A White House road trip with a solar rock star
I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn’t keep them
back, because it’s a tough thing to learn for the first time how politics can work.
If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action. As Jean Altomare told The New York Times, “We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet.” And Amanda Nelson added, “I didn’t expect I’d get to shake President Obama’s hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care.”
Did I say I was impressed with these young women? I was more than impressed. Nobody I went to Harvard with would have handled it as powerfully as they did (maybe because they weren’t looking for a job in the White House someday). A few hot tears were the right response, followed by getting on with the work.
Our next question, out there on the sidewalk, was how to handle the situation — which, indeed, we had to do right away, because in today’s blog-speed world, you’re supposed to put out a statement to reporters, not to mention tweet. So how to play it?
The normal way is to claim some kind of victory: we could have said we had an excellent exchange of views, and that the administration had taken seriously our plea. But that would have been lying, and at 350.org, we long ago decided not to do that. The whole premise of our operation, beginning with the number at its core, is that we had better always tell the truth about our actual predicament.
Alternatively, we could have rounded on the administration, and taken our best shot. In fact, it would have been easy enough right then and there for me to chain myself to the White House fence with the panel next to me. It would have gotten some serious press (though not as much as if I’d burned a Koran). And in fact, some of our supporters were counseling that I head for the fence immediately.
We got an email, for instance, from a veteran campaigner I deeply respect who said: “Show Obama you can’t be taken for granted, and I predict you will be amazed at the good things that come your way. This is a watershed moment: if they think they can get away with this with you, they’ll judge they can get away with more in the future. If you show them they can’t get away with it (at the very least without embarrassment), they will come your way more in the future. It’s power politics, pure and simple. This is how the game is played. Get their respect!”
And I think he was probably right. As he pointed out, Obama was even then on the phone with the mustachioed Florida geezer, the stack of Korans, and the following of 50 or less. But I couldn’t do it, not then and there. Because … well, because at some level I’m a political wuss.
I couldn’t stand to make that enthusiasm gap any wider, not seven weeks before an election. True, it’s the moment when you have some leverage, but no less true: the other side was running candidate after candidate who literally couldn’t wait to boast about how they didn’t believe in climate change. (Check out R.L. Miller’s highly useful list of “climate zombies.”) That’s why we’re deeply engaged in fights this fall like the battle to defeat California’s Prop 23 and save the state’s landmark climate law. As a group we can’t endorse candidates, but I came home and spent part of the weekend mailing small checks to Senate candidates I admire, men like Paul Hodes from New Hampshire, who have fought hard for serious climate legislation.
And a confession. We’d walked past Obama’s official portrait on the way out and, despite the meeting we’d just had, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that he was president. I could remember my own enthusiasm from two years ago that had me knocking on doors across New Hampshire. I admired his character and his smarts, and if I admire them a little less now, the residue’s still there.
And so I couldn’t help thinking — part of me at least — like this: the White House political team has decided that if they put solar panels up on the roof, Fox News will use that as one more line of attack; that they somehow believe the association with Jimmy Carter is the electoral equivalent of cooties; and that, in the junior high school lunchroom that now comprises our political life, they didn’t want to catch any.
If that’s their thinking, I doubt they’re on the mark. As far as I can tell, the right has a far better understanding of the power of symbols. Witness the furor they’ve kicked up over “the Mosque at Ground Zero.” My feeling is: we should use the symbols we’ve got, and few are better than a solar panel. Still, with the current craziness in mind, I was willing to give them a pass. So we just put out a press release saying that we’d failed in our mission and walked away.
At least for now, but not forever, and really not for much longer.
On October 10, we’re having our great global work party, and ever since Obama stiffed us, registrations for its events have been soaring. Last week, with the heads of Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, I issued a call for ideas about how to mount a campaign of civil disobedience around climate. Not a series of stunts, but a real campaign. At coal plants, and drilling sites — and at the places where our politicians do their work.
Actually, I’ll be surprised if the White House doesn’t put up solar panels within a year. But even if they do, that would just be the barest of beginnings. We’ve run out of spare decades to deal with climate change — the summer’s events in the Arctic, in Russia, in Pakistan proved that with great clarity. I may be a wuss, but I’m also scientifically literate. We know what we need to do, and we will do it. Enthusiastically.