For the environmental community, this coming year offers a chance to regroup, rethink and regrow. Two years ago, it seemed possible that politicians would make progress on climate change issues—that a Democratic Congress would pass a cap-and-trade bill, that a Democratic president would lead the international community toward agreement on emissions standards. And so for two years environmentalists cultivated plans that ultimately came to naught.
What comes next? What comes now? It’s clear that looking to Washington for environmental leadership is futile. But looking elsewhere might lead to more fertile ground.
Our New Leaders
On Wednesday, the 112th Congress began, and Republicans took over the House. They are not going to tackle environmental legislation. This past election launched a host of climate deniers into office, and even members of Congress inclined to more reasonable environmental views, like Rep. Fred Upton, now chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee, have tacked towards the right. Whereas once Upton recognized the need for action on climate change and reducing carbon emissions, recently he has been pushing back against the Environmental Protection Agency’s impending carbon regulations and questioning whether carbon emissions are a problem at all.
“It’s worth remembering that Upton was once considered among the most moderate members of the GOP on the issue,” writes Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. “No longer.”
The climate bill is really, truly, dead, and it’s not coming back. But as Dave Roberts and Thomas Pitilli illustrate in Grist’s graphic account of the bill’s demise recalls, by the time it reached the Senate, the bill was already riddled with compromises.
And so perhaps it’s not such bad news that there’s space now to rethink how progressives should approach environmental and energy issues.
“It’s refreshing to shake the Etch-a-Sketch. You get to draw a new picture. The energy debate needs a new picture,” policy analyst Jason Grumet said last month, as Grist reports.
Already, in The Washington Monthly, Jeffrey Leonard, the CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, is pitching an idea that played no part in the discussions of the past two years. He writes:
If President Obama wants to set us on a path to a sustainable energy future—and a green one, too—he should propose a very simple solution to the current mess: eliminate all energy subsidies. Yes, eliminate them all—for oil, coal, gas, nuclear, ethanol, even for wind and solar. … Because wind, solar, and other green energy sources get only the tiniest sliver of the overall subsidy pie, they’ll have a competitive advantage in the long term if all subsidies, including the huge ones for fossil fuels, are eliminated.
No Impact? No Sweat
Federal policies aren’t the only part of the picture that can be re-drawn. Even as Congress failed to act on climate change, an ever-increasing number of Americans decided to make changes to decrease their impact on the environment.
Colin Beavan committed more dramatically than most: his No Impact Man project required that he switch to a zero-waste life style. This year, he partnered with Yes! Magazine for No Impact Week, which asks participants to engage in an 8-day “carbon cleanse,” in which they try out low-impact living. Yes! is publishing the chronicles of participants’ ups and downs with the experiment: Deb Seymour found it empowering to give up her right to shop; Grace Porter missed her bus stop and had to walk two miles to school; Aran Seaman found a local site where he could compost food scraps.
The Long View
Perhaps, for some of the participants, No Impact Week will continue on after eight days. After Seaman participated last year, he gave up his car in favor of biking and public transportation.
On the surface, giving up a convenience like that can seem like a sacrifice. But it needn’t be. Janisse Ray writes in Orion Magazine about her decision to give up plane travel for environmental reasons. Instead, she now travels long distances by train, and that comes with its own pleasures:
Through the long night the train rocks down the rails, stopping in Charleston, Rocky Mount, Richmond, and other marvelous southern places. People get on and off. Across the aisle a woman is traveling with two children I learn are her son, aged twelve, and her granddaughter, ten months. In South Carolina we pick up a woman come from burying her father. He had wanted to go home, she says. She drinks periodically from a small bottle of wine buried in the pocket of her black overcoat. The train is not crowded, and I have two seats to myself.
Our true leaders
Ultimately, though, sweeping environmental changes will require leadership and societal changes. American politicians may have abdicated that responsibility for now, but others are still fighting. In In These Times, Robert Hirschfield writes of Subhas Dutta, who’s building a green movement in India.
“The environmental issue is the issue of today. The political parties, all of them, have let us down,” Dutta says. “We want to be part of the decision-making process on the state and national levels. The struggle for the environment has to be fought politically.”
One person who understood that was Judy Bonds, the anti-mountaintop removal mining activist, who died this week of cancer. Grist, Change.org, and Mother Jones all have remembrances; at Change.org, Phil Aroneanu shared “a beautiful elegy to Judy from her friend and colleague Vernon Haltom:”
I can’t count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary. Years ago she envisioned a “thousand hillbilly march” in Washington, DC. In 2010, that dream became a reality as thousands marched on the White House for Appalachia Rising….While we grieve, let’s remember what she said, “Fight harder.”
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