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Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement

Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement

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by Jonathan Isham

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The evidence is irrefutable: global warming is real. While the debate continues about just how much damage spiking temperatures will wreak, we know the threat to our homes, health, and even way of life is dire. So why isn’t America doing anything? Where is the national campaign to stop this catastrophe?It may lie between the covers of this book. Ignition


The evidence is irrefutable: global warming is real. While the debate continues about just how much damage spiking temperatures will wreak, we know the threat to our homes, health, and even way of life is dire. So why isn’t America doing anything? Where is the national campaign to stop this catastrophe?It may lie between the covers of this book. Ignition brings together some of the world’s finest thinkers and advocates to jump start the ultimate green revolution. Including celebrated writers like Bill McKibben and renowned scholars like Gus Speth, as well as young activists, the authors draw on direct experience in grassroots organization, education, law, and social leadership. Their approaches are various, from building coalitions to win political battles to rallying shareholders to change corporate behavior. But they share a belief that private fears about deadly heat waves and disastrous hurricanes can translate into powerful public action.For anyone who feels compelled to do more than change their light bulbs or occasionally carpool, Ignition is an essential guide. Combining incisive essays with success stories and web resources, the book helps readers answer the most important question we all face: “What can I do?”

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"Ignition is at different times both visionary and very practical...it has lessons for all of those now helping build a true worldwide movement to tackle climate change."

— Mark Lynas

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What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement

By Jonathan Isham Jr., Sissel Waage


Copyright © 2007 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-765-6


Igniting Action for a New Movement



Could the next grassroots revolution in America be over climate change? Economist, March 18, 2004

We need a grassroots movement. Thomas Friedman, New York Times, February 13, 2005

"CAN WE REALLY WIN THIS FIGHT against global warming?"

We often hear that question from college students, business leaders, and civic groups as we go around the United States spreading the word about climate change solutions. If you've seen An Inconvenient Truth or had an eye on popular magazines lately—remember that Time magazine cover story that told us all "Be Worried. Be Very Worried"?—you too may be asking yourself, Can we really do something about global warming? Can we really shed our fossil-fuel dependence for a clean-energy future?

Our answer—and the resounding message of this book—is, Yes, we can.

We can do it if we engage neighbors in our coffee shops, our church and synagogue and mosque basements, and our chamber of commerce meetings, making a mutual pledge to protect places and people we cherish. We can do it if we then reach out to like- minded allies, building tough-minded coalitions of civic, religious, and business leaders who want to do the right thing. We can do it if we forcefully demand that our elected officials become champions of visionary legislation that will promote rapid investments, in the United States and around the world, in a clean-energy future. Above all, we can do it if we begin to "build the world anew" around the things that matter: our families, our communities, and our shared stewardship of this earth.

Winning this fight will be an immense challenge. To stop the accelerating growth of greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce those emissions to a small fraction of their current levels over a mere generation, will require unprecedented social and economic transformation. To succeed, a sustained movement of engaged citizens to lead the fight will be needed. Quoting Ignition coauthor Gus Speth (chapter 2), we need a groundswell.

As we document throughout this book, such a groundswell is growing. If you decide to get involved, you will be joining a diverse band of engaged activists: Republicans and Democrats; leaders of businesses, environmental groups, state agencies, places of worship, parent-teacher associations, Native American tribes, colleges, universities, and business schools; and rural grandparents, urban parents, and schoolchildren everywhere. Some see global warming as a form of intergenerational injustice or as a religious affront, some see it as a significant business risk, some are acting to ensure a hopeful future for their children and the landscapes they love. All understand the gravity of the crisis and are committed to doing their part to bring about change.

As this groundswell builds, it will face challenges unlike past efforts to change society. Leaders of past social movements—the civil rights movement immediately comes to mind—could rally the nation by pointing to a clear villain and sympathetic victims. Leaders of today's climate movement have a tougher sell: they must convince fellow citizens that global warming—where each of us is at once victim and oppressor, where the greatest damages will be to those not yet born—is nevertheless worthy of national resolve.

So yes, it will be hard work.

Ignition is designed to help. Here are assembled the voices of top scholars and inspiring young leaders, including academics who have studied social movements and politics for decades and new civic leaders who are developing tactics for today's climate action. This book is neither a cookbook nor a handbook of, say, "Fifty Ways to Save the Planet." Rather, think of it as an ongoing workshop, a gathering of like-minded citizens who are sharing their personal experiences and learning from one another. In the pages that follow, they present insights and strategies designed to build an even larger, even more diverse community of activists. Each chapter of this book is focused on ideas and actions that can tip the balance towards a clean-energy future, and together these chapters provide a comprehensive view of what is being tested and what has worked.

A 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 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." 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 (www.whatworks-climate.org) 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 Environmentalism, 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.

The Birth of a New Movement

Since the What Works project, we have seen the climate groundswell come into its own. Activists are framing the potential of runaway climate change as undercutting the healthy, spiritual, and community-based future that we all want for ourselves and our children. In addition, as people begin to realize the effects of global warming, they are mobilizing nationwide in civic and professional groups.

The best news of all is that these mobilization efforts are creating political opportunities. Consider, for example, these events from 2005 and 2006:

• National media coverage finally highlighted the undeniable risks of climate change, as illustrated by USA Today's cover story in June 2005 ("The debate's over: Globe is warming") and hour-long global warming reports on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. In the spring and summer of 2006, the film An Inconvenient Truth was shown in thousands of theaters. As 2006 came to an end, the DVD dissemination of that film was launching hundreds of conversations nationwide, in living rooms and community meeting places and on college campuses, about how to affect change.

• In 2005, evangelical leaders throughout the United States began to speak out about climate change and to organize their own base. On February 8, 2006, eighty-six of these leaders signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which declared that "the need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change—starting now."

• Fortune 500 companies began to rally for predictable, cost-effective climate legislation. In April 2005, Duke Energy, the third-largest burner of coal in the United States, announced its support for a carbon tax. In April 2006, Paul M. Anderson,

Duke Energy's chairman and a member of President George W. Bush's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, joined dozens of other business leaders at a conference to call for mandatory federal action to reduce greenhouse gasses.


Excerpted from Ignition by Jonathan Isham Jr., Sissel Waage. Copyright © 2007 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Isham is Luce Professor of International Environmental Economics in the Department of Economics and Program in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont.

Sissel Waage is an independent consultant who works on environmental and social aspects of sustainability issues in North America, Europe, and Africa.

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