Building a National Movement for Climate Change

By Guest Contributor

While I agree with Zach Drennen ’13.5 in his column “Divestment: No Excuse for Inaction” that divestment does not go far enough, his argument undersells the fight that the environmental movement will face in attempting to achieve his outlined solutions.

Divestment is not the single solution to climate change. Middlebury divesting will not have an impact on ExxonMobil’s finances. But divestment offers steps that are ambitious. It is a risk that will drive home the scale of the problem. While divestment itself won’t end climate change, the media attention of hundreds of campuses and cities across the country divesting will bring attention to the energy and the power of this movement — to the power, in particular, of the youth in the climate movement who will inherit this climate-changed world.

This energy and this media needs to be harnessed and transferred into a national movement calling for change, the exact change Drennen outlines. We need to break our addiction to fossil fuels. But breaking this addiction is not as easy as turning off the lights when you leave your dorm room or walking to Shaw’s instead of driving there. Our individual behavioral changes will not make a dent in our climate problems without a broad national movement. Consumer patterns won’t change without an overwhelming push.

We are the group that is already concerned about climate change. Many of us are far more conscious of our carbon footprints than the majority of this country. A change on the scale necessary to combat climate change requires large-scale action and widespread behavioral changes. This change requires education. We need to leave the bubble where climate change is salient and talk to folks who are complacent or uninformed. We need to offer steps that match the scale of the problem. Telling someone to turn off the lights when they leave a room, as Drennen suggests, when we’re talking about droughts and superstorms and sea level rise seems almost trivial.

One of the many problems with the public perception of climate change is a feeling of helplessness. Once we push people past apathy and into concern, they realize how big the scale of this problem is and how many things need to change. Empowering this population and mobilizing them into action will require work. It will require organizing people to tell their representatives that climate change is the most important issue we face today — that it encompasses all other issues, from the economy to national security to health care. We need to push our leaders into action, because only national legislation will reach the people and corporations whose behaviors will never change without incentive and without serious cause on the timeframe we’re working with. This leadership from the United States will inspire other countries to take action.

The people who have contributed the least to climate change are the people who are suffering the most. The frontline communities are not the communities who can change their behavior to truly impact our trajectory, though it would be a lot easier to confront if this were the case. This is our responsibility. We need to move beyond individual action, target certain changeable behaviors and have collective action like we saw last weekend in the streets of D.C. As those 40,000 voices become millions of voices, the noise will grow so loud that you can’t avoid it. Then we will see change in our governments and in our corporations.

Divestment is a start. Closing our windows is a start. Solar panels on our houses are a start. But we are looking at a narrow window of opportunity to slow the rise of the oceans before the damage is done and the process is too far in motion. Only ambitious action, from our campus to our state to our country to the world, can save us.

Written by HANNAH BRISTOL ‘14.5 of Falls Church, Va.