I got to see the United States’ now-famous enthusiasm gap – the difference in passion between the Democratic and Republican party support bases – up close and personal this month, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The backstory: I help run a global warming campaign called 350.org. In mid-summer, we decided to organise an effort to ask world leaders to put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was to be part of the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party on October 10th (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and politburos something easy to do in the hope of getting the fight against global warming slowly back on track.
One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still committed to change, even though he hadn’t managed to pass new laws.
And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the White House roof, way back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan took them down, they’d spent the last few decades on the cafeteria roof at Unity College in rural Maine. That college’s president, Mitch Thomashow, immediately offered us a panel to take back to the White House. Better still, he encouraged three of his students to accompany the panel, not to mention allowing the college’s sustainability coordinators to help manage the trip.
And so on 7 September, we set off in a biodiesel college van. Solar road trip! Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food and, for company, the rock star of solar panels – all six feet by three feet and 140 pounds of her. We pulled into Boston that first night for a rally at Old South Church, where a raucous crowd lined up for the chance to sign the front of the panel, which quickly turned into a giant glass petition. The same thing the next night in New York, and then Washington DC, with an evening at one of the city’s oldest churches headlined by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip-Hop Caucus, a non-profit organisation focused on youth empowerment.
It couldn’t have been more fun. Wherever we could, we’d fire up the panel, pour a gallon of water in the top and point it toward the sun, and eight or nine minutes later you’d have steaming hot water coming out the bottom. Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm – a vexing reminder that we’ve known how to do this stuff for decades. We just haven’t done it.
That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across – the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle Obama planted her vegetable plot in the White House garden.
There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn’t heard anything conclusive from the White House. We had asked them – for two months – if they’d accept the old panel as a historical relic returned home, and if they’d commit to installing new ones soon. We had even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them for free. Indeed, as word of our trip spread, other solar companies kept making the same offer. Still, the White House never really responded, not until Thursday evening around 6pm, when they suddenly agreed to a meeting at nine the next morning.
As you might imagine, we were waiting at the “south-west appointment gate” at 8:45, and eventually someone from the Office of Public Engagement emerged to escort us inside the Executive Office Building. He seated us in what he called “the War Room”, an ornate and massive chamber with a polished table in the middle.
Every window blind was closed. It was a mahogany cave in which we could just make out two environmental bureaucrats sitting at the far end of the table. I won’t mention their names, on the theory that what followed wasn’t really their idea, but orders they were following from someone else. Because what followed was… uncool.
First, they spent a lot of time bragging about all the things the federal government had accomplished environmentally, with special emphasis on the great work they were doing on other federal buildings. One of them returned on several occasions to the topic of a government building in downtown Portland, Oregon, in the north-western United States, that would soon be fitted with a “green curtain”, by which I think she meant the “extensive vertical garden” on the 18-storey Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, with its massive “vegetated fins,” the single largest use of stimulus money in the entire state.
And actually, it’s kind of great. Still, I doubt many people are going to build their own vegetated fins, and anyway I was beginning to despair that nothing could stop the flow of self-praise until one of the three seniors from Unity raised her hand and politely interrupted.
Now, let me say that I already knew Jean Altomare, Amanda Nelson and Jamie Nemecek were special, but my guess is the bureaucrats hadn’t figured that out. Unity is out in the woods, and these kids were majoring in things like wildlife conservation. They had never had an encounter like this. It stood to reason that they’d be cowed. But they weren’t.
One after another, respectfully but firmly, they asked a series of tough questions, and refused to be filibustered by yet another stream of administration-enhancing data. Here’s what they wanted to know: if the administration was serious about spreading the word on renewable energy, why wouldn’t it do the obvious thing and put solar panels on the White House? When the administrators proudly proffered a clipping from some interior page of the Washington Post about their “greening the government initiative”, Amanda calmly pointed out that none of her neighbours read the Post, and that, by contrast, the solar panels had made it onto David Letterman’s TV show.
To their queries, the bureaucrats refused to provide any answer. At all. One kept smiling in an odd way and saying, “If reporters call and ask us, we will provide our rationale.” But whatever it was, they wouldn’t provide it to us.
It was all a little odd, to say the least. They refused to accept the Jimmy Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with the students and the petition they’d brought with them. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers during Obama’s election campaign in 2008, they point blank said no. In a less than overwhelming gesture, they did, however, pass out Xeroxed copies of a 2009 memorandum from vice president Joe Biden about federal energy policy.
I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn’t keep them back, because it’s a tough thing to learn for the first time how politics can work.
If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action. As Jean Altomare told the New York Times, “We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet.” And Amanda Nelson added, “I didn’t expect I’d get to shake President Obama’s hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care.”
Our next question, out there on the sidewalk, was how to handle the situation – which, indeed, we had to do right away, because in today’s blog-speed world, you’re supposed to “put out a statement” to reporters, not to mention tweet. So how to play it?
The normal way is to claim some kind of victory: we could have said we had an excellent exchange of views, and that the administration had taken seriously our plea. But that would have been lying, and at 350.org we long ago decided not to do that. The whole premise of our operation, beginning with the number at its core, is that we had better always tell the truth about our actual predicament.
Alternatively, we could have rounded on the administration, and taken our best shot. In fact, it would have been easy enough right then and there for me to chain myself to the White House fence with the panel next to me. It would have gotten some serious press (though not as much as if I’d threatened to burn a Koran like the Florida pastor Terry Jones). And in fact, some of our supporters were counselling that I head for the fence immediately.
We got an email, for instance, from a veteran campaigner I deeply respect, who said: “Show Obama you can’t be taken for granted, and I predict you will be amazed at the good things that come your way. This is a watershed moment: if they think they can get away with this with you, they’ll judge they can get away with more in the future. If you show them they can’t get away with it (at the very least without embarrassment), they will come your way more in the future. It’s power politics, pure and simple. This is how the game is played. Get their respect!”
And I think he was probably right. As he pointed out, Obama was even then on the phone with the Florida pastor who was threatening to burn a stack of Korans on September 11, and his following of 50 or less. But I couldn’t do it, not then and there. Because… well, because at some level I’m a political wuss.
I couldn’t stand to make that enthusiasm gap any wider, not seven weeks before the US mid-term elections. True, it’s the moment when you have some leverage, but no less true: the other side – the Republican party – was running candidate after candidate who literally couldn’t wait to boast about how they didn’t believe in climate change. That’s why we’re deeply engaged in fights this autumn like the battle to defeat California’s Prop 23 and save the state’s landmark climate law. As a group we can’t endorse candidates, but I came home and spent part of the weekend mailing small checks to Senate candidates I admire, men like Paul Hodes from New Hampshire, who have fought hard for serious climate legislation.
And a confession. We’d walked past Obama’s official portrait on the way out and, despite the meeting we’d just had, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that he was president. I could remember my own enthusiasm from two years ago that had me knocking on doors across New Hampshire to drum up support for him. I admired his character and his smarts, and if I admire them a little less now, the residue’s still there.
And so I couldn’t help thinking – part of me at least – like this: the White House political team has decided that if they put solar panels up on the roof, conservative broadcaster Fox News will use that as one more line of attack; that they somehow believe the association with Jimmy Carter is the electoral equivalent of fleas – and they didn’t want to catch them.
If that’s their thinking, I doubt they’re on the mark. As far as I can tell, the political right has a far better understanding of the power of symbols. Witness the furore they’ve kicked up over “the Mosque at Ground Zero”, the proposal to build an Islamic community centre and mosque two blocks from the World Trade Centre site in New York. My feeling is: we should use the symbols we’ve got, and few are better than a solar panel. Still, with the current craziness in mind, I was willing to give them a pass. So we just put out a press release saying that we had failed in our mission and walked away.
At least for now, but not forever, and really not for much longer.
On October 10, we’re having our great global work party, and ever since Obama stiffed us, registrations for its events have been soaring. Last week, with the heads of Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, I issued a call for ideas about how to mount a campaign of civil disobedience around climate. Not a series of stunts, but a real campaign. At coal plants and drilling sites – and at the places where our politicians do their work.
Actually, I’ll be surprised if the White House doesn’t put up solar panels within a year. But even if they do, that would just be the barest of beginnings. We’ve run out of spare decades to deal with climate change – the summer’s events in the Arctic, in Russia, in Pakistan proved that with great clarity. I may be a wuss, but I’m also scientifically literate. We know what we need to do, and we will do it. Enthusiastically.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and an author, most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.
An earlier version of this article was published by TomDispatch.com. It is used here with permission
Homepage image from 350.org shows Bill McKibben (far right) with his co-campaigners and the "Carter panel".