comes to climate change (after Grist’s, of course). This online exhibition on global warming, developed in partnership with Environmental Defense, includes dramatic visual examples of climate change in action and statistics that will shock you, plus games to learn more about global warming and suggestions to reduce your own energy consumption. Climate Change Solutions, a project of the Pembina Institute, provides resources in …