As Congress comes closer to passing national climate and energy legislation, there will be groups calling on us to support specific proposals and leverage our entire grassroots force towards lobbying for their passage. While this is an important role to play, it is not the entirety of our role as young people.
Let’s take a step back: in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming, emissions will need to be cut massively. Exactly how massively is the subject of debate, but the real target should be zero emissions by as soon as possible. At the recent Copenhagen Climate Congress this week, Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the widely acclaimed Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said he had underestimated the risks of global warming:
“The reason is that emissions are growing faster than we thought, the absorption capacity of the planet is less than we thought, the probability of high temperatures is likely higher than we thought, and some of the effects are coming faster than we thought.”
Joining Stern at the Copenhagen Climate Congress, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, said that the focus of international action to fight climate change should be on sustainable global development and clean technology transfer, not simply emissions cuts.
How we put our first few steps forward is more critical than where we go in 2050. Just imagine trying to predict what the world would look like in 2009 in 1959! So what do we do?
To state what should be obvious, we need to simultaneously reduce emissions, transform the way we consume our energy and material resources and improve the quality of life for the billions living in poverty right now. Our nation has had over 30 years to solve these problems and has done virtually nothing meaningful. Why?
The difficulty, my friends, is that initially global warming solutions were framed in terms of regulating pollution, but for the most part greenhouse gases are invisible so the public does not have direct interaction with them. So while people may be concerned about global warming, the clamor for action simply falls flat in light of the economic crisis (interesting results from a recent Gallup poll about this). The climate movement has shifted its messaging to using this economic crisis as an opportunity to transform our energy system, create new green jobs and improve the health and quality of life for all Americans. This is a major step in the right direction.
But there is a lot of national inertia to overcome to make this vision a reality. So what needs to happen?
- Pass national climate, energy, and economic development policies to move the entire country forward, this year.
- To do this, we need to build the public support large enough and loud enough that Congress listens.
- To build public support, we need to engage the members of our community in open and honest discussions about what this transformation will look like and actually begin to implement local solutions.
but above all,
- We need to sustain the public involvement to make sure that support does not simply fade after this year.
One possible outcome to passing national climate legislation is that, if we have not built the public support behind it, in 2010 or 2012 we could see a backlash against these policies. Our traditional opposition is not going to go away after we pass climate legislation, and will likely do everything in their power to undermine the strength of these bills. And unless we build the public support to point where this does not become a liability for the next election cycle, climate legislation might be a flash in the pan, so to speak.
So this means we, the climate movement, must reach out to our communities, engage all parts of the political spectrum in dialogue about how we can turn our economy around through sustainable development. As Saul Alinsky taught, we must meet people where they are at. With the public most concerned about the economy, we must address those concerns in a meaningful way. The task is to develop a sense of hope to complement the current sense urgency.
We must be in it for the long haul. Our role is not only to pass climate legislation this year or stop all the coal plants possible; it is also to build the demand and action towards sustainable development into a lasting and popular movement.