Despite Mixed Signals on Climate, the Time for Action Is Now

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Above: “Photo petition” student climate action, courtesy of It’s Getting Hot in Here: Dispatches from the Youth Climate Movement

President Obama has signaled that national health care should take precedence over climate change. But his first major speech to the UN, later this month, will be on global warming.

Following the death of Ted Kennedy a few weeks ago, Senators John Kerry and Barabara Boxer delayed the introduction of a climate bill in the Senate. It’s now looking increasingly unlikely that the Senate will pass a bill at all this year, although Boxer still maintains that she plans to introduce one in early October.

With all these mixed signals coming from our elected representatives, where does that leave the movement to stop climate change?

Not surprisingly, the movement is somewhat divided, basically into two camps. The first is probably best represented by the recently launched Clean Energy Works coalition, which aims to “muscle a climate and energy bill through Congress, despite skepticism from coal and manufacturing state Democrats.”

Clean Energy Works is made up of some 60 “unions, environmentalists, hunters, farmers, veterans, and religious groups,” and plans to deploy field staff in 28 states to drum up support for the Senate’s climate bill.

Then there are those environmental groups, like Greenpeace (where I work), Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and a handful of others, that oppose the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the House by a slim margin and forms the basis of the Senate bill. These groups criticize the bill as too weakened by the compromises Representatives Markey and Waxman had to make to get it through the House. (You can read Greenpeace’s criticism of Waxman-Markey here.)

Rather than actively working to defeat the bill, however, Greenpeace has focused on urging Obama to be a leader on the issue, especially in the run up to the UN climate talks happening in Copenhagen this December.

A strong domestic bill would give the US a great platform from which to lead the world’s response to global warming and forge an effective climate treaty in Copenhagen. The Waxman-Markey bill, however, has not been regarded as “strong” by international media, so it’s not likely to provide the platform the US delegation will need to really push through a bold vision for the world’s response to global warming.

The stakes could not be higher, or the need for a strong global climate treaty more urgent. Showing just how severe the crisis could become if we don’t do something soon, even military and intelligence establishments – hardly bastions of progressive thought – are sounding alarms. Senator Kerry himself has launched a new campaign to highlight the security issues that global warming will represent, saying:

Climate change injects a major new source of chaos, tension, and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity, and human displacement on a staggering scale. We risk fanning the flames of failed-statism and offering glaring opportunities to the worst actors in our international system. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us.

President Obama will speak at a UN special session on global warming at the end of the month. Perhaps this signals a renewed commitment to leading on the issue. But if we learned anything from the watering down of Waxman-Markey at the behest of coal companies, and the deceptive Astroturf campaigns launched by Big Oil and Big Coal, Obama will need as big a groundswell of support as he can get.

Even if you understand all this, even if you recognize how severe a problem global warming is, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the way forward.

But I think it’s really quite simple: Inaction is the biggest danger we face.

Whether you feel that the Waxman-Markey bill is better than nothing and should be passed in the Senate, or you feel that the enormity of the climate crisis makes half-measures untenable and unsupportable, absolutely nothing will happen unless you get out there and make your voice heard.

Volunteer in the field with Clean Energy Works to talk to folks about climate change and the importance of US legislation, or with Greenpeace to encourage our politicians to be leaders on the issue.

Conservative Democrats who worked to weaken Waxman-Markey, like Rick Boucher (D-WV), John Dingell (D-MI), and others, want to get re-elected as much as anyone else. So of course they’re working with powerful industries like Big Coal — coal companies and other fossil fuel purveyors are rolling in the dough and are big-time campaign donors. The influence of corporate money is all-pervasive, and frequently prevents real progressive reform. So if you’re serious about pushing our government to adopt a strong global warming policy — especially if no climate bill makes it through the Senate this year — getting active with Lawrence Lessig’s Change Congress to help push for publicly funded elections is a great way to help, too.

The bottom line is, don’t remain silent. Debate on the issues is good, it’s healthy. But it shouldn’t preclude us from working in parallel for the greater goal.

We’re at a crucial juncture in both domestic and global political wrangling on global warming. We can’t waste time dwelling on our differences. Every one of us needs to speak up now, and speak up loudly.

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