Fresh Perspective on the Climate Crisis

In the last several years, the two of us been lucky enough to get to know hundreds of fellow citizens who are building the climate movement. If you're not sure whether you can play a role, we can assure you: becoming active in this new movement does not require expertise, only a commitment to making a difference.

We are unlikely editors of a book on climate change. Neither of us has formal training in the science of the issue. Neither of us has spent the last decade or two dressed in suits exhorting policy makers to take action on climate change. In fact, neither of us has been actively engaged with climate change issues at all, until very recently. The reason was simple: it seemed to be the domain of natural scientists, engineers, and policy analysts. As social scientists, we were both drawn less to the corridors of the United Nations than to diverse places around the world where we tried to make a difference in the lives of others: the dirt pathways of villages and towns in Africa and the Pacific Northwest and the hallways of universities and conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

By the early 00s, we—like many others—finally realized that climate change had the potential to override all other environmental and economic development gains. So we stepped back to consider the story of how the world got to this point. The story begins at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the world's growing use of carbon-intensive forms of energy—first coal, then fuel oil and natural gas—began to help much of the world's population dramatically improve their lives. Coupled with human ingenuity and growth of international markets, the world's use of fossil fuels unleashed unprecedented levels of well-being. Since the late 1800s, the average human lifespan has almost doubled in much of the world, and the quality of that life has similarly improved. Well over four billion of the six-and-a-half billion people now living on our planet are much healthier, are much better educated, and have many more choices than just about everyone who was alive in the early 1800s.

Yet many have not benefited. More than one-and-a-half billion people still live on the equivalent of one or two U.S. dollars a day, with little access to clean water and other essentials of a dignified life. Malaria and HIV/AIDS devastate the lives of millions. In addition, the extraction of fossil fuels, in too many cases, concentrates power in the hands of a few and damages the environment—and the natural capital—on which the poor depend daily.

In the last several years, the two of us—perhaps like many readers of this book—have finally come to understand the rest of this story. For as the world's fossil-fuel-driven economy has grown, the burning of all that carbon has thickened the heat-trapping blanket of greenhouses gasses in our atmosphere. Consequently, the global mean temperature (which over the earth's longest time spans has moved up and down with natural variation of heat-trapping gasses) has gone up approximately one degree Fahrenheit in the last one hundred years. Although this change may sound modest, the earth's delicate balance has already been affected, as have large segments of the world's population. In this age of global warming, one can't say definitively that any given natural calamity is "caused" by climate change. As an indicator of what is occurring and what awaits, however, simply think of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

If we continue as usual in the decades ahead—if those of us in the developed world keep driving our gasoline-powered cars, flipping on our coal-powered lights, and turning up the thermostats of our propane-heated homes, soon joined by families in China and India and elsewhere around the world who are pulling themselves out of poverty—we will double the width of the world's heat-trapping blanket. The temperature increase by the end of the twenty-first century will then be at least four degrees, maybe eight, resulting in a world that, by just about every measure, will not resemble our own. Unless the world community takes action, experts foresee a struggling global economy, an unprecedented increase in the number and magnitude of natural disasters as well as deaths and injuries from heat waves, asthma, and insect-borne diseases. Vulnerable populations, including the poorest households in the developing and developed world, will bear the brunt of these changes in the decades ahead.*

By 2003, after years of being immersed in work to alleviate poverty and promote sustainability, we began to focus on solutions to the climate crisis. Our collaboration started at a small workshop convened by Sissel and Hilary Bradbury at Case Western Reserve University. Twenty workshop participants, mostly social science professors and NGO-based change advocates, came together to ask how we can fundamentally change the ways in which we live together—with all living beings and systems—so that future generations not only survive but thrive. Knowing that the path to a more sustainable future would require the mobilization of many, we discussed recent successful examples of social change, such as women's growing empowerment globally, the anti-apartheid shift in South Africa, and the political "green" movement in Europe.

On the last day of that conference, we gathered with others, including future Ignition contributors Mary Lou Finley, William Chaloupka, and Julian Agyeman, to share our fears about global warming. With lessons from successful social movements still fresh in our minds, we soon agreed on the need for a strong, diverse, and broad-ranging climate movement within the United States and beyond. As the coffee flowed, we realized that we could share some hopeful signs about the birth of just such a movement. We noted that the Green House Network, under the inspired leadership of Eban Goodstein—a Lewis and Clark College economics professor by day and a dedicated activist by night and weekend (and author of chapter 11)—was training climate activists nationwide, using the successful methods of the earliest civil rights organizers. The Massachusetts Climate

* To learn more about the science of global warming, we recommend two indispensable books that began as articles in the New Yorker: Bill McKibben's classic The End of Nature (now available in a revised edition) and Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe (see the References at the end of this book). Regular updates on climate science can be found at

Action Network was helping residents conduct greenhouse gas inventories and rally political commitment for clean energy statewide. Groups such as Ceres, Businesses for Social Responsibility, and the Society for Organizational Learning were nurturing climate leadership in corporate boardrooms. Students on college campuses nationwide were mobilizing through the Climate Campaign and the Sierra Student Coalition, building pragmatic, creative initiatives to support their goals of a clean-energy future and a more just society.

Reflecting on these promising efforts, our group asked what could be done to ignite more widespread action. We came up with no immediate answers that day, but the two of us believed that it was a conversation worth continuing.

In the following months, we took stock of who was doing what. By the spring of 2004, we had seen a proliferation of initiatives, including citizen petitions, public education campaigns, and e-mail alerts, by national environmental groups such as Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Union of Concerned Scientists. We also began to uncover innovative approaches by new groups on the state, regional, and national levels. For example, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a coalition of Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and mainline and evangelical Protestant leaders, had begun to help concerned persons of faith "strengthen their efforts and amplify their voices in the public square and the halls of government."1 Activists working on issues as diverse as human rights and the health of the world's oceans were getting into the act, as was Hollywood. All this promising activity was suggesting the birth of something new.

By the summer of 2004, we joined two dozen other concerned citizens for a three-day Green House Network workshop on an island in Boston harbor and learned how to reach out to family members, neighbors, and coworkers. Inspired by that gathering, we made a commitment to start the "What Works" project ( to use our own resources and know-how to jump-start this new movement. The project's first major activity was a four-week winter-term seminar at Middlebury College in January 2005 titled "Building the New Climate Movement." In this course, students studied theories of social change and led service-

learning projects with a representative sample of leading climate groups, including Clean Air-Cool Planet, Energy Action, Environmental Defense, and the Green House Network.

The class culminated in the second major activity: a three-day workshop at Middlebury College titled "What Works? New Strategies for a Melting Planet" that included the participation of more than a hundred students, scholars, leading climate activists, and citizens. During the workshop, which was covered in a front-page article in the New York Times and elsewhere in the national media and filmed for the documentary Everything's Cool, participants had the opportunity to share, test, and build their movement strategies. They were also challenged by leading thinkers (many of whom became contributors to this book) to reassess their assumptions about how to fight global warming. Eban Goodstein kicked off the event with a call for focused political action at the national level; Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, coauthors of The Death of Environmen-talism, made a strong case for tapping into American aspirations; William Chaloupka, a long-time observer of the environmental movement, declared that it was time for traditional environmentalists to shake things up; Mary Lou Finley, who helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.'s work in Chicago, offered an analytical overview of movement building; John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, called for a new generation of pragmatic "troublemakers" making good and necessary kinds of trouble; and Bill McKibben concluded by saying that it was time to experiment and find the things that work. The Middlebury workshop, in large part thanks to the leadership of many determined college students, offered us all a vision of hope.

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