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FEATURE | spring 2007

The Melting Point
As the Earth heads toward catastrophe, women leaders rise up to stop global warming

Just shy of what would be Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday, and almost 50 years after she wrote the book that helped launch the environmental movement—Silent Spring— U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that polar bears might become extinct. But he didn’t say why.

He is a member of the Bush administration, after all, which continues to stonewall policies that address the impending climate catastrophe.

But film producer and climate-change leader Laurie David knows why the bears are endangered. So does the first woman to chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and so does the first woman speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi: It’s global warming. These women also know that our fate is linked to the polar bear’s. And the polar bear is in serious trouble.

Polar bear cubs, helpless and blind until they are a month old, are born in early winter, usually two at a time and small enough to fit snugly in the cup of their mother’s paws. She will protect them for two years, until they strike out on their own, but for the first five months they will live with her in a den of her own construction, dug into the snow. The snow and ice serve as insulators, maintaining a temperature of nearly 32 degrees Fahrenheit, protecting the cubs no matter the weather outside.

But the polar bear cannot guard her cubs against the human threat to the Arctic environment. Global warming— caused by human activities, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in February—has caused the Arctic sea ice to melt earlier, shortening the bears’ hunting season on the ice. That means less food and, increasingly, starvation. Some scientists predict the summer Arctic ice will melt almost completely by 2040, destroying the polar bear’s habitat, and the bear along with it.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level,” said the IPCC report, a consensus document incorporating the research of hundreds of scientists and the approval of 113 governments—including the United States. But the U.S. government under President George W. Bush has barely acknowledged that human activities are causing global warming. The administration has bullied government scientists, limiting their ability to speak freely about climate change. That censorship policy came to the nation’s attention when James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the country’s top experts on climate change, fought back when the administration tried to muzzle him. Yet the administration’s gag rule remains in effect.

All the while, the U.S. has been the largest contributor to the global warming problem. Although the U.S. constitutes just 4 percent of the world’s population, it’s responsible for about 25 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions, which are largely the cause of climate change. Carbon dioxide is one of the byproducts of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), and burning fossil fuels has emitted so much CO 2 in the atmosphere that it’s exacerbating the Earth’s “greenhouse effect” (by which CO 2 , methane and other “greenhouse gases” trap some of the sun’s heat and thereby keep the Earth’s average surface temperature close to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). The problem now is too much of the greenhouse gases—which can lead to a rise in the Earth’s overall temperature and a disastrous set of consequences (see chart, right).

So far, the crisis of global warming has been mostly ignored by people in the U.S., giving the Bush administration and its allies in Congress a free hand in stifling debate. But will a change in U.S. leadership—led by pow-erful women—begin to reverse the dire direction in which we’re headed?

“If everyone does one thing, they are likely to do two
things, then three things. Then they are likely to
influence friends and family, and that’s how you build
a movement.”

When Rachel Carson appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce in 1963, testifying about the dangers of pesticides, there was no “environment” in the Senate’s Public Works Committee. Now it’s known as the Environment and Public Works Committee, and at its helm is Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a longtime defender of the environment. When Boxer took over as chair in January 2007, she replaced Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who still calls the threat of catastrophic global warming “a hoax.”

Boxer has made stopping global warming one of her top legislative priorities. Among other efforts, she has cosponsored legislation with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.) to cut emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This would be an important step toward averting climate change’s most severe impacts. (The House has a similar bill, sponsored by California Rep. Henry Waxman.) In an unusual move, Boxer invited any senator who wanted to speak about global warming to testify before the committee: 25 senators showed up to speak and nine submitted written testimony. This was a powerful indication that the issue is finally getting some traction in Congress.

Boxer talks a lot about what we can do as individuals to stop global warming. “If you plant six trees around your house, you can reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by 2 percent, or 300 pounds per year,” she says. (Carbon emissions are measured by weight.) “Using 100 percent recycled paper saves 5 pounds of carbon dioxide per ream.” But individual actions, Boxer says, do more than save a few pounds of carbon; they actually can begin to motivate federal action.

“I definitely think individual actions drive [public policy] change,” she says. “Having gone through the era of the Vietnam War and the women’s movement, I’ve seen it happen. In a democratic society, our actions matter.”

In the House, Boxer’s efforts are mirrored by those of Pelosi (D-Calif.). One of the first things she did after becoming speaker was to create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. By sidestepping already established committees, such as Energy and Commerce, she took some political flak from the old guard. But, she told the press, “The science of global warming and its impact is overwhelming and unequivocal. …With this new Select Committee, we demonstrate the priority we are giving to confront this most serious challenge.”

The Select Committee is holding hearings and jump-starting legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy and Commerce and other committees will then be asked to draft bills based on its recommendations.

“I am really glad Nancy is working to get a special committee to focus on this,” Boxer tells Ms. “My plate is very full trying to get something done on the Senate side… But now we have a little wind at our back.”

As the Senate and House work on global-warming legislation, climate-change activism has been growing. But will it ever be a mass movement? If it’s up to Laurie David, it will. She’s been a vocal leader on climate-change issues, urging both individual and government action. She’s also written a bestselling book on climate change, she’s a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council (a nonprofit environmental advocacy group), and now she’s an Oscar winner, having coproduced the acclaimed documentary about Al Gore and global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.

David gets the relationship between the personal and the political: She doesn’t just drive a hybrid car, for example, but lobbies Congress and the auto industry to improve fuel efficiency standards. Transportation is responsible for 33 percent of U.S. CO 2 emissions from burning fossil fuels (which make up nearly all U.S. carbon emissions), and of this, an estimated 60 percent derives from passenger vehicle use. If federal regulations demanded better fuel standards, then motor vehicles would be built to get better gas mileage. And if all cars averaged at least 40 miles per gallon, gasoline use would be cut in half. Since using one gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO 2 , the less gas burned, the fewer emissions.

When asked why women are taking a lead role on global warming, David says, “We can see the forest and the trees. This has to become the biggest movement this country has ever seen.” As part of her own movement-building efforts, this April she’s taking a “Stop Global Warming College Tour” to campuses in 12 cities along with singer-activist Sheryl Crow.

“The critical thing is how long it is going to take,” David continues. “There’s a window closing on really doing meaningful things to slow down global warming. You don’t have to do everything, but you do have to do something. Everyone has to do something.”

Does flipping the light switch matter? David thinks so. “Turning off the light is a step to saving a polar bear. If everyone changed a lightbulb, choosing a compact fluorescent lightbulb over an incandescent one”—thus releasing 150 fewer pounds of CO 2 annually into the atmosphere—“it would be significant.” The numbers add up, as residential emissions represent 21 percent of U.S. CO 2 emissions from burning fossil fuels; the rest, besides transportation, are from commercial emissions (18 percent) and industrial (28 percent).

But David recognizes that such individual efforts only work in the context of a much larger shift: “If everyone does one thing, they are likely to do two things, then three things. Then they are likely to influence friends and family, and that’s how you build a movement. That’s how change happens. Change the lightbulb.”

Though its worst effects have yet to be felt, climate change is already impacting life for all of us, some more than others. Current climate models show that the most rapid temperature increases are already occurring in Arctic regions, and aren’t just felt by bears. Canada’s aboriginal peoples—First Nations, Inuit and Métis—already are experiencing a change in their way of life. “First Nations people see the banks of their community on Hudson Bay falling into the ocean and see the polar bears not surviving the summers on the land because the fall freeze-up that allows them to get out on the ice and hunt is getting later and later,” says Merrell-Ann Phare, legal counsel and executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), a First Nations-directed nonprofit based in Winnipeg. “Permafrost is melting, and so the roads and railroad tracks that bring food and medical care are becoming highly unstable.”

"If we can build a movement with as much moral urgency, creativity and spirit of sacrifice as marked the civil rights and feminist movements a generation ago, then we have a fighting chance."

CIER works with First Nations communities across Canada to help plan for climate change. Often poor, these communities are struggling to adapt to an entirely new set of conditions in already challenging circumstances. “The poor live on the edge already and have so little resiliency, little wiggle room,” says Phare. “They often don’t have back-up systems and alternatives.”

Activists in urban environments are also recognizing the need to step up to the global warming challenge. If we don’t radically reduce our use of fossil fuels, the impact will be disastrous: more heat-related illnesses, greater risk of infectious disease, threatened food supplies, severe water crises, more environmental refugees and resource wars. And there will be more extreme weather: Think Katrina.

The urban air pollution that we already live with will get worse as climate change worsens, says Cindy Parker, M.D., of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University: “As temperatures go up, we can expect more ozone problems because ozone forms in the presence of heat and light. We have long known that ozone, a principle component of what we call smog, makes people worse who already have lung problems such as asthma. But recent research showed that normal, healthy children who play three or more sports outside in towns that have higher ozone levels have a threefold greater risk of developing asthma. This is the first real evidence we have that ozone actually causes asthma in otherwise healthy people.”

Some people, like President Bush, have suggested that nuclear power—which presently generates 19 percent of the country’s electricity—should increasingly be used as a substitute for fossil fuels, claiming it creates no green-house gas emissions. But the famous feminist, physician and Nobel Prize nominee Helen Caldicott criticizes nuclear power, calling it “a cancer industry whose transient byproduct is the production of electricity.”

“Nuclear power contributes both to global warming and to the global burden of man-made radioactivity,” says Caldicott, whose latest book is Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (New Press, 2006). “If you look at the whole nuclear fuel chain from uranium mining to milling to enriching to routine operation of the reactor, immense amounts of fossil fuels are used. … The nuclear power industry is like the tobacco industry: The officials lie and deny that radioactive elements cause cancer. They say it is a clean green industry, which is fallacious.”

So the polar bears are disappearing. The coral reefs are profoundly threatened. And if the acidity of the oceans continues to increase, shellfish won’t have shells. It’s enough to either make you want to stop listening—or help build a new movement.

“Individual action is very important, of course,” says Bill McKibben, who wrote about global warming in his 1989 book, The End of Nature (Random House), and is using his early focus on individual actions as a stepping stone to movement building. “I’ve spent a lot of time writing about lightbulbs, hybrid cars, solar panels, local food and so on. But if we’re going to meet the targets the scientists say we must—the rapid and massive transformation of our energy economy—then the most important individual action is to become politically involved. If we can build a movement with as much moral urgency, creativity and spirit of sacrifice as marked the civil rights and feminist movements a generation ago, then we have a fighting chance.”

Adds Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan, whose most recent book on the climate crisis is Boiling Point (Basic Books, 2004): “By all means, change your lightbulbs and turn down the thermostat. But turn up the volume as well.”

Almost 50 years ago Rachel Carson taught us about the poisons with which our industrial cultures have sickened life. She questioned the “irresponsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world.” She was viciously attacked by industry for these words, but she stood by them. Her 100th birthday would have been on May 27, 2007—a good time to remember (and heed) her powerful warning, “[We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” We need to build that movement now. To save the polar bears. And, by the way, you and me.

LAURA ORLANDO is the executive director of the ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems (RILES), a Boston-based nonprofit concerned with health and the environment. She also teaches at the Boston University School of Public Health and is associate director of the university’s Program for the Ecology of Human