THE BLOG

Climate Action: Part 3 - Taking it to the Streets

10/27/2010 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Several years ago, I organized a conference of 30 experts in sustainable development. Our purpose was to brainstorm about how to put sustainability back on America's agenda.

Among the participants were some of the old soldiers of the environmental movement, among them former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart; Gus Speth, the recently retired dean of environmental studies at Yale; educator and author David Orr; and Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day back in 1970.

The new generation of environmentalists was represented, too. One of them was the mother of two teen-agers. On the subject of global climate change, we old-timers asked: "Why aren't kids today taking to the streets and demanding action?"

"Kids today don't march," the woman replied. "They network."

Actually, kids today are doing both. They are part of what Paul Hawken brilliantly identifies as "blessed unrest" and TIME magazine calls the "responsibility revolution". Protest in new media and in the streets has not reached the intensity of the social and antiwar movements of my generation. But they could, and they should.

The impulse is here. In 2007, author and educator Bill McKibben led "Step It Up", a project that resulted in 2,000 rallies across the United States to push for climate action. Last October, 350.org, an organization founded by McKibben, catalyzed a kind of open-source world uprising -- 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, called by CNN the most widespread day of political action in history. Earlier this month, 350.org followed up with a "global work party" that resulted in more than 7,300 projects in 188 countries. The projects ranged from planting trees and fixing bicycles to installing solar panels.

Alec Loorz, the California 16-year-old who founded Kids vs. Global Warming, gets standing ovations at his speeches about the stake that young people have in global warming. In the latest issue of the journal Solutions, Alec tells of a talk to 700 high school students in a conservative community. Several interrupted him early in his speech, yelling "Al Gore is a liar". After Alec's presentation, 500 of them signed up to participate in climate action. Some 50,000 young people have signed a "Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels" Alec wrote last November. Now, he's organizing a "million kid march" on Mother's Day next year.

Old-fashioned civil disobedience, peaceful protest and street theater are coming back. Last year, 12,000 mostly young people participated in "Power Shift", a massive march and teach-in in Washington, D.C., said to be the largest in American history on global climate change. Environmentalists staged large protests outside the Royal Bank of Scotland to draw public attention to its financing of oil sands development in Canada. In Appalachia, demonstrators have chained themselves to mining equipment and blocked roads to call attention to the shockingly destructive practice of mountain top removal coal mining. On Sept. 30, NASA's top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, was arrested at one such demonstration, his second arrest for that cause this year.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace International held a demonstration in Montreal in which participants covered themselves in "oil" (actually molasses) to protest Canada's energy-, water- and carbon-intensive production of oil from tar sands. The demonstration drew attention to a study Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council issued days earlier, offering an alternative energy strategy for Canada.

Greenpeace has shown the protest-power of good research combined with creative social media - a weapon not available to the activists of the 1960s and 1970s. The organization found that some of the palm oil Nestle used in the Kit Kat candy bar came from an Indonesian company that created plantations by cutting down forests. The practice destroyed orangutan habitat and the forests' carbon sequestration services.

Greenpeace posted a video on YouTube with protestors wearing orangutan suits and holding placards in which the words on Kit Kat's logo were changed to "Killer". When Nestle forced the video off YouTube on grounds of copyright infringement, Greenpeace responded by posting it on Vimeo and other social media. Within hours, Nestle announced a commitment to switch exclusively to sustainable palm oil by 2015, when sufficient supplies are expected to be available. Greenpeace says its Nestle campaign has been seen by 1.5 million viewers.

On Grist, Jonathan Hiskes tells the story of ForestEthics, a group pressuring U.S. companies to drop vendors that use oil from Canadian tar sands. ForestEthics ran a full-page ad in USA Today to publicize the issue. Hiskes reports:

This year ForestEthics petitioned 30 companies to explain the high environmental and social costs of tar-sands oil (which carries three to five time the greenhouse-gas footprint of conventional drilling). The group persuaded 16 of them to boycott shipping companies that use tar-sands oil, or to at least give preference to ones that don't, U.S. campaign director Aaron Sanger told me. They include Walgreens, Timberland, The Gap, Levi Strauss, Bed Bath & Beyond, and several that haven't yet announced their shift.

Soon, consumers will have more information than ever about product footprints. The Federal Trade Commission has just issued its proposed new "green guides" for product labels. They aren't ideal. Among other shortcomings, they fall short of life-cycle accounting on product labels (the Commission said its research showed only 15 percent of consumers consider life-cycle costs). They don't clearly define what qualifies as "renewable energy" and they don't have the force of law. But Advertising Age estimates that most of the 300 environmental seals of approval manufacturers use today could be rendered obsolete by the new guidelines, and the FTC has started getting tough on companies that engage in deceptive green labeling. (The FTC is accepting public comment on the guidelines until Dec. 10.)

As I mentioned in Part 2, Walmart took the first steps last year in a labeling program that would far exceed the transparency recommended by the FTC. It asked its suppliers to assess the environmental footprints of their products to help Walmart create a new sustainability index for all the products it sells. If Walmart is successful, other retailers are likely to follow suit.

"Historically, there has always been a vast information asymmetry with consumers knowing next to nothing about the true ecological impacts of what they buy," writes Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What we Buy Can Change Everything. Commenting on Walmart's plans, Goleman wrote: "Such eco-rating systems exemplify a coming wave of radical transparency that could culminate in products competing not just on price and quality, but on their total ecological impact as assessed in life-cycle assessment ratings."

Radical transparency in the marketplace would be a potent weapon for a responsibility revolution by consumers, but to play a part in avoiding the worse consequences of climate change, it's a revolution that must occur soon on massive scale. Climate change isn't waiting for better product labels. Nor can the revolution wait for more government mandates. Consumers must become committed to demanding transparency and sustainability in corporate products and operations.

The Obama Administration is trying to do its part by setting new standards for the $500 billion in goods and services the federal government procures each year. Executive Order 13514, signed by the President last fall, directs agencies to purchase products that are energy-efficient, water-efficient, bio-based, environmentally preferable, non-ozone depleting and made from recycled materials. Federal Acquisition Regulations set a number of green standards for government purchasing and EPA operates an Environmentally Preferred Purchasing Program that provides green product information useful not only to government agencies at all levels, but also to private businesses. (For a roundup of other ways companies are being pressured to become more sustainable in their products and operations, visit here.)

With resistance to an effective climate bill likely to continue in Washington, the question is this: How do we spark a revolution that takes to the streets, the media and the marketplace, in huge and persistent numbers? Can the moral obligation to fight climate change be as effective a motivator today as it was in the civil rights movement? Can the threat of climate change become as personal and immediate a motivator as the draft was in the Vietnam era?

In Part 4, I'll write about President Obama's remaining opportunity to build an historic legacy with bold climate leadership.