Global Warming, Local Hope


As the evidence of global warming becomes inescapable, I fear Americans will switch instead to a fatalistic pessimism. Maybe it’s real and maybe it’s our fault, this sentiment goes, but at this point there’s nothing we can do, so we’re off the hook.

It’s hard to deal with melting arctic glaciers, Katrina refugees who might never return to New Orleans, and floods that recently covered half of Bangladesh. Weather-related catastrophes cost a record $225 billion last year, with the impact of global climate change just beginning. Add in a president deep in denial, and it’s tempting to feel powerless.  We can’t even escape to the Weather Channel without a sense of impending doom.

Yet people are beginning to act, sometimes from unexpected places. By so doing they’re opening up new possibilities. The heads of BP Amoco and the world’s largest reinsurance companies, Swiss Re and Munich Re, have spoken out. So has the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, joined by other key evangelical leaders like the country’s largest megachurch pastor, Reverend Rick Warren.  In Britain, even the Conservatives are demanding the issue be made a top national priority. In spring 2005, in Seattle, where I live, Mayor Greg Nickels recognized that even though the Bush administration was still denying the consequences of global warming, local mayors could still take a stand.
Nickels committed Seattle to meet or exceed the Kyoto standards of greenhouse gas reduction and challenged the mayors of other cities to make the same commitment. Now 238 cities have signed the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to Omaha, Charlottesville, and Laredo. Together they represent 44 million people and greenhouse gas emissions exceeding those of the combined population of Great Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Nickels also created a committee of environmental, business and community leaders to issue a Green Ribbon Report on specific ways Seattle could cut back. They just issued their report after a year of work, and the municipally owned utility, City Light, will now meet all new electrical demand with conservation and renewable resources-they’ve already been giving rebates for energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. Seattle will expand infrastructure for public transportation, biking and walking. The city will offer incentives and requirements for city contractors to use more fuel-efficient vehicles or ones using bio-fuels, and work with major employers to increase car-sharing.  A Green Building program will support conservation in residential and commercial construction and renovation.

The city also issued a challenge to local businesses to meet or surpass the same reduction levels: Six of the top fifty local employers have so far agreed for their local and in some cases national and international operations, including Starbucks, outdoor equipment coop REI, a major real estate development company, the Port of Seattle, and the international cement and building materials company LaFarge SA.  The University of Washington, the other major local employer to sign on , was already part of a campus-focused environmental network called  the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (www.aashe.org), and schools like Yale, Oberlin, Cornell, the University of California system, and the Universities of Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma have similarly pledged to meet or exceed the same standards.

It’s tempting to dismiss these initiatives as insignificant, given the magnitude of the challenge. Cuts in greenhouse emissions need to be far more drastic than Kyoto’s limited reach of reducing emissions to 7% below the 1990 levels by 2012.. But efforts like Seattle’s and some of the other cities and businesses offer a path forward, a way to act despite the Bush administration’s massive denial. Each city inspires the next. So does each business. The more concrete the solutions, the less credible the arguments that nothing can be done. If a city can buy efficient cars and trucks for its fleets, or weatherize houses, or offer incentives for alternative energy generation, then so can any state or the U.S. federal government.  If a company the size of Starbucks can decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, then so can other corporations. If the University of Washington or University of Oklahoma can find ways to lighten their impact, so can other campuses. Each initiative provides a model for others to follow.

I spent this past Earth Day with the Sierra Club canvassing the suburban neighborhoods of Bellevue, Washington State’s fifth largest city. Going door to door in a swing Congressional district, we distributed coupons, supplied by the local utility, for discounted compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, handed out postcards urging Bellevue’s mayor to sign the national mayor’s agreement, and enlisted volunteers for future efforts. Most important, we talked with ordinary citizens about global warming and what they could do.
Had Seattle not taken the initial step, our task would have been far harder.

The institutions and individuals taking these actions aren’t perfect. I dislike how Starbucks undermines the rich culture of local independent coffee houses. I’ve disagreed with Seattle Mayor Nickels on a key transportation initiative and what I consider excessive deference to downtown development interests. But on this issue, they’re taking risks to do what’s right, and we’re all the beneficiaries.

As Al Gore pointed out at the press conference announcing Seattle’s Green Ribbon report, setting and meeting even initially modest targets opens up new possibilities. This occurred when countries worldwide phased out the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were destroying the stratospheric ozone layer that protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation. At first political leaders and leaders of affected businesses said this was impossible, that alternatives were unavailable or prohibitively costly. But even though the scientific data was still in flux, and CFCs had wide uses in electronics, refrigeration, plastics, telecommunications, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture, 24 nations, including the U.S., committed to the specific reduction standards of the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

He wasnusinesses responded with major innovation, soon surpassing the standards. Northern Telecom developed and licensed new ways to clean electronic circuit boards. Greenpeace and a former East German company developed CFC-free refrigerators, which were sold throughout Europe and which German and Swiss aid programs promoted in China and India.  The US food packaging industry stopped using CFCs in creating Styrofoam packaging, and China replaced their Styrofoam with a biodegradable product made from grass and straw. By a few years later, a series of amendments raised the standards still further and the bulk of the world’s nations had signed on. With CFCs no longer accumulating in the atmosphere, the ozone layer is gradually beginning to recover.

These are hopeful signs. But how do we act if we don’t hold a position of visible power, if we’re not the mayor of a city or a corporate executive?
We can take modest, or not so modest, individual steps, improving the insulation of our houses, installing solar water heaters, driving less, and buying energy-efficient cars, lighting and appliances. But voluntary efforts will never be enough, so we also have to compel large political and economic institutions to act. That means getting out from behind our computers and participating in efforts, like the Sierra Club’s, to educate and sway voters in swing districts, showing up at community meetings, registering voters, convincing local civic groups to speak out.  It means joining efforts like the international environmental boycott of Exxon/Mobil for being the prime financial supporter of the denial of global warming.   And pressuring political, economic, and religious leaders to take a stand, both those whose hearts are in the right place but who have so far lacked the courage, and those who are willfully blind or just haven’t come to grips with the facts. It means levying enough collective power so that these leaders have no choice but to respond.

One way to bring the issue home would be to create a context where our neighbors and colleagues can really begin telling the local stories. Farmers could talk about how changing patterns are affecting local agriculture, hunters and hikers about shifts in the patterns of wild animals and birds, skiers about melting snowpacks, backyard gardeners about the changing cycles of local plants, physicians about changing disease vectors from insect and rodent migration. If droughts, floods, tornadoes, or forest fires have threatened a local city or town, citizens could talk about that as well, weaving in discussion of the larger global patterns and of the choices we can make to respond. If we coordinated these testimonies well enough, they’d go a long way toward making some of the invisible changes visible.

We need to take action to promote further alternatives, not only as ends in themselves, but also to fight denial, which remains a powerful force. As Al Gore points out in An Inconvenient Truth, Science magazine analyzed 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject published between 1993 and 2003. Not one dissented from the international scientific consensus-that human activity is dramatically increasing the earth’s temperature, in ways that will bring severe consequences. But because of promotion by corporations like Exxon/Mobil of a handful of global warming deniers, over half the news stories during the same period presented the issue as if there were a serious scientific debate. In the wake of Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and efforts like the local cities initiatives and Gore’s powerful film, citizens may finally be ready to acknowledge global warming and its consequences, though the Bush administration is proposing to cut $152 million from federal energy conversation programs.  Everywhere I go, people acknowledge how strange their local weather has been in recent years. But they don’t always connect it to the larger patterns that threaten the habitability of the earth

Efforts like the city-by-city campaigns and Gore’s powerful film are helping to bring this critical issue to the public square. But they’ll only bear fruit with the massive participation of ordinary citizens. However we decide to participate, it’s not enough to follow the news, lament the parade of disasters, and long for someone else to solve the problem. If we don’t act, the potential of even the wisest and most visionary alternative plans will remain just that: potential. If we demand that our economic and political leaders make them a reality, we have a chance to solve what may be the most profound crisis we’ve faced while inhabiting this planet. Each time we can convince a major institution to change, this encourages others to follow.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org.  To get his articles directly, email [email protected] with the subject
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