Civic Efforts for Global Environmental Change: Profiling Step It Up
Civic Efforts for Global Environmental Change: Profiling Step It Up
Last weekend, thousands of people around the country took part in rallies aimed to convince Congress to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Created with the guidance of a new online organization called Step It Up, these do-it-yourself campaigns reflect a trend in activism–one in which the rallies are distributed through communities and nationally coordinated only in the sense that they occur around an issue, or are timed to happen on a certain day.
I heard Step It Up’s co-founder Bill McKibben speak recently at the annual Bioneers By The Bay Environmental Conference. McKibben is a longtime environmentalist and the author of The End of Nature (1989), widely regarded as the first general-audience book on climate change. He told the overflowing auditorium that although is it possible to curb global warming, it’s often unclear how any one individual can impact such a global problem. “Hurricane Gore had come through and still there was nothing happening,” McKibben said. “I had no idea what to do. I had allowed myself to become too cynical about our political process. More cynical than is healthy.”
In response to his own feelings of despair over the state of the environment, McKibben said he and a group of college students created Step It Up in late 2006. What makes Step It Up so powerful is that it has always been conceived as a community-based, community-driven movement. “The old form of protest was to march in D.C.,” said co-coordinator Jon Warnow. “But that’s not working so well anymore.”
When Step It Up launched online earlier this year, they took a radically different approach to organizing, offering the “first open-source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change.” The Step It Up team doesn’t tell anyone how to organize but simply provides a toolkit on their website that allows individual communities to customize and organize their actions around climate change. Unlike many groups who use the Internet only to ask individuals to send online petitions, Step It Up asks for sustained individual or community engagement around the issue of climate change.
It’s common to bemoan the lack of civic engagement in America today. This conversation often focuses on youth and their unwillingness to get involved. “I think it’s easy to think that young people aren’t civically engaged if you look in all the traditional places–there aren’t any protests [on the scale of earlier protests], for example,” said Warnow. “However, young people are finding radically new ways to engage the issues, especially around climate change. There is a genuine movement in this country.”
Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but the group’s message seems to resonate with youth. Step It Up first went online in early 2007, simply asking for anyone interested to organize a rally for National Climate Change Action Day in April. The organizers said they hoped for about 100 rallies nationwide. They were overwhelmed by the response; within twelve weeks of launching, more than 1400 groups in all 50 states organized actions.
McKibben believes that the number of rallies illustrates that the issue of climate change is one affects many different communities, regardless of normal political boundaries. The diversity of responses, said Warnow, is what makes Step It Up so powerful. “People took actions in ways that we’d never dreamed of,” he said. For example, one group in New York City illustrated the water line should global warming cause sea levels to rise a projected 20 feet. Another group skiied down a mountain, spelling out “Step It Up.” The Step It Up team even heard from a sorority chapter at UT-Austin who had sent a photo of themselves with a sign that read “Hey Congress. Step It Up! Cut Carbon 80% by 2050!” They had also enclosed a note that read “We wanted to show that it’s not just the hippies who care.”
Step It Up’s arrival on the activist scene has come at a good time. After decades of low turnout, young people seem to be re-engaging in politics. Although the distributed nature of the organization makes it difficult to measure turnout, or the commitment of participants beyond the rally organizers, the issue of climate change has clearly struck a chord with young people. The organizational model reflects the larger shift in political discourse toward community and the personal experiences of citizens as well as decentralized, collaborative action. When McKibben spoke at the Bioneers conference he reminded his audience, largely students, to organize. “I want to address you as what you are or what you need to be which is a movement,” McKibben said. “Not a collection of people learning about things. Not people doing things in their own place and in their own way. We have a very short time to build a huge and powerful movement.” Even as Step It Up employs new communication tools and strategies, it borrows from an older era of mass political mobilization. This movement, McKibben added, needs to be “as strong, morally urgent, as willing to sacrifice, as passionate, as the civil rights movement [was] a generation ago.”
According to the organizers, the Step It Up rallies have already made a political impact. Politicians initially said earlier this year that the proposition to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the amount one NASA scientist predicts needs to happen to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming, was too extreme. Warnow says that within a few weeks of the April rallies, Senators and Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agreed to sponsor the bill. “It has become the new standard in Congress,” he said.
Despite this early commitment, it will be difficult to convince Congress to pass such far-reaching emissions reductions. The November 3rd events focused on getting political leaders and presidential candidates to attend and unveiling an even more ambitious plan. This time, Step It Up teamed up with 1Sky to “present a scientifically-based set of solutions to global warming”: launch a Clean Energy Job Corps and create 5 million green jobs, cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050, and declare a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. Eight presidential candidates or a representative of the campaign attended a rally. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards attended a rally in New Orleans, calling reversing global warming a “great moral test.” Still, the actual turnout by political leaders was small, and largely Democratic. None of the Republican presidential candidates attended a rally or expressed their support for the initiative. Given Step It Up’s current focus on impacting legislative action, it will be interesting to see how it will be able to maintain its momentum over time.