Step It Up campaign leads national demonstration

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Derek Schlickeisen

The largest global warming demonstration in American history took place on April 14, all thanks to an idea conceived by six recent graduates of the College and Scholar-in-Residence Bill McKibben. Step It Up 2007, a campaign of more than 1,400 coordinated demonstrations in all 50 states, called on Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation aimed at cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent before 2050.

From an online launch in January with the modest goal of organizing 100 events, Step It Up 2007 rapidly grew into a national phenomenon that exceeded McKibben and his students’ wildest dreams for the project.

“Step It Up was an incredible success that surpassed all of our expectations,” wrote Jamie Henn ‘06.5, one of the project’s earliest staff members, in an e-mail. “More than thirty senators and congressmen attended rallies. John Edwards attended one of our rallies and pledged 80 percent cuts by 2050. This is becoming a national priority.”

While the campaign enjoyed widespread support around the nation, organizers were pleased that the idea for the movement originated at the College.

“Step It Up took the incredible energy around climate change on the Middlebury campus and made it something national,” wrote McKibben in an e-mail. “We were able to find people who cared passionately around the country and link them together in amazing ways that really demonstrated to Congress that this is not a second-tier issue for Americans. It’s the beginning of a movement.”

While that movement may end, as McKibben and others hope, in congressional action to curb global warming, it certainly began in part at Middlebury.

“For anyone who thinks it is difficult to make change from the bubble of Vermont, Step It Up is a testament to the fact that big changes can ripple out from small places,” said Jon Warnow ‘06.5, another one of the project’s original staffers.

Fellow project member May Boeve ‘06.5 agreed that Middlebury has a special place in the movement towards action on climate change, adding that the experience for her illustrates the opportunities available to students at the College.

“For any Middlebury student who has ever considered going out on a limb after graduating,” Boeve said, “Step It Up showed me that not only is that possible, it’s life changing.”

With sponsorship from major environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Step It Up 2007 organized rallies at some of the nation’s most environmentally symbolic landmarks. Particularly poignant demonstrations took place on top of the once-broken levees in New Orleans, as well as on top of the melting glaciers at Mt. Rainier and underwater near endangered Key West coral reefs.

“Overall, we have been stunned by the number of successful actions and the reports we have gotten from participants,” wrote Henn. “It was a powerful day for many people.”

The New Orleans demonstration proved to be among the most powerful, with over 500 city residents and activists turning out in red T-shirts that read, “Save New Orleans, Stop Global Warming.” Together with many environmental scholars, the event’s organizers stressed that they saw a strong connection between climate change and Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city in 2005.

“Global warming is going to affect us and our children most,” Tulane University student organizer Abbie Kamin reported on the Step It Up Web site. “Global warming is real, we have experienced it firsthand, and we can’t afford to wait any longer to address it.”

More than one thousand marchers also converged on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to form what they called a “human postcard” delivering a simple message to Congress: “80% By 2050!”

Though McKibben and his Middlebury graduates purposefully chose to organize local events around the country rather than a “march on Washington” reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement, their efforts have sparked comparisons to both the urgency and the moral imperative of that era.

McKibben said “that to stop global warming, we need a cause with all the passion and moral urgency of the 1960s civil rights movement,” read a story on Friday in The Philadelphia Enquirer. The Enquirer’s home city played host to dozens of students dressed as endangered arctic wildlife who, in the shadow of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, witnessed a modified rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” that lamented, “The Climate, It Is A-Changin.”

Will Congress respond to Step It Up’s call to action? McKibben certainly hopes so, particularly in light of the Democrats’ takeover of both chambers in last November’s midterm elections.

“There’s a possibility, especially if control of one or both of the houses of Congress changes hands, that we’ll see some legislation finally,” McKibben told The Campus just days before the election. “It’s beyond belief that the United States hasn’t passed a single real law to begin to deal with this problem.”

In the wake of Saturday’s nationwide demonstrations, the banner that now headlines Step It Up’s Web offered a pointed challenge: “Your move, Congress.”